What are the first associations that come to your mind when you hear about Israel? Most probably, you think about political issues such as the Occupation or Western Wall. Thinking about Bezalel, the hero of this week’s Torah portion suggests that politics is only part of the Israel story and that Israel Education in North America should balance political and cultural concerns.
By Adar Cohen
B’nai Israel, the Israelites, were ordered to build the Mishkan – a tabernacle, á big tent that will function as a movable place for worship.
Building the Mishkan was a collective project of an emerging people. This crowd had not yet become a nation and had to go through a process of “Nation Building.” Our Parasha begins this way:
(שמות לה:א) “וַיַּקְהֵל מֹשֶׁה, אֶת-כָּל-עֲדַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל”
“Moses then assembled all the community of Israelites” (Exodus 35:1)
The Hebrew verb “Va-ya-KHeL (וַיַּקְהֵל) means to assemble, to gather together. It has the same root as קהילה (Kehilah) – a community (in modern Hebrew: a congregation). We understand that only by becoming one community, one people, one nation, a politeia, will the Israelites be ready to build the Mishkan. This political dimension of the collective constructing the Mishkan is symbolic of the founding of the Israelite nation – עם ישראל (Am Yisrael) in modern Hebrew. Dozens of times in this week’s portion we encounter the Hebrew word for the collective – “כל”(kol) which has various translations including whole, everyone, all:
“Moses said to all the community of Israelites (35:5).. let all among you (35:10) … “gold objects of all kinds”(35:22)… “everyone who had in his possession” (35:23), etc. In most cases, this word refers to the craftsmen and on occasion to the craft itself.
Educators know that the use of repetition helps the concept sink into the minds of learners, and the Torah does that here. The commentators understood that repetition of the word כל emphasized the importance of including everyone in the process of building the Mishkan. In order for the Mishkan to fulfill its purpose, it must be the product of work by a collective without excluding anyone. The importance of gender inclusivity and equality is rare in the Bible but appears here: “Men and women, all whose hearts moved them” (35:22). No wonder that it is said about the creator of the Menorah that “He made the candlestick of pure gold… even its base, and its shaft; its cups, its knops, and its flowers, were of one piece with it.” (37:17).
Let’s explore this as a metaphor. This gold lamp was made as one piece and is comparable to the Israelites becoming one nation.
Beyond it being a unification experiment and seen as a nation-building project, constructing the Mishkan included the detailed artistic expression of the master craftsman Bezalel Ben-Uri. The Mishkan is not only a political act but rather a cultural institution. Bezalel worked with gold, wood, fabrics, and animal skins. He prepared the curtains of the tabernacle. He built a closet, a table, and pillars. He created bowls and spoons, and the highlight was the Menorah and altar. It is no coincidence that the Torah says of Bezalel and his colleagues that they were wise-hearted men – כָל-חֲכַם-לֵב בְּעֹשֵׂי הַמְּלָאכָה – Kol chacham lev v’osei hamlachah – whom God gave “wisdom and understanding to know how to [do the] work.” (36:1). Thus, only very talented artists with vision, unique abilities, and unconventional thinking, probably those outside the politics of the community, could have designed this sacred place as the center for an emerging culture.
There is a fertile tension that exists between the unifying concerns of the community through politics in the public realm and the artistic individualism of the greatest of artists that led to the successful construction of the Mishkan.
All of us can no doubt relate to this tension since we live in a world where politics and culture are complementary forces.
While we think about the overlapping differences between politics and culture and the important roles that each plays in our lives as individuals and as a collective, I suggest we consider Israel in a similar way. I, as an Israeli liberal Jew, and you as progressive North American Jews, think about Israel differently. During my time in California this year, I have talked to many of you, read articles, and heard lots of opinions. What is striking to me is that the main lens through which North American Jews look at Israel is political.
Try to imagine what the first associations are that come to your mind when you hear about Israel. It seems to me that most of us immediately think about settlements, the Occupation, Netanyahu/Bennett, the Western Wall, Religion and State, the Orthodox Rabbinate, and discrimination. All of these associations are painful and our moral critique about them is crucial. I, myself, am a “Homo Politicus.” I am constantly connected to the news, reading, thinking about the situation, and striving for change.
Yet, I always try to remind myself of Bezalel Ben Uri, to remember that Israel is far more than a political project of establishing a State for the Jewish people, a home for Jews from all over the world, and for local Palestinians. Nor is it only a place where difficult political decisions are made daily. Israel is where Hebrew culture has been revived, and the Israeli culture is rich and filled with positive energies of renewal. The Hebrew language, literature and poetry, music, painting and design, plastic arts and jewelry, dance and theater, film and television, photography and architecture, humor and cartoons, archeology and historical research, folklore and cooking, agriculture and science – all these erupt endless creativity, and they paint a different character of the contemporary Israeli collective. I admit, sometimes it seems from a distance that Israel is all one Menorah made of hard material the parts of which cannot be separated. But it should be remembered that this craft is created by many artists and that politics is only part of the Israeli story. It is no coincidence that the leading academic institution of art in Israel, established as early as 1906 as part of the Zionist revolution, was named after the Biblical character Bezalel.
Unfortunately, and sadly, I feel that part of the younger generation of liberal American Jewry is not exposed to these elements of Israeli society, and therefore misses an important part of the state’s Jewish identity. Israeli politics is a topic that every Jew in North America considers in one way or another. But if this is the major lens through which we look Eastward to Jerusalem, we will not be able to build the Mishkan together. Some of our congregants, and certainly many young people, are not “Homo politicus” and so if the main Israel engagement we offer is political, they will turn away. Those of us who do find politics exciting may be disappointed and angry by Israeli politics and not be patient enough to bring about change. I’m afraid we’ll find ourselves losing on both fronts, as most of our congregants will disengage. To restore confidence in the principle that Israel is an essential part of the modern Jewish identity, I suggest, urge you, even beg you, to maintain a balance between the political and the cultural in the way you make Israel accessible to congregants, and especially adolescents and young adults.
There are many ways to do this, and some are even fun. We can figure this out together. The Israel engagement programming conducted in Reform congregations around the country should maintain the fertile tension between the political and the cultural. The works of art by Bezalel and his modern successors are no less important to our Jewish identity than the politics of forming an independent Jewish collective in our Homeland. The Mishkan, the Torah tells us, is not only a place representing our people’s values but also a place of creativity and diverse generative expressions.
Dr. Adar Cohen is currently serving as the Senior Israel Educational Consultant for ARZA/URJ while spending the year in Sacramento, CA. He is the head of teacher training at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and is from Kehilat Kodesh-VeChol in Holon, Israel.