When Prof. Aviezer Ravitzky of the Hebrew University, a modern Orthodox Jew who is one of Israel’s foremost writers in the field of Jewish Thought, called A. B. Yehoshua’s novel, Mr. Mani, a “Jewish work,” it was clear that the debate between the two authors would be devoid of sparks. Yehoshua, besides being a well-known novelist, is a professor of literature at Haifa and one of the leading personalities of the Israeli left.
The two were brought together by the University’s Dr. Menachem Kellner, Wolfson Professor of Jewish Thought, in the second session of a colloquium on “Different Voices of Religious Thinking.” The debate was convened at the initiative of the secular writer to mark the publication of a book by that name by the religious writer.
Though Ravitzky did not want to see either Bnei Braq, the ultra-Orthodox stronghold, or northern Tel Aviv, symbol of radical secularism, as (spiritual) capital of Israel, “for then historic Judaism would lose,” and Yehoshua chastised his fellow secularists for not reading the texts (Maimonides, Rav Kook, etc.) and lamented the absence of “Halakhic transfusion” into the nation for solving modern religious problems, the two still fenced with each other.
Yehoshua castigated the religious Zionists for giving precedence to nationalism over religion. “Let’s free the Jews from nationalism and nationalism from the Jews,” the novelist proclaimed, “then we can arrive at last at normality.”
Ravitzky charged that such an ideology was simplistic, that tension between freedom and holiness was an internal part of Zionism. The two components were inseparable: “If the Jewish religion detaches itself from nationalism, then there is no Jewish religion.”
Yehoshua wants religious Zionism to return to its intermediary role, which he said it lost after the Six Day War, by returning to history instead of myth and by developing its creative ability in the arts. He also called for cooperation “as a firm base between secular and religious” and doing away with the notion of communities. “We live in a state. Good and bad will be done by the state, not the community.”
The Jerusalem guest saw things differently. “It is not the interest of religious Zionism to be a bridge to the secular society,” Ravitzky stated, asking, “Is there any common canon between us?” Admitting in agreement with Yehoshua that the 1967 war led to a distortion of religious Zionism and that obsession with the self was bad, he still thought that community was important. “The state finds it difficult to provide a home [for the religious],” he said, “but a community does.”
Yehoshua fears that multiculturalism, advocated by many on the left, will lead to interest groups and that “clal yisrael”—the Jewish body politic in Israel—will then be lost. “What will be the degree of partnership?” he asks.
Ravitzky‘s rebuttal expresses more a difference in nuance or emphasis than in substance, when he remarked that “this is a state for all its citizens, but also a Jewish state.” For him, the crucial question is, “What will the state do with its Judaism?”