"Do What Is Just and Good": Why Yashar?
November 9, 2023.
Originally published in Hebrew on March 23, 2023.
Translated by Haim Watzman.
The English version includes additions following the events since October 7th, 2023.
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Yashar: A Journal for Torah with Derech Eretz was born in a moment of crisis. Israel’s thirty-seventh government was formed at the end of 2022. Enjoying a solid majority, it ostensibly promised to bring to an end a long period of political instability. Instead, this government, the most right-wing and religious (on its own terms) in Israeli history, plunged the country and its society into a severe crisis. It declared as its first priority a raft of legislation aimed at eviscerating the checks and balances that have served as the foundation of our democratic institutions. It sought to exert political control over the appointment of judges, severely constrain the courts’ authority to review the decisions and actions of the government, and to gut the power of the attorney general and legal counsels in government ministries and agencies. The result will be an executive branch with virtually unchecked power. It will leave minorities and disadvantaged groups without critical legal defenses, constrain academic freedom, and cause long-term economic damage. All this has been done at a time when the prime minister is on trial on charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust. His conflict of interest is salient and unquestionable. Hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens have taken to the streets week by week, all over the country, to oppose this power grab.
But the government aims not only to change the way Israel is governed. No less seriously, it seems to change the face of Jewish religion, tradition, and culture in the promotion of its anti-democratic, racist, and discriminatory agenda. It seeks to sever not only our country but also our religion from universal moral values, to impose very specific religious views on the public space and, in the name of Judaism, to turn the public against science and scholarship.
The government aims not only to change the way Israel is governed. No less seriously, it seems to change the face of Jewish religion, tradition, and culture in the promotion of its anti-democratic, racist, and discriminatory agenda.
There is a Jewish term for this: it is a desecration of the divine name, one so frightening that it makes the mind and the ear tremble. The Torah must be a source of life whose ways are the ways of pleasantness and whose paths are peace. We must ensure that it remains so.
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The government’s program created a severe rift in Israeli society. Unfortunately, some religious bodies and leaders have made that rift their main concern, not the power grab itself. Yashar rejects this false equivalence, as if both sides of the political spectrum are equally complicit in causing the crisis. There is no such symmetry. What we have is a government that has, from the day it was formed, engaged in belligerent and vengeful actions that subvert Israeli democracy and both Jewish and universal morality. Unity and reconciliation are important goals, but they must not keep the religious public from voicing the criticism that the government deserves.
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Yet this time of crisis brings on its wings a cautious hope. The government has been met with the determined opposition of a broad democratic camp, made up of citizens from both the right and left, who do not intend to allow their home to be destroyed. That camp includes a significant religious component, Jews who are raising their voices to fight over the character of our Jewish and democratic state at this time. These people refuse to leave Judaism in the hands of extremist forces now in power.
Yet this time of crisis brings on its wings a cautious hope. The government has been met with the determined opposition of a broad democratic camp. That camp includes a significant religious component, Jews who are raising their voices to fight over the character of our Jewish and democratic state at this time. These people refuse to leave Judaism in the hands of extremist forces now in power.
These voices require amplification, a sound box to enable them to be heard, to have an impact, to leave an impression. They must overcome all too many years of silence and hesitation; they must break free of the embrace of powerful actors who have seized control, in different ways, of religious discourse, consistently diverting it in pernicious directions that have led to the phenomena we see today. The religious educational system, for example, is largely impervious to these important voices, and it goes without saying that they have but limited entry to synagogues and houses of study. True, the press of the religious sector has published them from time to time, but this exposure is carefully rationed. Critical texts are censored or rejected because they don’t adhere to the dominant ideology.
Yashar seeks to meet this need by serving as a platform for committed, clear, fair-minded, and forthright Jewish discourse rooted in tradition and observance that does not hesitate, even for a moment, to declare its deep, a priori adherence to democracy, human rights, natural morality, science, critical thinking, and a liberal worldview. It is discourse that addresses religious society from within with the aim of rousing and changing it; yet, at the same time, it is directed outward, toward partners in non-religious democratic society who are also concerned about the future of Judaism.
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Our journal’s name, Yashar [pl. yesharim], means honest, sincere, direct, and just. We take it from Deuteronomy 6:18: “Do what is just and good in the sight of the Lord.” Faced with the endless devious and destructive mischief committed (so its perpetrators claim) in the name of the Torah, we seek the forthright and the good.
In the face of the crude racism spreading through our camp, which sometimes reaches the shameful point of legitimizing violence, our journal’s name also evokes the Netziv of Volozhin, Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin (1816–1893), specifically his introduction to Genesis in his Torah commentary Ha’amek Davar. There he explains that Genesis is also called Sefer Ha-Yashar because “the Holy One Blessed Be He is Yashar.” Furthermore, “This was the greatness of our forefathers. In addition to being righteous, pious, and lovers of God to the utmost degree, they were also yesharim. That means they were civil with the [other] nations of the world, despite [the latter] being detestable idol worshipers. Our forefathers nevertheless extended them love and concern for their welfare, as this fortifies [God’s] creation.” It would be hard to think of a more important message at this time.
Yashar serves as a platform for committed, clear, fair-minded, and forthright Jewish discourse rooted in tradition and observance that does not hesitate, even for a moment, to declare its deep, a priori adherence to democracy, human rights, natural morality, science, critical thinking, and a liberal worldview.
In the same spirit, we have chosen to revive, in our journal’s subtitle, the concept of Torah im [with] Derech Eretz, “Torah and the way of the land.” The term was the slogan of modern Orthodoxy as it was shaped by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch and Rabbi Azriel Hildesheimer in Germany during the nineteenth century. It meant Torah and science, both as objects of profound study, openness to modern life and attentiveness to the present time, with an aspiration for tikun olam, the rectification of the world. This powerful and concise formulation has been shunted off to the margins for too long; weighty historical processes made it seem, perhaps, naïve. We believe that the time has come to proclaim it once again, and to live accordingly.
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Yashar was launched on Rosh Hodesh Nisan 5783 (March 23, 2023). It was a time of particularly intense demonstrations, and the journal offered a voice that had almost been unheard until then. Since then, we have, as of this writing, published nearly 100 articles by about 50 writers.
Then, suddenly, on October 7, a horrible war broke out, and Israel found itself facing a crisis unlike any other in the state's history, at the end of an already challenging year. Like many others, during the first days of the war, we felt shocked and speechless. Several days later, it became clear to us that Yashar is no less essential now than it was during the months of protest. After all, the political forces that conspired to carry out the anti-democratic coup in the name of Judaism are the same ones that now display contempt for the laws of war and who seek to use the conflict to achieve their political and religious goals.
This is where we stand now, Marheshvan 25 5783 (November 9, 2023). No one knows how the constitutional revolution will turn out, nor what the war will bring. In both cases, there is a need, we believe, for Yashar's attitude.
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We invite all those who share our principles and who identify with our call, even if only in part, to make use of this platform. Raise your voice and pass on the other voices heard here. As is the case with every periodical, some of the voices will sound too moderate for part of the public; others will sound too radical. We welcome difference and seek both moderate and radical views. We will be happy to accept pieces on any relevant subject for publication — please send them to email@example.com, along with a photograph and brief biography. We also welcome help in distributing and sharing the articles we publish on social media and donations to help us promote the journal.
“Shun evil and do good, seek integrity and pursue it” (Psalms 34:15). The verse makes two demands on us: to publish pieces that call on our readers to “shun evil,” but also those that impel them to “seek integrity and pursue it,” both to condemn a Judaism based on xenophobia, racism, and arrogance and to help construct, out of today’s rift, a strong and courageous religious identity of the kind that our times desperately need.
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Yoel Kretzmer-Raziel teaches and trains teachers at Achva Academic College, CET (Center for Educational Technology), and Midreshet Roni.
Tafat Hacohen-Bick is a scholar of Hebrew literature. She studied at Midreshet Migdal Oz and Midreshet Lindenbaum, has taught at religious seminars and institutions of higher education, and is currently a visiting scholar at NYU.
Itay Marienberg-Milikowsky is a graduate of the Religious Kibbutz Movement Yeshiva at Ein Tzurim. He works on Rabbinic literature and is a senior lecturer in Hebrew literature at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.