Perspective from Israel

Professor of Theology Rabbi Ruth Langer, associate director of the Center for Christian-Jewish Learning, is spending the academic year researching and teaching in Jerusalem. Sean Hennessey of University Communications spoke with her about, among other things, life in the Middle East, the Israeli take on President Trump, safety in a place of conflict, and things people might not know about this holy city.

This is the fifth time you’ve spent an academic year in Israel. Tell us about your affinity for the land and its people, and about the research resources. 

My first two years here, I was studying as part of my Ph.D. training, taking courses that were not available in the U.S. but that were critical to my curriculum. The other three have been sabbaticals from BC, and on all three of these years (and a number of summers), we have been members of a synagogue in Jerusalem. We therefore have a community of friends here to whom we return. We feel like we belong, in many ways. 

Jerusalem is also a special destination particularly for my scholarship as the resources are unmatched anywhere in the world. The National Library of Israel collects everything relevant to Jewish Studies. Everything I need for my research is either already in the vast Judaica Reading Room, or can be called to there in a few minutes. When I was working on manuscripts before the age of digitization, I spent many hours in the Institute for Microfilmed Hebrew Manuscripts there as well. My 2012 book and a number of important articles are based on research that could only have been done this thoroughly in this library.

What are some misconceptions about the land and people you’ve come across? What should everyone know?

The news, as in the U.S., tends to report only the bad things. Over the years that I have been coming here, life has become more and more like living in America. The food available, whether in stores or restaurants, has gone from mediocre – or worse – to excellent. It is safer for women and children to walk the streets alone here than in most places in the U.S. Yes, there are terrorist incidents, but for the most part, there are more Israelis killed in genuine auto accidents and more Americans killed by gun violence than victims of terrorism. So life here does not feel dangerous.

Israel has matured much as a society since 1948, but in many ways it is still a young nation with its share of growing pains. Israelis are passionate people, and there is freedom of press and freedom of expression here. That means that the various social problems – including between religious and secular Jews, Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians – do receive attention and are not being shoved under the rug. The country has a very impressive Supreme Court that does hold the Knesset and the Prime Minister regularly to account, as well as ensure that the military does the best it can to proceed according to its own high ethical standards. Even today, on the morning news show, there was a raucous debate about how to learn from the last Gaza war and its problems. 

This is where I see hope and health. This is a dynamic society and one not characterized by complacency.

Rabbi Ruth Langer
Rabbi Ruth Langer

Your fellowship requires you to teach one semester there. Is the teaching experience much different than in America?

I’m teaching an M.A. level seminar in the Hebrew Literature Department at Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The course is called To Fill the Gap: Investigating the Emergence of Rabbinic Liturgy. 

The teaching experience here is very different. In the U.S., we presume and demand that the students are students first and foremost, and can expect that they will make every reasonable effort to come to class prepared. Students here are older, as most start their bachelor degrees after their army or national service.  Many also marry younger, and they have young children while they are studying. Last, but not least, my students (all women) also have full-time jobs, and their husbands have regular reserve duty in the army – affecting their wives, of course, who have to have childcare. So it is about as much as one can ask that they show up to class most of the time having done a bit of the reading. This affects one’s ability to run an effective seminar with active student participation.

Language is a more complicated and interesting question. I manage in Hebrew, but I don’t find it as easy to express myself as in English. My students have been very patient with me! My passive Hebrew is fine, so I haven’t had trouble understanding them. Where this question is interesting, though, is the difference between teaching primary texts in the original language to students who know their genre well (mostly), and the struggles that I have to communicate them to BC students. It is not merely a matter of translating the words of the texts into English; there is a significant act of cultural translation necessary as well, especially for non-Jewish students (generally all of them, or the majority). 

Not having to do this cultural translation is the biggest difference in teaching here, and it has allowed me to teach materials that in a way that I would not dream of attempting at BC, asking more sophisticated questions of them and covering much more in a shorter time.

The United States is one of Israel’s most important allies; Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made that clear. How do the Israeli people view America?  

I can’t pretend to speak for “Israelis,” who are a very diverse community. How Israelis see America depends on whether they have ever lived there. Many are woefully ignorant of U.S. realities – what the current U.S. administration is doing, or not, within Israeli-Palestinian politics, and whether they think it is the right thing or not. But Israel is not a third-world nation any more, totally dependent on the outside world for economic survival, and that has changed many things.

When I was a participant in the Experiment in International Living many years ago, in our orientation they taught that everyone considers their home the center of the world. To be a successful visitor, one needs to try to see how and why. That is very much the case here: For Israelis, Israel is the center of the world, and everything revolves around it. But we need to remember that this is not so much different from other places – consider the Boston Globe’s placement of national and international news and the priority it gives to local news.

What has been the reaction of the Israeli people to the possibility that the Trump Administration may move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem?

Most of my friends think that it is ill-timed and inflammatory to the peace process, however much they might like to see it happen eventually. But if you look at the right-wing press, that isn’t the voice you will hear.

President Trump says he wants to see peace in the Middle East and has assigned his son-in-law to make it happen. Are people in Israel hopeful about a peace deal?  

Yes, Israelis in general want peace. But they want a secure peace achieved ethically, and how to get there isn’t obvious. Most I know also dream that their children and grandchildren will not have to do their growing up by spending time in the army, or by actually confronting war. So I don’t know anyone who is content with the status quo. 

I also don’t know anyone who has a realistic solution to the crisis, especially while Hamas governs Gaza and the PA is governed by an elderly prime minister who has significantly exceeded his term of office without calling for new elections and who has no obvious successor. Netanyahu is pulled to the right as well by his parliamentary coalition, so whatever he personally might be willing to yield cannot be spoken of publicly. We must remember, though, that Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon were the most unlikely peacemakers, but because of their right-wing credentials they had more ability than most to take courageous steps. This is where I see a glimmer of hope.

Personally, I don’t know what credentials Jared Kushner has in international diplomacy or Israeli politics, however good a businessman and Jew he may be. Indeed, I can’t imagine that his – and David Friedman’s – ties with the Israeli right give him an opening to hold real conversations with the Palestinians.

There was a terror attack recently in Jerusalem where four soldiers were killed by a Palestinian man who drove a truck into them. Do you ever worry about being caught in the crossfire of potential violence?

Yes and no. We were here in 2001-02 during the height of the Second Intifada, and there were things we simply did not do, like go out to public places regularly unless they had significant security. We heard a wonderful talk then in which the speaker suggested that we all develop an understanding of where we can expect to be safe or not, and we act accordingly. For instance, there are areas of U.S. inner cities where regular shootings occur. I choose to avoid them. For the most part, the Israeli security system has a good sense of when to raise the alert level and check things more carefully – and one notices that and is grateful for it. For instance, entering the Hebrew University campuses requires going through a metal detector and a bag check, and sometimes showing one’s ID. Some days they really check the bags, others not.

But have I been where this last attack took place many times, especially when we lived near there. It has a wonderful view over the Old City, and is a superb place from which to understand the geography and holy sites of the city.

You’re on a fellowship in Jerusalem working on a research project that will help you write a new history of Jewish liturgy, and how its early emergence should be understood, following your 2015 book Jewish Liturgy: A Guide to Research. Will this research lead to a new edition or an entirely different book? 

This will be an entirely different book, though it might draw on the narrative sections of the earlier one. The Guide to Research is primarily an annotated bibliography of over 1,000 relatively recent sources, just in English and accessible to non-specialists, on Jewish liturgy. The new book will be a historical study drawing on a wider swath of research (especially in Hebrew) and on the primary sources. The goal is to replace the current “go to” academic (as opposed to popular) book in the field that was first published in 1913. 

How do experiences like this help with your role at the Center for Christian-Jewish Learning?

Not enormously, especially when my main research project is not relevant to it, though I will have a number of relevant articles and a book in process of being edited that are). I do try to get involved with local dialogues here in Jerusalem, and in previous sabbaticals I have spoken for some of them. In mid-February I’ll be able to participate in and speak at a regular meeting of Jewish and Christian liturgists here to which I’ve been invited in previous years.  

In conjunction with this trip, we also spent August in South Africa. There, I gave several lectures in different sorts of contexts that were relevant to my Center work, and had chances to learn about the realities of dialogue there, most fascinatingly in the post-apartheid context.

-Sean Hennessey / University Communications