Forward Thinking

What Yair Netanyahu's Norwegian Dating Game Tells Us

By Emily L. Hauser

  • Print
  • Share Share

It’s easy for liberal Jews to write off the hullabaloo regarding the dating habits of one of Israel’s better known sons as just that: Hullabaloo. Sound and fury signifying nothing, or maybe signifying a prurient interest in famous lives, or possibly signifying a helplessly stultified and hidebound worldview that has nothing to do with us. Or, you know, politics.

But the Sturm und Drang in certain Jewish circles about Yair Netanyahu’s (maybe?) girlfriend is bigger than that – as evidenced by the speed with which his father the Prime Minister has turned around to deny the romance. It goes to the heart of the Jewish experience and the soul of our people. Who are we, how do we define ourselves? Whether or not we realize it, that’s what we’re talking about, and ultimately, these questions go to the heart and soul of how the Jewish faith is conducted everywhere, not least in the Jewish State.

Liberals often forget that for many Jews, the question of one Jew’s dating habits is, genuinely, the business of all Jews. If the younger Netanyahu marries a Gentile, these Jews will (genuinely) feel it to be a catastrophe – a national catastrophe, not just for the State, but for the entire Jewish people. We see more than a little of this fear reflected any time an American Jewish leader starts talking in dire tones about intermarriage.

This is, of course, true as regards any Jew’s decision to marry out, but it’s more powerfully true when the Jew in question is well-known. Marit ayin (appearance) plays a powerful role in how Jewish law is interpreted; minhag k’din (“custom as law”) is no joke. A well-known Jew can lead others astray, new customs can arise, and these will, eventually, change the way that people understand the law.

Which, I tell myself, is fine – those folks can believe whatever they want. I don’t daven with them.

Because even though it warms my heart to see Jews marry each other and raise little Jews, I do (genuinely) believe that people must live lives that provide them with meaning – that an individual’s God-given right to authenticity, respect, and love, wherever it may appear, is more important than the collective’s desire to have more bar mitzvahs. I also have bone-deep faith in the future of the Jewish people and, not incidentally, believe that children born to a Jewish father are Jewish if they are so raised, no matter who their mother is.

Many American Jews may agree with that latter point, but it’s important to remember that in Israel, most do not. Fourteen years of living in Tel Aviv made it very, very clear to me that even though a majority of Israeli Jews don’t identify as Orthodox, they do reflexively accept certain Orthodox interpretations of Jewish law – such as the notion that only the children of a Jewish mother count. Note that Lehava, the Israeli anti-intermarriage organization, took to Facebook to remind the Prime Minister: “Your grandchildren, as you know, will not be Jewish.”

It’s hard to get that kind of unquestioned, society-wide, religiously-mandated conventional wisdom out of your head, even if you never daven anywhere.

This is why it’s so important to Israel’s Orthodox institutions that they maintain a monopoly on religious interpretation and observance in the Jewish State. Sure, it’s politics, sure it’s about the budget – but it’s also about a firmly held and quite genuine belief that Judaism is doomed if Jews don’t adhere to their interpretation and observance. That theirs is literally the only way.

Yair Netanyahu and Sandra Leikanger walked straight into a struggle over the very nature of the Jewish people. Is there only one way to be authentically Jewish? Or are there many? Are only Orthodox prayers and customs acceptable to God, or does the Holy One Blessed Be He also listen to the Reform, the Conservative, the I’m-not-sure?

Recent polling has shown that despite the stranglehold enjoyed by Israel’s state-funded rabbinate on public Jewish practice since 1948, opinion is shifting. This past September a survey found that 61% of Israeli Jews favor a separation of state and religion; 62% want authorities to recognize civil weddings.

It’s perfectly reasonable for a congregation or movement to make theological decisions for its members, but in a modern nation state – where the Reform, the I’m-not-sure, and the atheist also pay taxes – it’s not reasonable that a single community expect that their vision will delimit the lives of everyone.

When Shas head Aryeh Deri says “if, heaven forbid, this is true, it is no longer a personal matter – it is a symbol of the Jewish people,” he means it. When Member of Knesset Nissim Ze’ev likens interfaith dating to “sowing in the fields of others,” he means it. Jews who want to limit Judaism to a single, narrow definition believe themselves to be led by the Almighty; they aren’t going to change because of public outcry.

Those who want to see the Jewish state thrive as a democracy, and who want to grapple more honestly with the facts of intermarriage, would be wise to follow the Yair Netanyahu story closely – not because of what it tells us about him, but because of what it tells us about ourselves.

Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: intermarriage, Shas, Yair Netanyahu, Norwegian, Aryeh Deri, Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • British Jews are having their 'Open Hillel' moment. Do you think Israel advocacy on campus runs the risk of excluding some Jewish students?
  • "What I didn’t realize before my trip was that I would leave Uganda with a powerful mandate on my shoulders — almost as if I had personally left Egypt."
  • Is it better to have a young, fresh rabbi, or a rabbi who stays with the same congregation for a long time? What do you think?
  • Why does the leader of Israel's social protest movement now work in a beauty parlor instead of the Knesset?
  • What's it like to be Chagall's granddaughter?
  • Is pot kosher for Passover. The rabbis say no, especially for Ashkenazi Jews. And it doesn't matter if its the unofficial Pot Day of April 20.
  • A Ukrainian rabbi says he thinks the leaflets ordering Jews in restive Donetsk to 'register' were a hoax. But the disturbing story still won't die.
  • Some snacks to help you get through the second half of Passover.
  • You wouldn't think that a Soviet-Jewish immigrant would find much in common with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But the famed novelist once helped one man find his first love.
  • Can you relate?
  • The Forverts' "Bintel Brief" advice column ran for more than 65 years. Now it's getting a second life — as a cartoon.
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.