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Upper West Side: Dror Bondi on Heschel, Religious Language, and Politics

Susan Reimer-Torn
February 14, 2014
by Susan Reimer-Torn Upper-West-Side2-300x225At age 18, Dror Bondi, a religious, right-wing settler from the Occupied Territories, knew that he could have been the one to assassinate Yitzkhak Rabin. Now, some twenty years later, he sees God’s image in every living being, be they religious or secular, Arab or Jew. Once, he believed that upholding the sanctity of the land was a supreme value. Today, he teaches that empathy for the other is the essence of Jewish religious sensibility. 3882780313Bondi is an unusual man. I lean in closer to hear what he has to say on a frigid Shabbat afternoon on the Upper West Side when he addresses the ingathered at B’nai Jeshurun. Steeped in classical Jewish learning, he is now a disciple and translator of the works of the great religious humanist Abraham Joshua Heschel. He lives with 70 other interdenominational families on an urban kibbutz housed in the lower-income projects of Jerusalem. At an institute in Ein Pratt, he teaches Israeli youth who have completed their military service that the message of universal human rights is the essence of Jewish thought. Unexpectedly shaken by Rabin’s assassination, Bondi could no longer accept that the murder of a land-for-peace leader was what God wanted of the faithful. Tormented, Bondi shut down his questing self and worked as an insurance salesman for two years. Finally, he ventured out to study Jewish thought at Bar Ilan University. There, he objected strenuously when a teacher insisted that he do his Masters thesis on the theology of Abraham Joshua Heschel. Yet it was his encounter with Heschel that revolutionized Bondi’s understanding of God, Judaism, and the essential contribution of the Jewish people to the history of humanity. Bondi spoke of the linguistic challenges he encounters translating Heschel’s body of work into modern Hebrew, citing in particular three words: Like-what-youre-readingThe word for “religious” is “datti” in modern Hebrew; it’s meaning is someone who follows the law. But in Heschel’s writing, to be religious is to have a particular sensibility that allows you to see God’s presence everywhere. The word “kavod” in modern Hebrew denotes respect or honor, while in Heschel’s world it means majesty, grandeur. And the word “yira” has only the dimension of “fear” in modern Hebrew, while other meanings essential to Heschel, such as awe or radical amazement, are left out. While Bondi agrees that the revival of spoken Hebrew was a great miracle, he points out the political implications of these linguistic choices. Nationalism as the highest value can thrive in a culture where being “religious” means you are a kind of marginal rule-follower, “kavod” means respect for authority, and “yirah” means fear — mostly fear that you are alone and therefore must do whatever it takes to survive. Sadly, there is no word for the kind of radical amazement that distinguished the religious sensibility for Heschel. Bondi’s translation of Heschel for Israeli readers will generate new concepts, he says, such as a word for openness to God’s presence — and not just God’s presumed authority — in all things. Like Heschel, Bondi teaches that religion has to open us to absolute empathy for the other. “Religion,” he says, “is first and foremost the cultivation of social sensibility.” He understands God as the ultimate source of a universalism that must bring us beyond nationalism: “Your deepest national identity is this relationship with a non-national and non-religious God.” Our mission as Jews is to model and teach this insight, to “deepen the consciousness,” and it is for this purpose that we are meant to survive. Survival for its own sake in a state that violates its own core mission is thus cast in a questionable light. Bondi has no illusions about changing the thinking of the religious community in which he was raised. As for bringing about change on a wider scale, he laughs, “I am sure it will happen in about four hundred years. But we can start now.” As a teacher, translator and social activist, Bondi hopes to bring his message to the majority of secular Israelis who hunger for a sacred dimension in their lives. With quiet determination, he admits to having no specific program or practical solution. There is, however, no mistaking the urgency of Heschel’s lessons for living life as a committed Jew facing the social and political tensions of Israel today. Susan Reimer-Torn is the author of the upcoming memoir: Maybe Not Such a Good Girl, to be published in May by Blue Thread, the book imprint of Jewish Currents.

Susan Reimer-Torn is a contributing writer to Jewish Currents and the author of Maybe Not Such a Good Girl: Reflections on Rupture and Return.