The Torah of Redemption

Yoel’s friends gave him a nickname, at once mocking and respectful of his longing for purity: Tasbin. It was the name of a laundry detergent.

WHEN YOEL BIN-NUN was twelve years old, he confided to a girl his deepest longing. “I want the Temple to be rebuilt,” he said. The year was 1958, and they were walking home from a meeting of Bnei Akiva, the religious Zionist youth movement. “With animal sacrifices and blood and all of that?” she asked, incredulous. “That’s what is written in the Torah,” he replied.

Yoel, named for a grandfather killed in the Holocaust, sensed that his life’s purpose was linked to understanding the mystery of Israel’s resurrection. What was the meaning of the juxtaposition of destruction and rebirth, either of which would have been sufficient to define Jewish history for centuries to come? And what role was he, a part of the first generation of sovereign Jews since the destruction of the Temple, meant to play in his people’s destiny?

Yoel offered his passion to Bnei Akiva, the Children of Akiva, named for the rabbi martyred by the Romans and whose emblem was the Ten Commandments, a sickle, and a sheaf of wheat—religious and socialist. The symbol of a Bnei Akiva boy was the knitted kippah, or skullcap. Unlike the traditional black skullcap, the knitted kippah wove two colors together, a relative vivacity.

Wearing a kippah on the streets of Haifa, where Yoel grew up, was not self-evident for a religious boy. “Red Haifa” was Israel’s most secular city. City hall fought the creation of religious schools and buses ran on the Sabbath; it was the only city with a Jewish majority to officially desecrate the holy day. Most Bnei Akiva boys wore berets in public—an ineffective disguise, since only religious boys wore them. Secular children taunted them with a nonsense rhyme, “Aduk fistuk”—pious pistachios.

But Yoel and his friends insisted on wearing kippot in the streets. Surprisingly, they were not harassed. If you respect yourself, Yoel discovered, others would respect you too.

Still, young religious Zionists suffered from an inferiority complex. Israel’s pioneers and military heroes were almost all secular. The secular youth movements dismissed Bnei Akivaniks as Zionism’s rear guard, more suited to becoming accountants than farmers and fighters. As members of the Haifa Bnei Akiva branch hiked up to the desert fortress of Masada, they were taunted by secular youth: “When Bnei Akiva go up Masada, they say Shema Yisrael”—the prayer recited by religious Jews at the moment of death. Even worse than being wimps, religious Zionists were a threat: their political leaders forced government coalitions to adopt religious laws, like ensuring rabbinic control over marriage and divorce.

And yet ultra-Orthodox Jews resented religious Zionists for validating heretical Zionism. In ninth grade, Yoel’s Talmud teacher, an ultra-Orthodox rabbi named Moshe Rebhun, told his students he wouldn’t be celebrating Independence Day. Zionism, he explained, had inverted the meaning of return to Zion, which was supposed to bring the Jewish people closer to God. Instead, the secular Zionists had uprooted Torah from the people. “You Zionists should ask yourselves why the holiest parts of Jerusalem aren’t under the control of the Zionist state,” taunted Rabbi Rebhun. “We have to go up to Mount Zion just to get a glimpse of the Temple Mount. And why? Because the Zionists don’t deserve it.” The Torah, he concluded triumphantly, was given in the Sinai Desert, outside the land of Israel, to teach Jews that the law was more important than the land.

Yoel entertained his friends by mimicking the rabbi’s German-accented Hebrew: “Why was the Taurah given in Sinai?” But Rabbi Rebhun’s challenge weighed on him.

AT BNEI AKIVA meetings they were debating whether to separate the sexes during folk dancing. Bnei Akiva hardly encouraged promiscuity: when members went on overnight hikes, they strung blankets across trees between the boys’ and girls’ areas. But “mixed dancing” was a Bnei Akiva tradition, a link with secular Zionist youth movements. Proponents warned that a total separation of the sexes would shift Bnei Akiva closer to ultra-Orthodoxy.

Yoel sided with the opponents. Just as we are scrupulous about kosher food, he argued, we should be scrupulous about the laws of sexual modesty.

Yoel’s friends gave him a nickname, at once mocking and respectful of his longing for purity: Tasbin. It was the name of a laundry detergent.

YOEL MIGHT HAVE become even more deeply drawn to religious stringencies were it not for his parents. His mother, Shoshana, was studying the ancient Hittites while raising four children. His father, Yechiel, was founder and principal of a religious girls’ high school and teachers’ seminary, an innovator in bringing advanced religious education to women.

Excerpt From: Halevi, Yossi Klein. “Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation.”

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