50. Debbie Weissman: Hopeful Pessimist


Debbie Weissman is a “hopeful pessimist.” After  hearing her speak at Tantur about Pesach, the Seder, I decided to read her recently published Memoirs of a Hopeful Pessimist: A Life of Activism in Dialogue. Dr. Weissman is an example of commitment and creativity in this region who does not fall into a rigid, self-righteousness, or ideologically confined perspective. During her life, she has been active in forming an unorthodox Orthodox synagogue, in tackling women’s issues, in encouraging interfaith work through being President of the International Commission of Christians and Jews from 2008-2014, and, of course, her involvement in Israeli-Palestinian issues. She certainly is an activist.

She discloses elements of her early life that helped shape her. Her parents were practicing Jews. She describes the story of her father who, with a doctorate from the Sorbonne, migrated to the United States, first serving in military counter-intelligence work because of his knowledge of European languages, and then becoming a social worker in the Jewish Community Center movement. Her mother introduced her to the practice of sitting shiva, visiting the sick and offering condolences. There were other important influences. From her grandmother she learns to live the Hillel passage: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But, if I am for myself alone, what am I? And, if not now, when? (32).” For over fifteen years, she was involved with Young Judaea whose goal was “to develop generations of American Jews, rooted in their heritage and dedicated to attaining ‘self-fulfillment’ as Zionists (36).” She went to summer camps and even became National President of Young Judaea in 1964. She traveled to Israel and spent a 1965 gap year in Israel. It was natural for her to move to Israel permanently in 1972.

Her movement to Israel, however, came at a time of personal, social, and political crisis. How would she support herself in a fulfilling way in Israel? How would she find a supportive community as an educated, orthodox Jewish woman living in a male, patriarchal society? How would she cope with the 1973 Yom Kippur War and the constant threat of war? Finally, how would she live with other types of Jews, with Christians, and with the Palestinians?

The first crisis of earning a living was more easily solved. After earning her doctorate from Hebrew University, she pursued her life’s vocation an educator, until 1988 teaching Jews exclusively. She taught for the Jewish Agency Institute for Training Youth Leaders from Abroad; she taught Israel Defense Force officers and others universities; she taught soldiers in the Israeli Defense Force; she taught at Hebrew University. Teaching certainly has been a continuous thread in her life.

In contrast, addressing the crisis of how to find a supportive community as an educated, orthodox Jewish woman living in a male, patriarchal society has consumed her life.

As a Jerusalem resident, she found that no community quite fit her. Eventually, joining with a handful of others, she organized and founded Kehillat Yeddya, an Orthodox synagogue. At Tantur, she stated the theology behind the synagogue: “its liberal with a small ‘l’ since it is not part of Liberal Judaism.” In contrasting herself to certain Zionist Jews, she declared: “I don’t want to rebuild the Temple. Substituting prayers and study is much better.” Her prayer life in the synagogue has been important, even at times the “motionless dance” of bowing left and right symbolizing that all creation is under Yahweh. As with other Jewish traditions, she complements synagogue worship with worship in the home. In her discussion of Pesach, or Seder, she states “The celebration is really in the home. It is more a family centered celebration.” A chief purpose of this Pesach has always been to transmit the Jewish story to children as reflected in the Seder words: “You must tell your child…” During her time with us, she had us read numerous Haggadah manuals. I read one entitled The Woman. “To whom do we sing, Mother of the world? She is the righteous Spirit, Shekinah (12).” She and others in her synagogue are not confined to reading and repeating one set of Pesach readings each year. Instead she loves the wonderful variety which follows the outline of the traditional Pesach liturgy.

Her orthodoxy emerges as she makes reference after reference to food, to Shabbat dinner. Although some Jews ignore kosher and some Jews are “kosher-lite,” I was struck by the role of kosher in her life. By the fourth page of her memoir she is already talking about food. Every Friday, she had to answer the questions: What will I eat? When will I prepare the food? As a world traveler and activist, she details the times in the Ukraine, in New Zealand, in South Africa, in Canada, and in many other locations, that she had to find alternative ways to celebrate Shabbat faithfully and the times she shared that meal with members of other religions.

Furthermore, she had to deal with a male-oriented Judaism. From her point of view, one of her contributions has been to raise the status of women in Judaism. She was blunt in her recognition of difficulties. “Being the only woman in a room of Jewish men is often more difficult than being the only Jew in a roomful of Christians (159).”

At Kehillat Yeddya, the members maintained many of the rules of orthodoxy. They kept Shabbat faithfully; they read and deliberated over Torah; they sought to understand and apply the Halakkah to their lives. Yet as pioneers, the members also broke the rules of Jewish orthodoxy. Women and men could sit together. Women as well as men opened and closed the Ark (160). They resisted hiring a rabbi to guide them. Since so many of the members possessed graduate degrees, they made sure that their communal deliberating and decision making was much more democratic (163).

For her, what was the measure of their community? “The religiosity of the community would be measured not by the length of our sleeves, but by the way we treat people with disabilities, the way we help people in need, our commitment to prayer, study, and tzekdakah, the amount we gossip (actually quite minimally I’m happy to say), the extent to which we open our houses to guests (quite maximally) (165).”

She has shown that a deep and abiding commitment to a particular religious community can lead to extensive involvement with broader concerns. She is clear: “I believe the pursuit of peace is religious imperative (184).”

Another crisis was acknowledging and engaging Israel’s and the world’s pluralism. Forced to address the question what to say to Christians about Christianity, she became involved in the interfaith dialogue. Her work with the International Council of Christians and Jews is evidence of her passion to address this issue. In her work, she has helped bridge the suspicion and the antagonism between the two communities. She is proud that during her term as President, the commission produced the document “A Time for Reconciliation” which is sometimes called the Berlin Document. The document may be one of the few examples showing that both Christians and Jews can be self-critical in public. Addressed to both Christians and Jews, affirmative as well as critical, the document expresses the combined hopes and dreams of Jews and Christians. Embedded in the document are statements which ask Jews to reexamine practices, texts, and liturgies. Jews should engage in self-criticism: “By critiquing the policies of Israeli and Palestinian government and social institutions when such criticism is morally warranted… By grappling with Jewish texts that appear xenophobic or racist…. by placing problematic texts within their historical context…by addressing the possible re-interpretation, change or omission of parts of Jewish liturgy that treat others in problematic ways.”

She and the commission received criticism. Against those fellow Jews who criticized her for washing dirty laundry in public she had a double response: “1) In the digital age, it’s no longer so clear what the boundaries are between the public and private spheres; 2) If I have a choice between washing dirty laundry in public and wearing stinking laundry, I’d rather wash it in public (103).”

Finally, the biggest crisis has been addressing the social and political status of Jerusalem and Israel itself. Concerning Jerusalem, she writes: “In our liturgy, the city most frequently mentioned is, of course, Jerusalem…I have never become jaded praying about the city in which I live (180).” She has not only prayed about Jerusalem, but also has thrown herself into the life of the city. Introducing herself to 60 other women at a 1988 Toronto World Council of Churches meeting, she described herself as “a religious Zionist who believes that the best fulfillment of Zionism will come when there is a Palestinian state alongside the state of Israel (9).” More locally at Tantur, she declared: “I am a Zionist. But careful here, thank God we can build a spiritual Jerusalem here.”


She is aware of opposition. In a self-deprecating manner, she claimed: “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you. Jews today are like paranoids who have real enemies (23).” She stakes out where she will not go: “I am certainly in favor of trying to understand the factors that lead to terrorism…But I cannot in any way forgive or justify it (184).” As a person supportive of Jews in Israel, she is willing to distance herself from some. “I don’t think it is always wise or judicious to exercise all one’s rights. There are other factors to be taken into consideration. I would apply that reasoning, for example, to the right of Jews to live anywhere in the land of Israel or to pray on the Temple Mount (154).”  She judges her fellow Jews with an honest and critical eye when she states: “The most painful feature of my life has been the rise in racism among Jews (184).”

In her last chapter, she explains her self-designation as a “hopeful pessimist (181)” in relation to contemporary Israel. She is a pessimist because she realizes “I probably won’t live long enough to see peace in places. I’m not referring only to the horrific situation in the Middle East in general. It has become a cliché to say that the Arab Spring has turned into a dark and depressing winter. I mourn for the hijacking of Islam by violent, repressive fear, and the plight of Christians and other minority groups in our region…I think that the settlements in the territories have been a major strategic mistake on the part of state of Israel. Many of the people who went to live in them are fine, decent but, I think, misguided. I’m not angry with most of them; I’m angry at the political leadership of this country (Labor as well as Likud) for what has happened. I’m angry at the political leaders for having destroyed my chance to see peace (182).”

Debbie Weissman has been shaped by Jewish influences, has chosen voluntarily to make Aliyah (return as a citizen) to Israel, has faced numerous crises there, and, has creatively responded to those challenges. Religious communities can thrive only with the commitment of serious, dedicated and visionary individuals. Debbie Weismann is one such individual in the contemporary Israeli Jewish community as it seeks to be faithful to its own tradition and to respond to issues of contemporary life.

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