Finding Inspiration in the Faithful Left

6 June 2024
By: Hannah Bender

Within the Jewish calendar we are nearing the end of the Omer. Traditionally, one who observes this verbally counts each day of the 49 days between Passover and Shavuot, marking the time between our Exodus from Egypt to our receiving of the Torah at Mount Sinai; our collective process of physical freedom from slavery to spiritual freedom when we receive the Torah.  

Though this marks our communal process, Kabbalistlic interpretation of the Omer views these days as a time for individual introspection and growth. Each week of the Omer is dedicated to one of the sefirot, the cosmic characteristics of being. Each day we count, we reflect on our individual actions and experiences, pushing ourselves to strive for wholeness in our relationship with God, ourselves, and the world around us. Today there are Omer groups, journals, and creative calendars available for people to engage more deeply in this process, utilizing the passage of time for personal spiritual development.

The Jewish tradition gifts us with a construction of time that encourages this growth. Our holidays are not only for the days in which we celebrate them but are guides for the values we are to strive for every day. Like all structures, there is the possibility for this to become habitual, and keep us stagnant. To be actively and authentically engaged in this structure, is to allow ourselves to actually grow. 

Over the last eight months time has moved both slowly and painfully fast. New horrors emerge every day as we hold the grief of October 7th and witness the unraveling catastrophe in Gaza. I have witnessed many people that I love and respect take stances and dig their heels into the ground to support an Israeli government that acts in the name of Judaism through unimaginable violence. 

Out of the pain and grief of this year, the biggest blessing for me has been participating in the NIF Elissa Froman Social Change Fellowship. I was a part of a cohort of rabbinical students in Los Angeles who met monthly to meet with rabbis, activists, and community leaders engaged in the work of social change in Israel. We also organized the Elissa Froman Memorial lecture, where we brought in speakers from Standing Together to hear about their visionary work on the ground advocating for a shared society. I am grateful to have had the space to learn and process with an incredible group of leaders within an organization that represents my Jewish and progressive values as time continued to pass and new horrors emerged.

Our last fellowship meeting was with Brit Yakobi, grant officer for the New Israel Fund and co-founder of Smol Ha’emuni, the Faithful Left, a movement for Orthodox, Ultra-Orthodox, and other traditional Israeli Jews that brings their faith into Israeli public discourse to counter the right-wing’s use of religion. Brit spoke of how the religious right in Israel calls themselves, “ha’machane ha’emuni,” or the “faithful camp,” gluing religion and right-wing political thought together. Smol Ha’emuni seeks to reclaim their Jewish faith by stating that “fighting for democracy, equality, and an end to the occupation also comes from a faithful identity.” 

I was struck again and again at how Brit described moments in her life where she witnessed injustice, allowed those moments to move her, but never strayed from her faith. She said, “I am left because I am religious, not in spite of it.” 

We as Jews are not meant to be stagnant in our relationship with the world, only grounded in our tradition and values. Our tradition and values not only invite, but demand, personal growth. We must allow the gift of the Jewish calendar to push us to grow, change, and reevaluate the relationship we have with each other and with the State of Israel. 

In the final week of the Omer, in Kabbalistic tradition we are to focus on the sefira of malchut. Literally meaning kingdom, it is the embodiment of God’s attributes through the human experience; all other sefirot are meant to lead to an expression of malchut. In what ways do we hear God within us as we witness these tragedies? How can we open ourselves up to change and growth in our response to the ongoing violence in ways that truly represent God’s compassion and loving-kindness? 

Before we enter Shavuot, our day to celebrate receiving the Torah, may we be prepared to receive all that is within it. May we listen to the voices of those in Israel who truly represent our values and the Israel we wish to see. 

Hannah Bender is a 5th year rabbinical student at the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles.