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October 4, 2015 | 21st Tishrei 5776

Two Cities

September 2, 2001
Marc Rosenstein

Last week we held the first in this year’s inservice series for teachers participating in the Partnership 2000 project “Zippori as an Educational Resource.” The project helps teachers with both training and financial support to enable them to bring their classes for educational visits to Zippori National Park, and to integrate projects based on those visits into their curriculum, for grades 5 and 6. Over the past four years I have enjoyed this inservice program - the encounter among teachers, text, and site; it tends to bring out the best in the teachers, as they get excited about Zippori and its potential, and their creative juices begin to flow.

This time we divided into two groups: the teachers new to the project went off on an introductory study tour with our scholar-in-residence; meanwhile I conducted a study session for the “advanced” participants. This week, my group consisted of "I.", the principal of a small orthodox elementary school in a development town, and "D.", who teaches in a “secular” school in a rural community. "I." was wearing a sheitl, long sleeves and a long skirt; "D" was wearing a tank top and miniskirt.

Our topic was the moral dilemmas posed by the confrontation between Jewish and western cultures. First we studied the passage from the Talmud (Shabbat 32) in which Rabbi Judah, Rabbi Shimon, and Rabbi Yossi argue about Roman culture: Rabbi Judah thinks it is great, and gets rewarded; Rabbi Shimon thinks it is immoral, and gets sentenced to death (which he avoids by hiding in a cave for 12 years - where he wrote, according to folk tradition, the Zohar); Rabbi Yossi says nothing, and gets sent to Zippori. This is a great text for exploring the ambivalence Jews have always felt toward the majority culture, and the prices we have paid for our decisions. And it was a text that spoke equally to all three of us - not only as individuals, but as teachers imagining how we would use it with our students.

We moved on to a shaded stone bench overlooking the Bet Netofa Valley and Mount Atzmon, site of the ruins of Yodfat. In 67 CE, the people of Zippori sent representatives to sign a separate peace with the Romans as Vespasian started his campaign to put down the revolt; Zippori was therefore untouched in the fighting; years later, the Mishnah would be written in Zippori. Vespasian proceeded east to Yodfat, where the Jews, under their general Joseph ben Mattityahu, put up a valiant struggle, withstanding a siege for a month and a half. A massacre ensued, and when the leadership of the community decided on a suicide pact, Joseph betrayed them and surrendered to the Romans, changing his name to Josephus Flavius, and becoming the well-known historian of the period. Josephus is our only source for this story, as he is for the suicide episode at Massada six years later.

Our discussion revolved around questions of heroism and survival, of who is brave and who is a coward, of who contributed more to the continuity of the Jewish people, of what we do when values collide, and how we teach our students to cope with these collisions. We recognized the resonances of these ancient conflicts in the current ideological divisions in our people - and agreed that the dilemmas don’t seem to go away, or get any easier to resolve.

I was struck by the fact that the conversation among this unlikely threesome was warm, and animated, and thoughtful. And I realized that this was one of those “now I know why I made aliyah” moments: public school teachers from opposite ends of the religious/ideological spectrum studying Talmud together in one of the key formative sites in Jewish history, struggling together with the application of Jewish values to real-life ethical dilemmas, struggling together to define what is Jewish about this Jewish state - and enjoying the challenge and the encounter.


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