Consider and Converse: A Guide to Yovel

Sh’ma Now curates conversations on a single theme rooted in Jewish tradition and the contemporary moment. At the heart of this issue of Sh’ma Now is the theme of “Yovel” —“Jubilee.” The perspectives shared in these pages are meant to be expansive — to inspire reflections on Judaism and possibility in ways you may not have considered before. They aim to hold discord. We hope that the richness and diversity of these essays will show you new perspectives that are personally meaningful and edifying.

Sh’ma Now has never viewed learning or “meaning-making” as solely an individual activity. That’s why we have included this guide, which is specifically designed to help you to consider the idea of going forth independently or with others, formally and informally.

How to Begin

This guide offers a variety of suggestions, including activities and conversation prompts for individual contemplation and informal or more structured conversations. We suggest that you use this guide to share reflections and thoughts over a Shabbat meal, or, for those who are more adventurous, to lead a planned, structured conversation, inviting a small group of friends and family to your home or to a coffee shop. If you would like more information about ways in which this journal might be used, please contact Susan Berrin, Sh’ma Now editor-in-chief, at SBerrin@shma.com. You can also print out a PDF file of the entire issue.

Guidelines for Discussion

If you wish to hold a structured conversation, the following guidelines may help you to create a space that allows for honest personal exploration through sharing:

  • Create a sense of shared purpose that can foster the kind of internal reflection that happens through group conversation.
  • Remind participants of simple ground rules for conversations. For example: Avoid commenting on and critiquing each other’s comments. Make room for everyone to speak. Step into or away from the conversation appropriately. No one participant should dominate the conversation. Let silence sit, allowing participants to gather their thoughts.
  • For each of the questions below, we recommend that you print out the article in question, or provide the link to it, and we ask that you take a moment to read it in print or on screen, before the conversation begins.
  • Allow people a few minutes to absorb the article, perhaps even to read it a second time, before moving into the discussion.

Interpretive Questions can focus the reader on the ideas in the articles.

  • Rabbi Ayelet Cohen introduces readers to “yovel” — “Jubilee” — as a 50th-year “societal corrective, offering those who are locked in poverty the chance to start again. A biblically prescribed ‘reset’ button, it helps to prevent debt and homelessness from becoming an inheritance to be passed on to the next generation.” In the Bible (Leviticus), we learn that the land belongs to God: How does the yovel period apply to you, your family, and your communities? Does the release of debts commanded by the yovel seem realistic? Why or why not? What kinds of systems would need to be in place to make the release of debts and the return of land possible? What relevance does yovel have for the State of Israel today? Or for the territories occupied since June of 1967? Or for the Jewish people?

  • Yossi Klein Halevi offers a balanced and nuanced understanding of the current situation in the West Bank. He explains how he became a “centrist”: “Centrists agree with the left about the moral and demographic disaster of the occupation, and with the right about the impossibility of reconciling, at least for now, with the Palestinian national movement.” While he embraces “the left’s conclusion that [Israel] must end the occupation,” he notes that “ending the occupation could endanger our ability
to defend ourselves in an imploding Middle East,” and so he also embraces “the right’s conclusion that we don’t have a credible Palestinian partner for a durable peace.” He sees this “yovel,” this “Jubilee” since the 1967 Six-Day War, as an opportunity “for a reset — for each side to concede the enormity of our dilemma and the compelling arguments of the other.” What informs your stance on Israel’s West Bank position? How do you weigh moral arguments against issues of security—especially today, when much of the security establishment has thrown its weight behind a two-state solution? How does the idea that the land belongs to God inform the way we talk about the future of Israel—that is, through a lens of holiness, what are the theological questions about the ownership of property?

  • Samuel Hayim Brody examines the complicated and surprising writing of Vladimir Jabotinsky on Jubilee, which he sees as a reset for capitalism. He asserts that socialism, “in its attempts to prevent inequality, crushes individuality and represses talent, and ends up preventing not only the accumulation of wealth, but any and all innovation. The Jubilee, on the other hand, allows free rein for 50 years to the entrepreneurs and creative thinkers of the world before hitting the ‘reset’ button — enough time for people to see rewards for their labor, while still ultimately maintaining a concern with fairness and social balance.” Yovel is rooted in a series of ideals that, in practice, have a wide range of consequences. What do you see as the greatest challenge of yovel? The greatest opportunity? Are the economic ramifications of Jubilee realistic? What types of programs could be put into place to help “reset” economic policies and provide new opportunities to those who are less advantaged? Reflective Questions can help to integrate the ideas in these articles with one’s own sense of self.

  • Stephen Hazan Arnoffwrites about Leonard Cohen’s (z”l) last album and the song “Treaty,” which is an “ode to the burdens of suffering in both love and faith.” He writes, “Even though ‘Jubilee’ offers to release everyone from their shackles, Cohen holds tight to a debt of loneliness.” For Cohen, the burden of suffering is what defined much of his music and much of his life. How do you understand the nature of personal suffering and its influence on art and creativity? Where is this expressed most articulately? Does music live on your personal emotional map? How so?

  • In NiSh’ma, our simulated Talmud page, three writers explore the verse from Leviticus inscribed on the Liberty Bell: “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.” (25:10) Our commentators — a Palestinian, a settler, and the founder of the Center for Jewish Nonviolence — discuss how to approach the complexity of occupation during the coming yovel year. Munir Fasheh, a Palestinian, writes that liberty must always be inclusive: “The wellness of societies cannot be but wholesome; any attempt to exclude, ignore, belittle, or degrade is counterproductive.” Hanan Schlesinger, a settler, doesn’t believe that “Judea and Samaria are occupied territory. But the Palestinians most certainly live the reality of an occupied people. We Israelis are an occupying people who are ourselves occupied by the occupation. More and more Israelis and most of the Jewish residents of Judea and Samaria live in a bubble, and hardly recognize that there is an occupation and what it’s doing.” And Ilana Sumka, who founded the Center for Jewish Nonviolence, writes: “This is the occupation’s yovel year, 50 years since 1967, when the occupation began. This is the biblical 50th Jubilee year in which the land lies fallow, mandated as a moment in which outstanding debts are to be repaid, slaves released, and land returned to its rightful owner. This is what Israel must now do with its occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza: recognize the losses Palestinians have incurred and release them from the bondage of non-citizenship, travel restriction, and subjection to a separate military legal system.” How are these ideas reconciled? Where does the work begin? What are the steps forward on a path to peace? What type of planning would be required by Jews in Israel and the Diaspora to change the ownership of any lands acquired in 1967? Is there a place for utopian ideas—such as the yovel—in your own life? How do you make decisions about issues on the practical/utopian scale?

Additional Sources on Yovel

Yovel: A Sourcebook for Fifty Years, created by T’ruah, delves into the biblical concept of Yovel (Jubilee) as a means of opening up conversation about the complexities of the anniversary of 50 years since the Six-Day war. This guide looks at seven aspects of yovel, as well as texts about Jerusalem, as opportunities to grapple with both 50 years of sovereignty over the holiest sites of Judaism, and 50 years of military occupation over another people. Order your Yovel guide here.

The Center for Jewish Nonviolence engages in creative, nonviolent activism in the occupied Palestinian territories and Israel with the aim of bringing an end to the occupation. The summer of 2017 marks 50 years of occupation, and the organization is mobilizing Jewish activists to join Palestinians on the ground to resist segregation and discrimination.

SISO: Save Israel. Stop the Occupation has produced a Jubilee Haggadah, with contributions from 30 leading Israeli and Diaspora Jewish figures interpreting the traditional text in light of Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian people. Because liberty is not only for us, but for all human beings. From Amos Oz to Sarah Silverman, Achinoam Nini to Leon Wieseltier, from Anat Hoffman to Carol Gilligan, in this 50 year, we are proclaiming liberty throughout this land for all its inhabitants. The texts are rich, nuanced and diverse. The original artwork and design (by Michal Sahar, Israel’s leading graphic designer) make this a beautiful work that invites reflection and conversation.

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Consider and Converse: A Guide to Yovel

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