Close to 3am this morning the Jewish State lost one of its founding fathers.
During his 93 years, Shimon Peres played key roles in Israel's re-establishment, governance, wars, peace negotiations and more. In the final decade of his life, his role as Israel's President and President emeritus gave him a platform to pursue optimistic, if humanistic, dreams for world peace. Like the Oslo Accords, of which Peres was a key architect, his dreams for global harmony are likely to bear fruit for years to come.
FROM ORTHODOX JUDAISM TO HUMANISTIC JUDAISM
Born in Poland (now Belarus) in 1923, his given name was Szymon Perski. Looking back on his childhood, Shimon Peres reflected on his religious training and subsequent departure from it.
His foremost religious teacher was Chaim Nachman Bialik, a poet and publisher. "As a young boy," Peres told the Academy of Achievement in 2003, "he taught me every day a page of the Talmud. I was under his spell. He was a rabbi. I was extremely religious when I was a young boy.
"It's only when I emigrated to Israel that I divorced my orthodox behavior and concept and changed my dress. I changed my eyes, I changed my outlooks, I changed my behavior. It was like moving from one world to another world, except for one thing, for the love of Israel, for the knowledge of the Hebrew language. That was my world."
With respect for others' religious beliefs and honoring his own Jewish heritage, Peres's view of God was a brand of humanistic Judaism.
In his 1998 book, For the Future of Israel, he described God as "a moral resident in our lives more than the master of our affairs."
"As for the afterlife," he added, "I doubt it very much. I think in a way death is a liberation. Suppose we were to live forever; what would we do with our lives? ...I don't complain about being a passing phenomenon provided that I can use my time and place properly."
The parameters of "God as a moral resident" were informed by Peres's Orthodox Jewish heritage. But the attending view that God probably is not "the master of our affairs," left him with a keen sense of autonomy. In short, it was up to him to express, pursue and even establish the morality of Judaism; a morality with its roots in Torah but, apart from a personal God, subject to evolving interpretations.
Arguably, it is this world view that informed Peres's choices as an Israeli leader - along with their mixed results.
Politically, DEBKAfile notes, he was a "hawk" in the 1950s and 60s. As a protégé of David Ben-Gurion and Moshe Dayan, he was an early supporter of Jewish settlement in Judea and Samaria, contested territory that the world today calls the "West Bank." Later, however, he became a "dove," advocating relinquishment of Israeli land for the sake of peace. Convinced this approach would work, he was a key architect of the Oslo accords in 1993. Under Oslo's plan, Judea and Samaria were divided into three parts: Areas A, B, and C. The Palestinian Authority was given domestic control over Area A while Israel maintained control over Area C. Area B, for its part, was shared between the two.
Intended to end an Islamic intifada that bloodied Israelis from 1987 until 1991, and usher in a long-sought peace, Oslo's convoluted construct only made the problem worse. A second intifada plagued Israelis for five years, from 2000 until 2005.
Arguably, the flaw of Oslo was rooted in Peres's world view. Sole dependence on human choice failed to enflame humanity's "divine spark," igniting instead the darkest aspects of its nature.
ISRAEL'S RIGHT TO EXIST AND THRIVE
On the other hand, Peres's world view provided a clear basis for Israel's resurrection as a nation state along with its attending rights to survive and thrive.
According to one Israeli analyst, Ardie Geldman of Efrat, Peres's patriotism was based on the historicity of the Jewish people and their homeland in Israel. For Peres, it was a historical reality not only affirmed by archaeology but also by Torah (the Bible) and Orthodox Judaism's understanding of it.
As such, Peres saw a powerful justification of today's Jewish State; a historical justification, not a divine one. Even so, inclusion of Torah in that justification is no small thing. According to Geldman, "it is a much better justification than was the case for founding the United States of America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and all Central and South American countries."
THE SWAN SONG OF HIS LIFE
Still, in recent years, Peres's emphasis on human agency apart from a personal God was leading him to dilute the basis of Israel's unique identity revealed in the Bible.
Only two years ago, at age 91, he was pounding pavement in the Vatican. His purpose: persuade the Pope to pontificate over a "United Nations of Religions."
The world's problem, as Peres saw it in his final years, is that “in the past, most wars were motivated by the idea of nationality. Today, however, they are being waged primarily in the name of religion. ...The United Nations has had its day. What we need is an organization of United Religions, a United Nations of Religions."
And the person to lead it? According to Peres, the incontestable candidate was Pope Francis. “Perhaps for the first time in history, the Holy Father is a leader not only respected by many people, but also by different religions and their leaders,” he exuded in an interview.
It is virtually certain that this vision, this swan song of his life, took him back to the Vatican only three months ago. On 19 June 2016, his plea to Francis was “a moral obligation to our children to stop the hatred and bloodshed.”
Peres, beloved in Israel as a founding father, is gone. But his heritage remains. As a soldier and a leader, he was a parent of reborn Israel. As a statesman and an elder, he also pursued paths for peace on the basis of optimistic humanism informed by Judaism. That foundational world view led to the Oslo accords and their disastrous results. It also led him at the end of life to Rome, pleading with the Pope to lead, if not establish, a "United Nations of Religions."
It is an appeal that survives Peres's passing, and with an outcome that remains to be seen.
SHIMON PERES: 1923 - 2016. MAY HIS MEMORY BE A BLESSING.