To the State of Israel and all its inhabitants,
Two words in Hebrew denoting decency and fairness – “haginut” and “hognut” - have a common origin with “ogen”, which means anchor. They all refer to a way of keeping stability even in stormy waters. My wish for you, for all of us, is that we regain a sense of decency.
A fierce debate is raging in Israel today concerning the values which should guide our society. Some look to Jewish tradition while others quote Western sources. It’s not always necessary to draw a sharp distinction between them. One ancient Rabbinic tradition imagines Abraham judging three visitors from afar. He says to himself: if I see that the Holy Presence attends them, I can adduce that they are “hagunim”, and if they behave respectfully to each other, I know they are “hognosin”. The first of these terms is Hebrew and it means decent. The second is a version of a Greek word meaning that they were well brought up. The Hebrew and the Greek words are put next to each other by the Rabbis, as if to say: these values have different sources but they speak to a common aspiration.
Some two thousand years ago, the Mishnah coined the expression ‘a regime which is not “hogenet” , not decent’. In our day, we have the duty and the privilege to strive for a society that is “hogenet”, upholding the rule of law and expecting its leaders to conduct themselves with probity; honoring differing opinions, upholding the rights of the weak and the vulnerable, protecting the interests of those who are not like me. The words of Rabbi Hayim David Halevi, once Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, should resonate with all of us:
“…the great moral to be derived by every government among the people of Israel is that it possesses an obligation to conduct itself with integrity and fairness (haginut) towards its minorities and those who are strangers in its midst. In so doing, it will sanctify the name of Heaven and the name of Israel in the world”.
Decency does not require absolute purity. It assumes that people have weaknesses and failings, but that there will be enough checks and balances, enough anchors and ropes, to keep us from sinking even in tempestuous times.
Let’s hope and pray that we can behave with “haginut” and “hognut”, that we can show respect for each other, and that in so doing we sanctify the name of Heaven and the name of Israel in the world.
Rabbi Michael Marmur teaches Jewish Theology at the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem. He is a member of the Board of Rabbis for Human Rights.