Sunday, September 24, 2006

Why Is It So Difficult to be A Secular Jew in Israel?

This question popped into my mind the other night while watching the movie “Private Benjamin”. In the opening scene Goldie Hawn is getting married. The wedding is obviously Jewish, and everybody seems very comfortable singing Jewish songs, and dancing Jewish traditional dances. I was struck by this casual familiarity with the Jewish tradition. It reminded me of another TV series that I like – The Nanny -who is also Jewish and also displays a very comfortable relationship between man (in this case, woman) and God and Jewish tradition. This is in complete contradiction to my experience as a secular Jew in Israel.

This situation was brought home to me, as it usually is, before the high holidays. Being secular, it is always a question what we should be doing on the holidays – should we celebrate in the traditional manner? If so, what tradition – the tradition of my family that has a large meal, dips an apple in honey, sweetly wishes everybody a good year and then promptly resumes the decades long, free-for-all family power struggle? Or should we follow the tradition of my wife’s more conventional family, preparing the numerous blessings, saying the (more or less) proper prayers over each one, and especially, getting into the proper holiday spirit of innocent joy mixed with awe at God’s works and blessings, at another miraculous year gone by, with yet another one, hopefully no less blessed, to come?
Should we follow the real tradition – the orthodox tradition, which would actually mean that I would need to learn what it is, and how to perform it? Or maybe we should do absolutely nothing – after all, who needs these stupid traditions, and this stupid, good for nothing God, that fills the world with so much hate, and pain, and endless, unimaginable suffering? Do I really want to believe in such a God, and fulfill his commandments? What for, really? What’s the point?
What to do in the holidays is a perennial question for secular Jews here in Israel. We are not bound by any previous traditions, but on the other hand we have never actually bothered to build a new secular tradition to replace the one that our communist, secular,Zionist forefathers threw away, into the proverbial “trashcan of history”. I know that there had been, and maybe still are, some attempts to re-interpret the orthodox tradition by the Kibbutz movement, but as far as I can tell, after having been in the movement for almost a decade, no kibbutz has ever been able to establish a viable, meaningful interpretation of our tradition (reviving pagan agricultural rituals is not meaningful in my view). I think that is a real pity, but that’s just the way it turned out and as a result, more and more Kibbutzim are re-introducing the orthodox traditions. ( current examples of this are here and here)
I know that many secular people are not bothered at all by this question “ what to do in the holidays” and all it means for many of them is just – where should we escape to in the holidays so we don’t have to feel all this Jewishness, and be with our horrible families. The answer used to be vacationing in Israel, maybe somewhere around the Kinneret, but today the vacation will be abroad, as evidenced by the huge upsurge of flights out of the country before the holidays.
But I am not satisfied with that kind of solution. I despise the secular, sacrilegious attitude prevalent in my family and in the society I grew up in. However, I also find that I cannot access the orthodox traditions- they do not belong to me, and there is so much political baggage in doing so, that it has become almost impossible for me.
Actually that is what I set out to say – every individual has to deal with questions of faith - is there a God, and what is my relationship to him. In Israel this difficult question is made much more complicated because of the political situation, formed at the beginning of the Zionist movement, which boils down to this – everything we do or do not do regarding Jewish tradition is part of the political landscape. If I go to synagogue – that is a political statement, and so is not going; celebrating the New Year or not celebrating and how I celebrate is as much a political matter here in Israel as it is a personal issue. I think that’s a shame. Dealing with God is so hard as it is, that no undue, external pressure should be brought into it. That is what I like in the American attitude to religion and God, expressed in the aforementioned movie and
TV series - it’s completely personal, and to me it feels, at least from afar, a much better position to be in, if you honestly want to figure it all out for yourself, as I do.

Be that as it may, I am still stuck with myself and with the same question – “what to do in the holidays”, which is actually a smaller version of the big question “what to do with this Jewishness that I have inherited from my forefathers?”
The first option that crosses my mind is simply to convert. It is with no pleasure that I find myself a target of the frustrations of nearly every other human being on this planet, just because I had the great misfortune of being born to a Jewish mother, and I certainly do not see why I should subject my theoretical offspring to such a horrible fate.
That could have been a very attractive and easy option, except that an Israeli secular upbringing is really a peculiar thing – it is actually a rebellion against orthodox tradition and as such it has, as it’s point of reference that same tradition. Only a free man can create a new tradition, and secular Jews in Israel have never bothered to free themselves to that extent, and were always content to wing it.
What do I mean by that? I mean that for several years, when we were children my father said the kiddush on Friday night, although we did not keep any other aspect of the Sabbath, and openly scorned anyone who did. We celebrated Rosh Hashana – but not Yom-Kippur, eating silently in our house, or vacationing somewhere, Passover but not Succoth or Shavuot. We would dress up on Purim, but we never read the Megilath Esther. As a boy scout in the Israeli Tzofim, we would stay up all night and do a tour of the synagogues on Yom-Kippur, apparently going to watch the believers pray to their God, like other people go to the zoo to watch the monkeys. This tour ended in the traditional Yom-Kippur meal, which we would buy from the Arabs in the Eastern part of the city. I have a mother who would be quite happy to shoot up Mea Shearim, if she knew for sure that she would not get into any trouble with the law over it, but when my brother brought a Christian girlfriend home she nearly broke into tears that he would even think about marrying a shikse girl! I cannot tell you how astounded I was at that outburst.
Really, there is no end to the contradictions in this kind of secular upbringing.
Last but not least - not too long ago I removed all my remaining belongings from my parents house, and guess what I found – a beautiful embroidered velvet bag, containing, of all things, a teffilin and talith. I imagine that I got them on my Bar Mitzvah, which I did not want, but my parents, who never, ever went to synagogue, insisted upon. From whom and for what purpose I received them I do not know. I also do not know how to operate this equipment, which is basically, the problem with my secular education – I have received just enough Judaism to realize that ignoring it or converting to another religion would be a futile exercise in escaping from myself, but not nearly enough to understand what I should be doing with it and what it should mean to me and my family. I received just enough hatred of the orthodox tradition to automatically despise it and it’s protagonists, but not nearly enough knowledge to free myself from the secular Jew’s utter dependence upon the orthodox society.
In fact, without the orthodox it would simply be impossible to be secular, because we would have no one to count on to keep the tradition, no one to stop in the street and ask what day of the Jewish month it is, or when does the Sabbath enter (I have seen non-orthodox people do this). As a secular Jew I can rest assured that if I ever do want to find out about the heritage that was half-hidden, half-despised and half-cherished by my secular parents – all I have to do is go to the nearest Habad house and I will be welcome, and yes, I’m not that bad at math, I know it doesn’t add up, but neither does the secular education I received, so there.
Anyway - this is the secret of orthodox power in Israel, and, i suspect, the real reason behind the secular hatred towards the orthodox– because they are the true carriers of our Jewish identity, and until secular Jews come up with a meaningful alternative, this situation will remain in place.

All of this still leaves me absolutely nowhere. Although I tried, I have not been able to connect with the orthodox tradition. Every time I approach the subject, if by reading a (hebrew) book, or by learning directly from orthodox people I encounter the same obstacle – a profusion of religious technical detail, coupled with the complete absence of any kind of god. I can get all the “How” that I want, but for some reason nowhere can I find the “Why”, almost as if the orthodox in Israel have forgotten it, or else they have become so used to the practice of Judaism that the accompanying beliefs and underlying meanings are too obvious to be mentioned, or perhaps they believe in religious ritual much more then they believe in God – take your pick.
In any case, I do not think that there is a way back for me. I am too modern, too secular, too knowledgeable to go back two hundred years in history and pretend that nothing important happened in human spiritual history. Doctor of Jewish Studies, Eli Ben-Gal from Kibbutz Baram says it perfectly in his partially autobiographical book (in Hebrew) “While Dining With the Devil”:

…”I do not mean the Haredim, the virgin souls, who, for some sociological reason, still live before the schism (of modernity). Towards them I feel a mixture of sadness and jealousy, but their sincerity is beyond question. For people like me, there is no returning to such completeness, even if I try to pretend. That is why the Haredim are both correct and cruel when they, at one and the same time, take pride in the phenomenon they call “hazara betshuva” (Returning to God), while avoiding these disappointed secular people like the plague, keeping them in separate Yeshivot,, marrying them with each other, not letting them into their families, because the return of this secular wreckage to the springs of eternity is evidence of the spiritual need of man, not of a real, innocent faith. There is no going back to innocence.”

Actually I disagree with that last sentence – there is a possibility of returning to innocence, but Eli Ben-Gal, after going through a rigorous and painful Freudian analysis (more about that here) was persuaded to give up on that possibility. But the rest of the passage is true for me as it is for many other people, and baalei tshuvah. It even applies to many orthodox believers who have come to realize that they actually are not innocent, and do not really have the child-like faith in God needed to be a true believer, to experience a personal relationship with God.

In any case, there probably is no way back for me – at least no way back to the orthodox tradition, to the innocence needed to perform all the rituals in good faith.
I already stated that I abhor the secular practice of completely neglecting our Jewish heritage and it’s meaning to us, while hating those that keep the traditions, those who, in doing so, enable us secular Israelis to behave like irresponsible children wreaking havoc in their own house, in the sure knowledge that their parents – the Orthodox Jews - will always be there to clean up after them.
So what’s left?

Of course I can always turn to Reform Judaism. The very word “Reform” strikes a chord, for I too feel at heart like a reformer, a changer, perhaps even a revolutionary. But for an Israeli, Reform Judaism presents a problem. I have lived enough in the United States to know that there the Reform Movement is simply the way things are. If you are Jewish you are Reform, and the two are almost synonymous. Here in Israel that is not true – here, if you are Jewish you are orthodox or at least traditional, which means accepting the orthodox way, while not fully practicing it, or else you are secular which means that you an orthodox Jew playing hooky- for the past century or so.
So Reform doesn’t really fit in. As a secular Jew growing up in orthodox Israel all I see is Jews trying to be Jewish without actually inconveniencing themselves. Personally, I cannot imagine something more repelling. In fact, Reform Judaism, in the Israeli context at least, seems to me to be the exact opposite of Judaism, and again, I will turn to Dr. Eli Ben-Gal the secular kibbutznik who expresses this matter perfectly:

“There is no Judaism without Halacha (religious law), which is what it means, literally – going on, proceeding to impose itself on this world that is evil so long as it is not good, Repaired. The Jewish Reformers of the past century, whose name you (Ben Gal is addressing the Israeli Reform Youth Movement) wish to bear while distancing yourselves from their failure, made a dire mistake; their mistake was trying to make Halacha accomodate reality. Making Halacha fit with reality is like canceling Halacha, and bringing an end to Judaism; for Judaism is the negation of reality, or at least it’s adaptation, by way of the Halacha, to what is desirable. We should not be surprised at the existence of evil; rather we should be surprised at our successes, limited as they are – in creating good. To do this, we must cling to the eternal faith, and be prepared to change Halacha not in order to make it fit reality, but in opposition to it.”

So the Reform project indeed seems to be at complete odds with the concept of Tikkun Olam that is the essence of Judaism.
I do like one aspect of Reform Judaism, and that is the freedom, and even the responsibility, that Reform Judaism places on the individual believer to find his or her own way in the tradition, in forming a personal relationship with God, a freedom that is severely lacking in orthodox Judaism. Still, there is a limit to how far the individual can stray from the collective before disconnecting himself , and it seems to me that the Reform Movement has done just that.
Perhaps all of this would not be enough to keep me away from Reform Judasim, but, regrettably, Reform Judaism in it’s Israeli version resembles a political party, not a movement that can emancipate secular Israeli Jews, who find themselves, once again, mixing politics with personal belief. The Reform Movement in Israel has an unfortunate hand in many different political pies, mostly radical left ones, which means that going to a Reform synagogue is no less a political act then going to an orthodox synagogue, and even more so - going to Reform shul is like going to a political meeting at Meretz headquarters, a political identification that most orthodox synagogues have the sense to avoid.
I cannot imagine a worse mistake for the Reform Movement then the one they are consistently committing – combining religion with politics. If there is something I am sick of it is this, and I do not see the advantage of replacing the orthodox religious state institutions, and orthodox political parties and agendas with Reform ones – I want both of them out of politics, the sooner the better. Really, is there a worse form of idolatry than religious political parties?
Religious people can take part in all walks of life, but turning their personal belief into a political platform means just one thing – they do not actually believe in God – they just want to replace Him with The Party. So, sadly, I say no to Reform Judaism.

Negation is fun, up to a point, but I still have to decide what to do. What I would really like is to fully understand Jewish tradition - not the technicalities, although I want to learn them too - but what I am really looking for is the underlying spiritual meanings of the traditions and rituals, which are my heritage. I am sure that if I am able to reach that deep level, where the soul meets the spirit of God, and they understand each other, than I will be able to regain that innocence that Ben-Gal claims cannot be recovered, I will be able to respect and perhaps even live the Jewish tradition without feeling foolishly out of place, a stranger in my own house, because everything will have meaning for me, a spiritual meaning that is relevant to the spiritual condition of modern man.

Of course, such a project can take years. In the meantime the High Holidays are upon us and I still have to decide what to do. In the absence of a clear, meaningful alternative I have to go along with my dear wife, who wants us to celebrate the holidays the way she was taught to – with dignity and respect for tradition, and a touch of innocence and faith, things that seem to me easier for a woman then for a skeptical, over-cerebral man, (which is probably why men were saddled with so many Mitzvoth - women can be relied upon to believe in God without being reminded of Him twice every minute). So, maybe, instead of studying Torah and praying during the High Holidays, like a normal Jew, I’ll just study my wife in the hope that some of that faith and innocence (and sweetness) will rub off on me.
Hmmm. On second thought, perhaps being a secular Jew in Israel isn’t as bad as I thought…


Karma said...

So you condem Reform Judaism for combining religion and politics and not Orthodox Judaism? I mean, are there Reform political parties or Orthodox?

Personally, I think that the real answer isn't in choosing one or the other but on creating a meaningful Jewish experience for yourself and your family. What matters more than the movement the shul belongs to is the experience that you have when you go there.

Hatima tova.

westbankmama said...

Pat yourself on the back, JerusalemJoe, for at least wrestling with this. I did not grow up in a religious household, and I was also shocked at my parents freaking out when I went out with a nice Catholic boy at the age of 15. After that they insisted on me being part of an Orthodox youth group (hoping I would eventually marry a Jew). It took me about two years of learning bits and pieces and thinking about it before I started keeping mitzvot at the age of 17 - and then I did it very gradually.

I understand your reluctance to get into all of the halachot, etc. but have you ever read David Aaron's books? He writes more about the spiritual things than the straight halacha.

Jerusalem Joe said...

actually i clearly condemned both.
i just pointed out one glaring difference - you can go to an orthodox shul here and in most cases you will have no idea what the political affiliation is , or if there is any at all.
you cannot go to a reform temple here without dealing with their politics, it is such an integral part of the belief system.
again - i know this is different in america.

Jerusalem Joe said...

WBM - never heard of david aaron - what book would you recommend?

westbankmama said...

I know of two of his books - Endless Light and Seeing G-d. Seeing G-d is about Kabbalah, but his first few chapters speaks about how we have bad connotations about G-d from our childhoods, which keep us from experiencing spirituality. Endless Light also explores this topic. He runs an institute in Jerusalem called Isralight which runs seminars. (I am not one of those people who have a "guru of the week" - but I very much enjoyed his books and would highly recommend them to you.)

Shanah said...

The best way to learn about the spiritual end of Judaism is to study the Bible, the defining creed of Judaism. Anything else you read, no matter how good or insightful, will still be someone else's opinion of what Judaism is. While reading other writers/commentators is never a bad thing, it would not serve your true purpose in this instance, which, as I understand it, is to really understand Judaism as a faith. How can you develop your own ideas on any faith if you've never studied the creeds of that faith for yourself?

As to having a very comfortable, personal relationship with G-d and Judaism, that idea isn't American. Remember, Moshe was the first man to speak with Adonai "face-to-face, as a man speaks with his friend," (Exodus 33:11). Having a personal relationship with G-d is what Judaism is all about. (It only seems American because the movies and TV shows are in English. ;)

Jerusalem Joe said...

The idea of a personal relationship with God as an American idea stuck with me because from what i have seen - that is the prevalent religous attitude in the States.
it seems to me that here in Israel religious people are much more concerned with doing the mitzvot correctly than they are with their own connection with God. i think it is assumed that if you do the mitzvot than your relationship with God is taken care of.

Shanah said...

Joe, I find that thought-process fascinating. I think it highlights the difference between faith and religion: faith is the trust that what you believe is right, religion is the set of man-made rituals that correspond to the teachings of a particular faith. The idea of a personal relationship with G-d, indeed, the living out of faith, probably seems more American because the first Anglo-Americans were protestants, and the greatest protestant belief, indeed the one that caused the separation of protestantism and catholocisim, is that every person should read the Bible for themselves. Of course, the grand irony is that a huge chunk of the Christian Bible is really the Tanak, which teaches that HaShem is a personal G-d.

The idea of mitzvot being a be-all, end-all sort of answer to a relationship with HaShem is very Rabbinical. Of course, mitzvot are important, but you miss the point completely when you do them by rote. I think you can only understand why the mitzvot are important when you read scripture for yourself. Then, you can develop your own ideas further by reading the commentary of the Sages and other Rabbis/commentators, of course. But what a waste to perform mitzvot for the sake of performing them, without ever talking to HaShem or reading what He says about them! After all, they're meant to draw you closer to G-d, aren't they?

Chalk it up to my romantic American attitude, I suppose... ;)

Jerusalem Joe said...

i'm with you all the way.
i think in some ways, orthodox judaism has become catholic, actively discouraging reading the bible, and stressing instead the study of what other people said about the bible.

also, you can't read too much about the mitzvot in the bible because many of them simply do not exist there. it's a problem.

Anonymous said...

this post really shows what is wrong with the Chilonim, ignorant of Torah and still filled with hatred towards real Judasim. Worshiping the Western anti-Jewish ideas of America as glorious.

While I realize you have no actual knowledge of Judaism as you were raised by ame haartzim, if you ever do learn something you might realize that there are many Mitzvos which you in your profound ignorance call politics, like settling Eretz Yisrael expelling the Goyim, and having a Malchut.

mother in israel said...

I am impressed by your description of your childhood and your current dilemmas.

The Bible is not at all enough to understand Judaism; it is useless without the Mishnah and the Talmud. This oral tradition is an integral part of the way Judaism has developed. For example, lighting candles on Friday night is not mentioned in the Torah/Bible. Not to mention Jewish philosophy etc.

I don't have any suggestions for you but I hope you are able to find a way to experience Judaism that you are comfortable with.