The Orthodox Are Impoverishing Jewish Culture

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An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man attends the funeral of Rabbi Yochanan Sofer, the spiritual leader of the Erlau dynasty in Jerusalem, February 22, 2016.
An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man attends the funeral of Rabbi Yochanan Sofer, the spiritual leader of the Erlau dynasty in Jerusalem, February 22, 2016. Credit: Reuters

A pogrom is about to destroy Judaism – gevaalt, yiddelekh, gevaaalt!! Minister of Religious Affairs David Azoulay has declared that the latest horror befalling the Jewish people is a matter of yehareg ba’al yaaavor: An abomination every believing Jew has to oppose even at the price of his own life. We must all be willing to sacrifice our lives to save Judaism and the Jewish people!

Before running to the United Nations and asking the United States to bomb the Jewish people’s archenemies, please relax: No Jews are being killed; no Jew is forced to convert to Christianity or Islam with threats on their lives. All we are talking about is opening an egalitarian space at the Western Wall, where men and women can pray together, and women (God forbid!!) can put on tallit (a prayer shawl), tefillin (phylacteries) and read from the Torah.

Don’t worry: It won’t be there for long. Throughout Israel’s history the Orthodox establishment has played its cards in the democratic game with the skill of a master poker player. No government could stay afloat without the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox parties for long, and these have made sure to keep their monopoly over religious affairs and issues of personal status ranging from conversion and marriage to running the Western Wall’s affairs.

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men walk past artist Solomon Souza, 22, as he spray-paints a portrait on the metal shutter of a closed storefront in Mahane Yehuda market, Jerusalem, February 24, 2016.Credit: Reuters

So at first the current government indeed made the historic decision to open an egalitarian space that would give the majority of Jews worldwide an option to pray as they see fit, but now the ultra-Orthodox parties are tightening the screws, and United Torah Judaism is threatening to leave the government if Reform Judaism gets any form of recognition.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, intent on looking like the good guy, has sent his faithful executioner, Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, to declare that Reform Jews are a waning breed. This was the minimum the Likud could do to keep up with the ultra-Orthodox Joneses – like Rabbi David Yosef of the Shas Council of Torah Sages, who said that Reformists are not even Jews but idolaters. The historic compromise on the Western Wall will go to pieces, and Reformists will continue to be humiliated by Israel’s government, as Anshel Pfeffer has pointed.

This spectacle is sad, and unbecoming for a modern democracy. I could state the obvious and say that the Orthodox monopoly runs counter to the most basic tenets of liberal democracy: the freedom to live one’s life according to one’s knowledge and conscience. I could point out that Jews have suffered enormously from religious discrimination, and we have gained enormously from the separation of religion and state in modern, Western liberal democracies.

Ancient inscriptions discovered in January 2016 at Zippori, where Jewish culture flourished with Hellenistic culture.Credit: Gil Eliahu

And I could restate, for the umpteenth time that the Orthodox monopoly has created the absurd situation in which Israel is the only country in the world where Jews cannot marry whom they want and according to the ritual they choose.

But I would like to focus on the destructive effect of the Orthodox monopoly in Israel on Jewish culture.

Before continuing, for fair disclosure: I do not have any personal investment in any of the streams of religious Judaism. I am a militant atheist and do not adhere to any religion, Jewish or otherwise. But I do care about the Jewish people, Israel and Jewish culture.

I was brought up in the tradition of Torah im Derekh Eretz, the combination of strict Orthodoxy and openness to Western culture that evolved in the 19th century. I was expected to know what Rashi said about the most contentious passage in the weekly portion of the Torah, but I was also supposed to know Goethe, Beethoven, Sartre and Picasso. This is what my grandparents and parents, who belonged to Agudah, the origin of today’s ultra-Orthodox parties, expected, and this is how I grew up.

Today’s ultra-Orthodox establishment has none of the cultural richness of Torah im Derekh Eretz. Not only do they now know anything of Beethoven or Picasso. They don’t know anything of Maimonides’ "Guide for the Perplexed" – because this masterpiece of medieval Jewish philosophy is deemed dangerous by the yeshiva world – or of the astrological theories of the great medieval thinker Ibn Ezra, whose commentaries of the Torah they study ardently, while denying that he dealt with matters despised by the yeshiva world.

They also lack any understanding of the historical dynamic of the Jewish people. For them, participants of Asian or black origin in Reform services in U.S. synagogues is an indication that Reformists are indeed a waning breed, because they believe in the dogma that Judaism only survived because it refrained from contact with other cultures.

This is a plain falsehood, as you can find out very simply by visiting the gorgeous archaeological site of Sepphoris (Zippori in Hebrew) in the Galilee, which was the center of Jewish life in this area for centuries. You’ll see that Jewish culture flourished in rich interaction there with Hellenistic culture; that in addition to ritual baths and synagogues, Sepphoris has a Roman theater and gorgeous mosaics depicting Greek mythology – and at the same time was home to Rabbi Yehuda Hanassi, the codifier of the Mishnah.

Today’s ultra-Orthodox Jews claim that they live with the “full wagon” (i.e., with a rich Jewish culture), whereas we poor secular Jews live with an “empty” wagon – a claim mostly due to their lack of knowledge about Western civilization. They simply ignore that the Jewish contribution to the world’s culture in the last 400 years also includes Spinoza, Freud, Einstein, Chagall and Tony Kushner in addition to Rabbis Chaim Brisker and Abraham Isaac Kook.

Worse than that: They see Sholem Aleichem, Haim Nahman Bialik, Ahad Ha’am, Dmitri Shostakovich, Mark Rothko, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Amos Oz and David Grossman as abominations rather than as wonderful expressions of Jewish culture, because they do not adhere to the narrow, Orthodox conception of Judaism that ultra-Orthodoxy falsely believes to be the one, true, authentic Judaism.

I can’t hold it against them: They have been brought up in an educational system that has shielded them from anything except the narrowest, fundamentalist version of Judaism. They have been taught that anything beyond the bounds of Haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, culture is a danger to Judaism – and they are not even aware that Haredi culture is a completely modern phenomenon, defined by its opposition to modern Western culture (the term haredi, in this context, did not exist before the late 18th century).

The results are dire: It is unfortunately true that a large proportion of secular Israelis indeed have very little knowledge of Jewish culture. They are, in fact, sick and tired of it, because it intrudes in their lives when they don’t want it, as in marriage and burial ceremonies. They associate it with being taken advantage of financially by an ultra-Orthodoxy that doesn’t contribute to the country’s economy and security, but is happy to use taxpayers’ money for their institutions and way of life. As a result, most secular Israelis just want to be left alone by traditional Jewish culture.

The result is depressing: The ultra-Orthodox keep feeling hated and beleaguered, and do not realize that this hatred is their own doing. If they understood that you can’t force your creed on others, Israelis would be much more interested in Haredi culture and way of life, from their music, the Yiddish language and traditions of shtetl culture, which is generating a lot of interest among American Jews precisely because it is not forced down their throats by political means.

There is no real conversation between the various strands of Jewish culture in Israel; instead we are locked in a bitter political fight and an impoverished Jewish culture for lack of mutual interest and dialogue, at least in Israel. And the likes of Rabbi Azoulay and Rabbi Litzman are blissfully unaware that their policies are responsible for this impoverishment.