In Australia, Religious Israelis Learn to Think for Themselves

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We like to think that we are free from the influence of intellectual fads. We think what we think because of evidence or the truth, not because of fashion. But, every now and again, I hear an argument for a view that I had always firmly rejected, and find myself saying, “Gosh, I’ve never really thought about it that way before.” That means I had rejected something forcefully, without actually having thought it through. I might have thought that I’d thought it through! But, I hadn’t. Not from every angle. I wonder how often we come to our heartfelt conclusions automatically and unreflectively.

Last week, as I taught at a conference for year 11 students at Mount Scopus Memorial College in Melbourne, Australia, I discovered four young, Israeli, religious-Zionist women confronting, perhaps for the first time, central questions of Jewish thought and identity in a way that opened their minds to new perspectives.

As part of their national service, the young women were spending a year working at Mount Scopus. National service, an alternative to military service, is normally rendered in Israel itself – helping the disabled, the elderly, the terminal ill, immigrant communities, and the like – but sometimes it is rendered overseas. And so, these religious Zionist women, who for religious reasons wouldn’t serve in the military, have found themselves at Mount Scopus.

The topics at the conference were varied – klezmer, the Breslov Hasidic movement, philosophy, Zionism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – and it even included a screening of Bethlehem, a very challenging film about Palestinian collaborators and Israel’s role in recruiting them. Mount Scopus isn’t afraid to challenge its students.

These four Israeli women, from somewhat sheltered religious communities in Israel, were exposed at this conference to views that they’ve probably never heard being defended before. What should be the relationship between religion and state? How should Orthodox Jews relate to homosexuality? These are the sorts of questions on which members of the religious Zionist community in Israel generally have a very clear party line. But this year, in the safety of an Orthodox Jewish school in the Diaspora, these girls were exposed to different types of Jews, different types of situations and different values. And I could see it was changing the contours of their Jewish identity.

It isn’t that their views were being changed, but that their minds were being opened. As Orthodox Jews, we wouldn’t convert somebody who wasn’t going to observe the laws of Shabbat, so, should we be willing to convert people who are going to live as gay Jews? Instinctively, the girls I spoke to couldn’t see the difference, until my friend and colleague pointed out to them that breaking Shabbat is a choice, being gay isn’t. If you have those sorts of desires, desires that are overwhelming and cut to the core of who you are and how you view yourself, it isn’t a simple matter of choice. And at once, all four girls seemed to open their minds to a new way of thinking. Again, it wasn’t that they had come to a new conclusion, but that they had seen new layers of complexity.

The conversation covered a wide range of controversial issues and time and again they said, with an eagerness to continue thinking, “I’m not sure what I think about that.” Given that we were talking about issues over which the “communal party line” is so clear and so forthright, this was really amazing to hear.

On all of these issues, their minds were being opened. Again, not necessarily changed, but opened. The Jewish world is so vast, the conversation so complex, that one wonders what would happen if every young Israeli was to receive a couple of months immersion in a Diaspora community before coming home to Israel. Maybe, as Jews, that’s their birthright!

Rabbi Dr. Samuel Lebens is a Research Fellow at the Center for Philosophy of Religion at the University of Notre Dame.

Should we be willing to convert people who are going to live as gay Jews?Credit: Dreamstime