The Jewish State? Reflections on Another Religious/secular Controversy

Egged bus company’s Omer counter was removed after criticism that it was irrelevant to passengers. Seeing the reports, as a Diaspora Jew I begin to wonder: Can’t Israelis just get along?

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Egged decided against an Omer counter announcement on its buses.
Egged decided against an Omer counter announcement on its buses. Credit: Ariel Schalit

On the one hand it is the easiest mitzvah in the entire Torah! You don’t have to fast for a whole day; you don’t have to buy a palm frond and a citron; you don’t have to clean your entire house and eschew gluten products for 8 days; all you have to do is count!

In the 15th verse of the 23rd chapter of the Book of Leviticus, the Torah teaches us: “And from the day on which you bring the sheaf of elevation offering, the day after the Sabbath – you shall count off seven complete weeks.”

This, of course, is the basis for the commandment of “Counting the Omer”; the precept that each individual is obligated to count a new day, with a b’rakhah, a blessing, beginning on the second day of Passover, and concluding on the first day of Shavuot. (By the way, Wednesday , May 7th is the 22nd day of the Omer.)

Although, on the one hand, its as simple as 1,2,3, it can be one of the most difficult commandments in the Torah. We are simply not built to savor and appreciate each and every day of our lives. Instead, too often we find ourselves thinking about the week, the month, the year ahead of us. Counting the Omer therefore forces us to slow down and take notice of the potential holiness in each and every day (and in ourselves). This is complicated further by the fact that, according to Halakhah, if one forgets to count a single day, and does not remember his mistake until the following evening, he can no longer count the subsequent days with a b’rakhah. In this way the Omer is Jewish Law’s version of sudden death overtime in a sporting event: count or go home.

With all the pressure on getting it right, it shouldn’t surprise us that there are several technological advances meant to help us keep up with our counting. There are apps available for download on your iPhone or android devices; apps which will send your phone a ‘push notification’ or a text with the appropriate day, at the appropriate time in order to keep your Omer on track. There is even a Twitter account inspired by the popular HBO show “The Wire.” Basing itself off of an infamous character from that show, the Twitter handle is @CountingtheOmar, and it will send you a daily tweet (often with an off-color quotation from the show) so that you won’t forget.

This year (at least at first) the Egged Bus Company in Israel decided to get in on the game. Using the digital scrolling signs located at the front of the center aisle, the company decided it would be a nice touch (and perhaps a welcomed one to its religious clientele) to add an Omer reminder. The scrolling sign simply said: “Today is the tenth day of the Omer.”

Well, nothing in Israel these days is ever simple, and according to local reports, Egged unceremoniously discontinued the initiative after criticism that the information was “irrelevant” to passengers. “Public transportation cannot be allowed to present information that ignores entire populations,” he wrote. “Including a message that says 'Happy Holiday'” is problematic, “but it can be accepted, as long as it appears on Israel Independence Day and is shown on buses in Haredi population centers.”

At play here in this response is clearly a sharp (and sarcastic) understanding of the seemingly impassable divide between the self-defined communities of hiloni, secular, and dati, religious, in Israel. To the ‘devoutly’ secular, a digital sign announcing the appropriate day of the Omer is not only “irrelevant,” but perhaps offensive as well. After all, shouldn’t every citizen be allowed to live according to their own religious (or irreligious) sensibilities?

Simultaneously an ultra-Orthodox Jew would perhaps be put off by a “Happy Holiday” announcement on Israel’s Independence Day, as some segments of that population do not recognize the sovereignty of the secular state. And what about the nearly two million Israelis who are not Jewish, what do they think about their busses reminding them to count the Omer? So who wins here? Is it a victory for the secular if the signs disappear? Is it a victory for the religious if they remain?

As a Diaspora Jew, this story is a clear example of the growing disconnect between the popular narrative of a Jewish state, one that we celebrate, adore, and place on a pedestal, and the reality of a modern Israel fiercely divided along religious and secular lines. What compounds this sense of disconnect is also an understanding that those chosen monikers of ‘secular’ and ‘religious’ are practically irrelevant to the modern discourse of Diaspora Judaism. Living as a religious Jew in the Diaspora requires one to be a ‘religious secular’; one who is at home in a shul as well as the baseball stadium, in the Beit Midrash and the University classroom.

With this latest example, I cannot help but throw up my hands and say: “Can’t we all just get along? Can’t we draw a common sense line in the sand between issues that are truly divisive, such as mandatory separate seating for men and women on publicly-held ‘religious’ busses, and an electronic sign reminding you of an esoteric ritual. After all, I have yet to hear a complaint about the phraseology which appears on the signage reminding riders to give up their seats to an elderly passenger: “Rise before an elderly person.” (Lev. 19:32)

Theodore Hertzl famously said in his “The Jewish State”, that a “normalized” Jewish nation would have all of the triumphs and all of the tribulations of any modern nation-state: that there would be Jewish garbage men, Jewish policemen, and yes, Jewish prostitutes. Well, we can certainly say that Hertz’s vision has been achieved; but is that all it means to be a Jewish State? This year, as we celebrate Israel’s 66th birthday, let us hope that the definition of the ‘Jewish state’ will one day mean so much more than that.

Rabbi Joel Seltzer is the director of Camp Ramah in the Poconos, a Jewish summer camp experience under the educational auspices of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

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