Jewish Studies / Happy Is the Believer

In his latest book, Yair Sheleg argues that a spiritual trend sweeping Israel has managed to attract masses of Jews, but just outside the door crouches the danger of religious-political fundamentalism.

Me'ivri Yashan Leyehudi Hadash (From Ancient Hebrew to New Jew: The Jewish Renaissance in Israeli Society), by Yair Sheleg.
The Israel Democracy Institute (Hebrew), 201 pages, NIS 65

I consider myself a person riddled with contradictions. I'm trying to turn my Judaism into something current and meaningful, but I reject quick recipes for "connecting" to Jewish content. I live and breathe (and sometimes gargle and spit out ) Jewish literature and thought, but am deterred by the need to "appropriate Judaism for ourselves." Therefore, although in some ways I am part of the Jewish renaissance described by Yair Sheleg in "From Ancient Hebrew to New Jew," his book did not make me happy. The question is, why?

Bratslaver Jews at Ben-Gurion Airport, on their way to Uman, Ukraine.
Ofer Vaknin

Sheleg, a longtime commentator on religious affairs for Haaretz, and a fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute, describes a process that has already been written about quite extensively. Although I felt at times that he was covering overly familiar phenomena, such as the dynamics of the new batei midrash (Jewish study halls ), the growing popularity of piyyutim (liturgical poems ) in popular culture, and so on, his book does do a satisfactory job of putting things into perspective. The particular process he looks at is the spread of a type of intermediate religious-secular culture in Israeli society. This is a third way, in a sense - one that does away with the old dichotomy between secular and religious Jews.

Sheleg divides this trend into two sub-trends: the cultural one, which is expressed principally through study of texts in different learning communities; and the spiritual one, which is expressed in various Jewish "New Age" dynamics, including neo-kabbala, neo-Hasidism and the coming-of-age route that leads from India to the Samarian hilltops. Both trends are distinguished from the familiar denominational frameworks existing here (Orthodoxy and the Reform and Masorti movements ), although they also interact with them and occasionally are integrated with them.

Scholem's prophecy fulfilled

This process suggests that Israeli society is becoming increasingly religious (not necessarily in the established and halakhic sense, but in the sense of religious awareness ). Even the religious are tending more toward a New Age-style Jewish experience, and by doing so are distancing themselves from stringently halakhic, text-based Judaism. To a certain degree, this is a fulfillment of the prophecy of Gershom Scholem regarding an eruption of the nonrational layers of Judaism and the breach of the sterile halakhic envelope.

Secular Jews, for their part, continue to maintain a secular lifestyle, but in their consciousness they are now more religious, Sheleg finds. These are not only people who are avowedly secular who are enriching their world with study of Jewish texts, but also secular "praying communities" that exist outside synagogues, and so on. In that sense, Eliezer Schweid's diagnosis in his book "Judaism and Secular Culture" (published in Hebrew by Hakibbutz Hameuchad in 1981, but absent from Sheleg's bibiliography ) is unfortunately coming true.

Schweid, a professor of Jewish philosophy, wrote that the secular person, out of his need for Jewish content, will in the end arrive at the religious dimension, since it is inseparable from the spiritual and cultural ones. Such separation means emptying Judaism of its content.

In Israeli society, and in the division it offers between cultural and spiritual people, the cultural group is more elitist, smaller in number and older, while the spiritual group represents a mass phenomenon.

Sheleg correctly reiterates the (important ) assumption that the various spiritual types (students of kabbala, neo-Bratslavers and others ) cannot be included as part of the religious public in the old sense of the term. In other words, they are not simply "religious people," but people with a new type of religiosity that even subverts the old variety. These new religious people are characterized, among other things, by their individualism and by their attempt to attain a sense of meaning, experience and spiritual elevation on the personal level. This focus on the ego, together with the cheap and popular approach of the "believers in graves and amulets," has aroused criticism among the ranks of the old-time believers, who see the new religiosity as not being "for the sake of heaven."

The main weakness of the cultural-elitist trend stems from the fact that it remains limited to a small number of people, and is unable to offer a sufficiently attractive alternative to the entertainment offered on Channel 2 and Channel 10. The masses, in the final analysis, prefer the "Big Brother" reality TV show to the primeval Big Brother who emerges from the ancient pages of the Talmud. At the same time, Sheleg believes that this balance could change and that the pages of the Talmud have a chance of overcoming the half-naked bodies sitting poolside at the "Beauty and the Geek" villa. Happy is the believer.

The spiritual trend actually manages to attract masses of people, but just outside the door crouches the danger of religious-political fundamentalism, which develops out of a yearning for simplicity and a return to the mythical-primeval. This is an interesting observation of Sheleg's. Among various groups in the so-called "Chabakook" realm (an acronym for Chabad-Bratslav-Rabbi Kook ) it is possible to discern a link between the ideology of simplicity and a return to roots, New Age and religious fanaticism.

Sheleg's writing is measured, level-headed and practical; uninspired but not boring. He surveys and maps, though he rarely pursues his discussions too far below the surface. For example, he describes the secular praying communities, but refrains from developing the really interesting question about them: Why do secular people need prayer and how do they reconcile it with their perception of themselves as secular? They say that they want to "experience" Shabbat, but, after all, it can also be experienced through Hasidic songs. I'm guessing the answer lies in the difficulty of deconstructing the traditional and accepted structure of Shabbat.

Here and there the personal views of Sheleg, who is himself Orthodox, crop up between the lines of what is presented as an academic study. For example, for him the secularization of Jewish life is equivalent to a flight from Judaism; that means that Judaism is only a religion after all. He presents the figure of Hebrew poet Haim Nahman Bialik as an alternative to aggressive secularization, but Sheleg seems to be unaware of the fact that even Bialik and his enterprises (and not only the polarizing and blazing Yosef Haim Brenner ) were an inseparable part of Judaism's secularization. It is also evident that Sheleg is not exactly enthusiastic about the Jewish New Age, with its many shortcuts and the types of instant salvation it generously offers to all (and mainly those with money to spare ). When he describes the neo-Bratslavers, for some reason it's important to him to mention various jokes that have become connected to their mantra, "Na-Nah-Nahm-Nahman."

Our little renaissance

Toward the end of the book, Sheleg offers a somewhat surprising vision: The Jewish renaissance means a return to God and to the values of holiness. Judaism traditionally requires the "refinement and sanctification of all realms of life, from marital relations to economic life." If this rationale is translated into "the ethic of all spheres of life" (Sheleg doesn't offer even a preliminary description of that ethic ), that would provide a format for the solution of the social, political and spiritual problems of the entire world.

It turns out, then, that Yair Sheleg sees our little Jewish renaissance as the starting point for a message for all of humanity. No less. By doing so he returns to the vision of Ahad Ha'am (Asher Ginsberg, a pre-state essayist and Zionist visionary ), who saw Israel as a spiritual center from which the Torah would go out to the entire world. My problem with this vision is not only its presumption, generalization or simplistic nature, but the combination of words "the sanctification of all realms of life." Here the secular person in me (a moment before the Jewish renaissance finally puts secularism out of fashion ) wakes up and asks, What is the purpose of sanctifying? Why bring God (whether He exists or not ) into all the details? Aren't the details better off without Him?

And now to return to the question with which I began. If the trend described by Sheleg is so good, why doesn't it make me happy? The fact is that the processes discussed by Sheleg are taking place alongside a constant decline in the number of students of Jewish studies in academic institutions. Apparently people want Judaism for themselves, but are less interested in Torah or Jewish studies. Sheleg is aware of this. His words indicate that no model has been found as yet for the secular or neo-Jewish talmid hakham (traditional Jewish scholar ). This joins the worrisome impression that there has been a decline in the thirst for knowledge, a decline in the number of talmidei hakhamim (in all the camps, from the universities to the traditional post-high school yeshivas ) and the moonstruck who are seeking what even Sheleg himself calls "instant workshops."

I don't belittle the experiential and the need for meaning, but Sheleg's descriptions of the workshops and the spirituality circles, his descriptions of group dynamics and of classes for those seeking a personal connection to Judaism, made me long for something I would call the good old Lithuanian brand of Jewry. How I long for solemn talmidei hakhamim, immersed in a Talmudic issue, their bent backs turned against the Hasidic tumult erupting from the street and their inflamed eyes returning to the yellowing page in the dim light. And so, "When does one begin to add the prayer for rain? Rabbi Eliezer says, from the first day of the festival [of Sukkot], Rabbi Yehoshua says, from the last day of the festival."

Dr. Hagai Dagan is the head of the department of Jewish thought at Sapir Academic College.