Studying Torah for the Hell of It

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The secular Jewish community in Jerusalem scored two major victories last year. The first was the inauguration of the “First Station,” on the site of Jerusalem’s Ottoman-era train station, which originally opened in 1892. The new complex, which contains restaurants and coffee shops that are open seven days a week, attracts large crowds of secular Jews all week, including on the Sabbath. The victory was quickly celebrated with a special event: a mass Friday evening service conducted at the complex by the Conservative Movement (called Masorti in Israel) and various secular organizations; the service became a Friday night tradition last summer.

The second victory was the cancellation of a plan to establish a group of Haredi (ultra-Orthodox Jewish) preschools in the very heart of Jerusalem’s Kiryat Hayovel neighborhood. In their place, a yeshiva has been founded – a secular yeshiva.

Those who are familiar with the overall mood in Israel’s capital were not surprised by the fact that the apparent victories of secular Jews were immediately translated into non-secular events. In recent years, Jerusalem has become fertile ground for the flourishing of grassroots projects and activities focused on the study of Judaism, but without assumption of an Orthodox Jewish lifestyle. In a city where the stormiest battles are waged between secular and Haredi Jews, we are witnessing a reconciliation between solidly Jewish subjects and Jews who define themselves as secular Jews. Today, it is apparent that this grassroots trend is growing stronger, without the presence of any state agency, such as the Religious Services Ministry’s new Jewish Identity Administration, and without any connection with Orthodox Jewish organizations dedicated to bringing Jews back to their Jewish roots.

The first stage was cultural and academic interest in the Jewish bookshelf. After two decades of this secular Jewish renaissance, the message seems to have expanded way beyond Jerusalem’s outskirts and established itself not only in the vicinity of Tel Aviv's Central Bus Station, in the form of a secular yeshiva, but also in study groups using the same model in Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

The time has now come for the next stage, in which Jews who define themselves as secular are sticking fast to their secular guns while seeking to study Jewish religious praxis.

For instance, a new initiative was recently launched in Jerusalem: the Unwritten Choreography of Synagogues project, which seeks to study the mysteries (for many secular Jews) of both the synagogue and Jewish liturgy. The participants in the group, led by journalist Jackie Levy, spend several weeks learning how to conduct themselves in the synagogue during prayer services: how to find the right page in the prayer book, at what stage to stand up or sit down, etc. Registration for this experimental group opened and then quickly closed, due to the large number of registered participants.

One of the most prominent secular Jewish organizations in Jerusalem, Ruach Hadasha (New Spirit), a civil movement promoting student life in Jerusalem, is behind this innovative project. “One of the substantive reasons for our generation’s disengagement from the state and from its need to be a part of the Jewish people is a feeling of awkwardness; every framework that seeks to link Jews to this place is driven by a desire to turn secular Jews into Orthodox Jews,” explains Ruach Hadasha CEO Elisheva Mazya.

A symbolic picture from this past year in Jerusalem shows Michal Rosin and Tamar Zandberg, Knesset members from the Meretz party, wrapped in prayer shawls (talitot) in support of the Women of the Wall. The latter is a pluralistic group that has been at the forefront of the battle to wrest control of the Western Wall from the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community. Was the appearance of these two MKs simply a political act against Haredi control of the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem or did it have something to do with how they perceive their own Jewish identity? Is the Meretz party, which is dedicated to fighting for human rights, now engaged in the fight for the right of Jews to seek contact with God in whatever manner they choose?

In the case of Rosin, her decision to don a prayer shawl was directly connected with her interest in matters involving secular Jewish identity. She has done a good deal of soul-searching about her party’s position on Jewish tradition and concluded, for instance, that Meretz’s automatic hostility toward Haredi parties is no longer relevant.

“Israeli society in general,” she points out, “has undergone an evolutionary change and Meretz has also updated its software. This is no longer the Meretz party of yore or Shinui, which broke away from us over the Haredi issue. Over the years, Meretz has been conducting a dialogue with the Haredi and the Modern Orthodox Jewish communities in Israel solely over social matters and I think it is high time we should also begin to speak with these communities about Jewish matters. We are still not doing that. This is a problematic subject, because we are surrounded by a racist, chauvinistic, discriminatory society and the Jewish issue is automatically perceived as something that divides and discriminates against, something that is problematic. I think that we must find the right way to approach this matter. We are connected to the Jewish people, we feel that we are Jews, we are a Zionist political party that believes in a state that has a Jewish majority and in which all its citizens are equal. We must now find the place where we can feel confident enough to link up to these subjects.”

Rosin is unhappy with the reaction of some Jewish members of Knesset, secular and religious alike, who have openly said to her or have said behind her back that there is a conflict between her membership in Meretz, which champions secularism, and her decision to don a prayer shawl. “I have every right,” she states emphatically, “to know more about and to learn more about Judaism and I have every right to pray and to wear a prayer shawl because I am Jewish. This is my right and no one can tell me that, just because I am a secular Jew and I do not observe kashrut [Jewish dietary laws] or the Sabbath, it is forbidden for me to wrap myself in a prayer shawl. No one can make such decisions for me.” Rosin dreams of a reality in which the religious council in her city, Petah Tikva, will fund on an egalitarian basis both Orthodox and secular synagogues. She insists in using the term “secular synagogue” to refer to a community center.

Two opposing trends

Secular Judaism has undergone many metamorphoses, from the time of Micha Yosef Berdichevsky, A.D. Gordon and Haim Nahman Bialik to the heyday of the kibbutzim and the “Sabbath struggles” of the Ratz political party, and on to the present period in which the old distinctions between secular and religious Jews have become obsolete in many spheres of life, including education and politics.

Today, observant Jews occupy senior positions in all of Israel’s supposedly “secular” political parties, and in Jerusalem some of the leaders of the “secular” struggle are Modern Orthodox Jews or graduates of Reform or Conservative rabbinical seminaries.

From the secular Jewish standpoint, it is obvious that something new is happening, with learning sessions using aggadic midrashim provided by MK Ruth Calderon (Yesh Atid) being only one of a number of innovations. In many communities, including Jerusalem, young secular Jews are abandoning the norms that were accepted by their secular parents and are choosing, for example, not to circumcise their infant sons or to skip what were once regarded as major rites of passage, such as Bar/Bat-Mitzvah celebrations and weddings. Although these two diametrically opposed trends are developing simultaneously, it is clear that something very serious is happening in Israel’s secular Jewish community.

Is the blanket declaration, “I am a secular Jew,” still valid today? Justice Minister and leader of the Hatnuah party, Tzipi Livni, recently opened her remarks at a session of the Religion and State Caucus in the Knesset with a proclamation that almost sounded like an apology: “I know that people look at me and that some of them openly come out with the statement that I am a secular Jew from north Tel Aviv. Well, I’m not. Plain and simple, I’m not. It sounds absurd, but I grew up in a family that defined itself as Orthodox but which chose what commandments it wanted to observe… Even today, I go to synagogue – yes, from time to time, I go to synagogue. When I do so, I wear a head-covering and a skirt and I meekly sit behind the partition [that separates men and women]. But this is something that I have imposed upon myself.”

Professor of Linguistics Uzzi Ornan, a prominent representative of the radical wing of Israel’s secular Jewish camp, was unsuccessful in his recent petition to the Supreme Court to have the word “Jew” in his identity card replaced by “Israeli.” He is enraged by the Jewish renaissance movement and regards it as nothing more than flattery and subservience vis-à-vis Judaism. “When secular Jews study any kind of religious text, they should be doing it from an anthropological perspective. However, when they say, ‘This belongs to me and I must study it,’ this is not pure academic interest; it is simply a surrender to religion. They are actually saying that their biological roots are of supreme importance; however, our roots are grounded more solidly in the French Revolution than in the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.”

“When movie theaters in Petah Tikva began to open on the Sabbath,” he continues. “Uri Zohar [a secular Jew who was a prominent figure in the Israeli entertainment industry and who has become an Orthodox Jew] stood on the steps of the movie theaters and screamed out to one of the movie-goers, ‘What would your grandfather have said?’ Well, I counter with ‘What difference does it make what your grandfather might have said?’ In the early days of the Zionist settlement in this land, the Jews who came here did not want to do what their fathers had done and that is why they endlessly made innovations. The essence of the early Zionist settlement in this land was rebellion against religion, the principle that we must be a nation like any other nation. What has remained today of all that?”

A different viewpoint is expressed by Yair Tzaban, a former cabinet minister and a member of the Mapam and Meretz parties. He is critical of secular Jewish culture, which “should neither apologize nor bow down,” while not being prepared to relinquish his extended bookshelf. He protests against the dichotomy that has been created in Israel between Judaism and secularism. “We now have a situation in which, if you want to study Judaism, that means that you are giving up something of your secularism,” says Tzaban. “I see today two diametrically opposed phenomena. On one hand, Israeli secularism has made significant gains in the arena of resistance to religious coercion, while, on the other hand, secular awareness is beating a retreat. Today fewer Israelis identify their secularism with a comprehensive view of Jewish identity. There seems to be some embarrassment in the very use of the term ‘secular.’ It is as if secular Jews come from the sandy ground, from the earth. [The Hebrew word hol means both “secular or weekday” and “sand.”] ‘Secular’ is a legitimate term.”

A few years ago, Tzaban was asked to appear for an interview on the “Beit Midrash Leili (Nighttime Center of Sacred Jewish Studies)” program, broadcast on one of the Israel Broadcasting Authority’s radio stations, Reshet Bet. “The interviewer, Yair Caspi,” recalls Tzaban, “sent me a few midrashic passages. I said to him, ‘I want to tell you about my bookshelf. No matter how low I looked, I could not find anything about circumcision, which is not just a Jewish practice. The bookshelf of modern Jews must contain ancient literature of all the various ages, modern Hebrew literature and the best of the world’s classics. In my view, this is a complete bookshelf.’ I do not accept the various terms that make a laughingstock of secularism, such as secular rabbi, secular school of religious thought, etc. These are authentic religious terms and I do not think that it is possible to adopt them for use by secular Jews.”

“Secularism is still the basic self-definition for millions of Israelis,” says Ariel Levinson, founder and co-director of the Jerusalem Secular Yeshiva, which is part of the BINA Secular Yeshiva organization and is a leading institution in the Jewish renaissance movement. “What has happened in places like Jerusalem is that the dichotomy between religious and secular Jew has become blurred. Secularism is now in crisis, because it defines itself in negative terms: ‘I don’t believe and I don’t observe Judaism’s commandments.’ That is why people feel a little embarrassed when they refer to themselves today as secular Jews.”

We met Tomer Persico, a scholar of religion, at the end of a class on Jewish mysticism at the secular yeshiva in Jerusalem’s Ein Karem neighborhood. “Secular Jewish studies are not a surrender to religion,” he argues. “Quite the contrary, in my opinion. It is in fact a re-appropriation of cultural treasures and tradition. We feel at home relating to them. We have not opened a yeshiva for the purpose of turning secular Jews into Orthodox Jews.”

A religious man and secular woman in Jerusalem. Will she get the drift? Credit: Tess Scheflan

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