Enforcing Orthodoxy on Yom Kippur

The decision to close the beaches of Lake Kinneret marks yet another milestone in the slope down which secular Israel is sliding

People gather along the shore of Lake Kinneret in northern Israel, August 30, 2018.

More so than any other feeling, a sense of sadness overcame me when I read that the beaches of Lake Kinneret would be closed on Yom Kippur because of what is termed “public sensitivity.” This decision marks yet another milestone in the slope down which secular Israel is sliding. Secular Israel, that of our childhood, the one we remember from before the messianic-religious disaster we’ve been living since the Six Day War.

Some Israelis saw the victory in that war as a sign from the Jewish God that his worshippers can run wild, as long as they stop occasionally to purify themselves in that spirit of sanctimoniousness that often accompanies wrongdoing. This sense of sanctioned unruliness, which may have been hesitant at first, has intensified over the years as a sense of impunity did as well, and as those who felt it acted without legal or religious retribution.

>>Keep Lake Kinneret open on Yom Kippur | Editorial 

In kibbutzim belonging to the left-wing Hashomer Hatzair movement, Yom Kippur was for many years treated as an ordinary day. On that day, kibbutz members got up and went to work, went to the communal dining hall and the pool. The only thing that differentiated it from other days was that the radio fell silent, and that was not hard to overcome.

The kibbutz movement, which presented secular cultural alternatives to religion, with its modified Passover Haggadah and harvest festivals on Shavuot that attracted people from across the country, decided to ignore Yom Kippur. Kibbutz members viewed themselves as reformers of the world, and they apparently believed that every day is a day worthy of atonement, reflection and making amends, and rejected the idea that there is one focused day for atoning for one’s sins.

I was born and raised on such a kibbutz and had no idea that there was a Yom Kippur out there until one day, in 1968, when my parents left the kibbutz and we moved to Jerusalem. It was no longer possible to hide the facts of life from me and my mother explained that Yom Kippur was a day on which you didn’t go to school or work, and that some people fast and go to synagogue. But in those distant days it was still possible to cook or listen to music at home, at least.

FILE Photo: Graduates of Hashomer Hatzair summer camp on Lake Kinneret.
Moshe Milner

To this day, I must confess, I regard this day with some bewilderment. On the one hand, it evokes no special feelings in me; I see it as a man-made invention, perhaps more so than other religious constructs. On the few occasions I was out of Israel on that day I felt a sense of relief, seeing for myself that it was a day like any other, not a day of awe or dread. On the other hand, in Israel an ever-tightening noose is slipped round the neck of secular people, and on this day it’s particularly tight.

Anyone daring to drive a car on this day will be perceived as someone offending their neighbors’ feelings, and cooking or turning on music in your own home is frowned upon. A deathly silence falls over Jewish Israel and people who have nothing to do with religion stand still on this day, embracing the idea of a note-keeping, divinity flipping through accounting pages while deciding who lives and who dies, who by fire, who by water, who by sword and who by wild beasts. How did Yom Kippur attain this status? I think that the Yom Kippur War greatly enhanced its stature since some people believe that the fact it broke out on that day of all days was a sign from God.

Over the years, the status of this day has become increasingly elevated; the closure of beaches along the Kinneret is one more step on the road to turning Israel into a theocracy. Israel is sliding down this slippery slope under the guidance not only of ultra-Orthodox rabbis but also of people who might appear semi-secular, such as Education Minister Naftali Bennett, whose tiny kippa is inversely related to the fundamentalist abyss towards which he is pulling us. Why close these beaches? Who do the people swimming there bother? The fish? However, the bon ton these days is a tone that espouses a different agenda.

In the Israel I dream of, the public sphere will be filled with life 365 days a year, and businesses will remain open unless their owners choose to close them. Public transportation will run and anyone wishing not to work on a certain day will have to coordinate this in advance with their supervisors. In that kind of Israel, Yom Kippur will be a day that can be observed by those who wish but, no less important, the beliefs of people not wishing to do so will also be respected.

These days, Yom Kippur is a terrible day indeed – not because of a divine edict but because of the attempts of a messianic orthodoxy to impose the manner in which this day is observed on the entire public sphere. In my dream country, this will come to an end.