These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

At a Crossroad, Where do You Turn?

Posted on December 18, 2013 by Emma Sevitz

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From my blog:

Sarah Casey PollackI find it fascinating how quickly our lives can change, often times without us even realizing it. On top of that, how quickly we can change the lives of others, of future generations, surely without them realizing it.

It’s a rainy day outside, so you take the bus to work instead of walking. You decide to go out to lunch instead of packing one from home. You’re stuck in traffic and don’t make your flight. You decide to move to a new country and become a part of a social movement. You decide to sell your brother into slavery in Egypt.

All of these decisions and actions are a part of a cosmic web of all of the people surrounding us and all of the decisions they make. It’s like one of those mazes where you can choose which way the ball will fall and which hole you’re going to drop the ball in only, at any given moment, someone else can come along and change your chosen trajectory of the ball.

Every Tuesday, Pardes has what they call a Critical Issues Speaker ranging from our Rosh Yeshiva to an actress to Dr. Micah Goodman. Dr. Goodman directs the Ein Prat Academy for Leadership, a nonprofit that works to fulfill Israel’s promise by inspiring thousands of young adults from across the religious spectrum through Jewish-Zionist education and leadership training. He also serves as a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and teaches in the Tikvah Project at Princeton University. The topic of Dr. Goodman’s talk was “Current Crossroads in Israeli Jewish Identity.”

He started right before 1948, at the foundation of The State of Israel, explaining the stereotypical Zionist. In the mid-1900s, the Jew had been depicted as ugly, weak, afraid, unable to defend himself, religious, nerdy, intellectual, controlled by the goy and controlled by G-d. That was the Jew that Zionists didn’t want to be. They wanted to be strong, free, not controlled by anything. They wanted a connection to a land, they wanted to work for the things that they had. Not only did Zionists want to create a State that didn’t exist, they wanted to create a Jew that didn’t exist. While Anti-Semites attributed the characteristics of the Jew to genetics, Zionists blamed the stereotype on surroundings, which could be cured. Cured by relocating to Israel. If we move to Israel, work the land, hold guns, and join the army, we can shake off the galut, the exile.

This created the Kibbutznik mentality, an attitude totally in opposition to being controlled and maybe even manners. I’m in charge of my life. There is no authority besides me. No goy to control me. No G-d to control me. I don’t have to follow social norms, I can be honest and free. Now the word to describe someone who is secular is hiloni, possibly coming from the root ח.ל.ל meaning empty, or not holy. However, in the past, secular Jews in Israel were referred to as hofshi, free. Free from all of those things that the galut Jew was running from, free from authority.

Any Jew can tell you that a large aspect of Judaism is about authority – G-d’s sovereignty over the world, Rabbinic sovereignty over communities, Jewish Law’s sovereignty over our actions. Is it possible to maintain a relationship with Judaism while completely rejecting authority?  Ahad Ha’am, a writer, poet and essayist writing in Pre-State Zionism, known as the founder of cultural Judaism, thought that it was completely possible. He reorganized his perspective and encouraged people to see Judaism not as a source of authority, but a source of inspiration. Ahad Ha’am pushed for the revitalization of the Hebrew language and Jewish culture so that there would be a Jewish state and not just a state of Jews.

In opposition, was Micha Josef Berdyczewski. According to Wikipedia, Berdyczewsky was a ”Ukrainian-born writer of Hebrew, a journalist, and a scholar. He appealed for the Jews to change their way of thinking, freeing themselves from dogmas ruling the Jewish religion, tradition and history.” For Berdyczewsky, Judaism was black and white. His thoughts were that, if I can’t have traditional Judaism, I can’t have anything and, at this point, I can’t have traditional Judaism. He felt strongly that Judaism was no longer applicable to the lives of Jews and that tradition couldn’t be liberated to become applicable. That form of Judaism belongs to someone else and, therefore, it can’t also be mine. Unfortunately, this is the secular Judaism that won out amongst the initial Zionists.

Today, as Dr. Goodman so accurately stated, most secular Jews in Israel have two fears. The first being that the Orthodox will take over their state and the second being that they will feel connections to Judaism that “they’re not supposed to feel.” The first is a brutal attack at the mentality of being in control of your own life – how can that be possible whilst being controlled by the religious? The second, as Herzl wrote about, is the assimilated Jew who not only hid from others the fact that he was Jewish, but also tried to hide the fact from himself. Nonetheless, somewhere deep down inside, he feels a connection to Judaism. The Jew who tries to hide his Judaism from the world, but can’t hide his tears the first time he sees the Kotel. Why am I crying? Why am I feeling like this? This isn’t an emotion that I’m supposed to have.

This secular Jew, this 18, 19, 20 year old is the product of a decision that his parents chose to make many years ago. Sitting in Brooklyn, not identifying with the Eastern European Judaism of their parents and grandparents, they decided to move to Israel and live on a Kibbutz and produce a generation of Jews who feel that Judaism can’t be liberated beyond the confines of tradition.

I couldn’t help but think about the story of the Jewish people in Egypt, which we are reading about this week, a story so central to our tradition, our culture and practices. From the time that we spent in Egypt, we know about our obligation to help the stranger, because we were the stranger. We honor G-d, because “He is the Lord your G-d who took you out of Egypt to be your G-d.” The Torah mentions the exodus from Egypt time and time again. Even the most learned Torah scholar must revisit the fact that G-d took our forefathers out of Egypt and freed us from bondage. The Exodus clearly plays a central role in Judaism. But where did it start? 

A few brothers got a little angry, a little jealous, picked on their brother Joseph and sold him into slavery. Fast forward a little and the Jews were systematically demeaned and enslaved for hundreds of years.

As we see with the Exodus story, spoiler alert, things turn up in the end — we make it out of Egypt, maybe even stronger than we went in. The tragedy of Israeli secularism is that it could have been pluralistic, but only one, negative, opinion won out. The optimism at the end of the story is that there is a shift amongst young Israelis. Israelis are studying at Bina, a secular yeshiva in Tel Aviv, at Yeshivat Talpiyot, a kind of Israeli Pardes in Jerusalem. Mainstream artists are using the Bible as inspiration for their work, using whole phrases in their songs and poems. They’re returning to tradition, but finding their own way to apply it to their lives – being Jewish the way that they choose and accepting the emotions that they feel.

You took the bus because it was raining and you were in a terrible accident that you could have avoided by walking to work. You go out for lunch instead of packing one from home and end up meeting your future husband at the cafe. You sat in traffic and were upset about missing your flight until, while watching the news, you saw your flight crashing into the World Trade Center. You grew up in Israel, resenting Judaism, distancing yourself from tradition, because your parents pushed so hard against the image of the galut Jew. You sold your brother into slavery because you were jealous of his coat and his dreams and the entire Jewish people became slaves in Egypt.

Our lives change with each decision that we make, without us even realizing that it’s happening.