Free at Last?

Most of the people who work in my office in Jerusalem are in their 20s and 30s. One grew up in a chassidic family with a father like Itcha Meir and is writing a book on haredi sociology and ideology, but he self-defines as non-religious and is sitting here in shorts and sandals. Another is a dayan (religious court judge) writing a doctoral thesis on theocracy. One woman grew up in a non-observant family and was active in the peace movement and is now religiously observant and an expert on and sympathizer with the hard-core of the settlement movement. Another fellow was raised in a secular-Zionist family with a mom like Adi and still self-defines as non-religious, but he davens with a minyan every day and observes Shabbat. Another is scrupulously religious, but refuses to wear a kipa. Another was raised Litvish-yeshivish, but now self-defines as national-religious and is beginning an academic career. One is a product of mamlachti religious Zionism with a dad like Bentzi, but is now a gung-ho evangelist for full-throated capitalism. Another just completed a thesis on the phenomenon of non-religious Israeli celebrities, mostly artists and musicians, who are now loosely connected to various Jewish spiritual groups, most prominently Breslav, and are observant in a variety of idiosyncratic ways, but refuse to self-define as religious or non-religious.

You might find any one of these life choices admirable or lamentable, but that’s not the point. The phenomenon is interesting in aggregate. There seems to be a great deal of fluidity here and the fluidity is strangely painless. These people are at peace with themselves and with each other. What’s this all about?

We’ve grown so accustomed to the centrality of signaling to Judaism that we can hardly imagine what Judaism would be like with less of it. We wear shtreimlech or hats or kipot of a certain color or none of the above, we daven in this shul but never in that shul, we use the right dialect of Yinglish and the appropriate accent, we eat here but not there, we flaunt our very special family minhagim, we bagel, we batel, we battle. We are so used to Judaism being spoken like a second language that we are perplexed when we see the early signs of the return of Judaism as a first language.

Young Israelis like the men and women in my office and the sons and daughters of Itcha Meir, Bentzi and Adi, aspire for Judaism to be a culture, not a counter-culture. They don’t need to prove that they’re not assimilating; there aren’t enough goyim here to assimilate into (which is why Itcha Meir, unlike his kids, needs to imagine Zionists as goyim just to keep his shtick going). They are sick of wasting energy on broadcasting their loyalty to this box and not that box. That mix-and-match of modes of dress, ideology and practices that seem incongruous to old fogies and diaspora Jews are simply inchoate attempts at breaking down the boxes and separating the signals from the substance.

Adi, Bentzi and Itcha Meir and their friends are the last of the ideological dinosaurs. The generation after them is looking for some form of authentic Judaism rich enough, substantial enough, realistic enough to serve as a national culture and not merely as a counter-culture sufficient to sustain a minority. This will happen slowly and from the bottom up. In the meantime, there are some small tentative steps in interesting directions. Galgalatz, the radio station that determines Israel’s Top 40 hits, includes in its playlist songs that might be sung as zemiros at the Shabbes table. Literary awards go to books that straddle the boundary between secular and religious literature in Agnonesque fashion. Zefat and Jerusalem are flush with galleries purveying serious (and not serious) art with profounder Jewish content than Chagall.

The much bigger question is what is happening with halacha? Halacha can’t and shouldn’t change dramatically and quickly for all the reasons I explained much earlier in this series. But there is a qualitative difference between, for example, Jewish agricultural law – sabbatical years, farming charity, etc. – as a series of largely ceremonial obstacles that need to be circumvented, steamrolled or dumped in somebody else’s backyard and those same laws adapted to modern circumstances in a way that honors their purpose and intent. There is a difference between Shabbat as a personal observance and Shabbat as a communal and even national day of rest, prayer and study. There are many more mitzvot that take on new meaning when they are observed by an entire society and not just a select minority. How will these evolve?

It’s too soon to say. As Itcha Meir’s kids and Bentzi’s kids and Adi’s kids find more common ground in their diverse paths towards some authentic form of national Judaism, things will begin to ferment. Remember, I’m not talking about the likes of Heidi or Ben bending Jewish observance to reconcile it with a dominant outside culture that they have internalized or aspire to internalize, but rather Jews in a Jewish state seeking to live Jewish lives. This much I know: as Israelis from diverse backgrounds begin to speak the language of halacha more fluently and as they continue to speak to each other, their halacha will become more like Shimen’s: balanced across the moral flavors, less focused on signaling, fluid as the Oral Law is meant to be, and less uptight and anxious than halacha becomes when under constant threat. In some ways, it will assume qualities beyond Shimen’s halacha: it will be more meaningful than symbolic, it will be normal rather than defiant, and it will be less baroque and esoteric.

This last point bears explanation. In the normal course of events, languages become more complex with the natural accretion of increasingly nuanced grammatical rules and oddities; in this sense, halacha is no exception. Moreover, when halacha is observed by a select minority and the study of Torah is left to an even more select minority, it is sometimes made deliberately opaque to keep impostors from meddling. But, when languages are adopted by many non-native speakers or when speakers of different dialects are suddenly thrown together, an opposite process takes place and the language’s grammar is simplified; this already happened with the transition of biblical Hebrew to the simpler modern Hebrew we now speak. It is likely that a similar process will take place with halacha: as many come closer to tradition and as the integration of communities from different diasporas accelerates, we will see a greater focus on principles common to diverse Jewish communities at the expense of marginalia specific to certain communities or to aficionados of esoterica.

This has all been made possible by the ingathering of exiles in a Jewish state. It took several generations, but the freedom and purpose that Israel has provided the Jews is finally resulting in a generation of young people who not only have a sense of mission and responsibility, a strong desire for self-sufficiency, and confidence in themselves and in each other, but also a realistic assessment of what is achievable and what is utopian and a thirst for authentic Judaism that can serve as a foundation for personal, communal and national life. In short, Israel’s success is the precise opposite of what many of its founders saw as its purpose. Instead of overcoming Jewish tradition, it has facilitated a return to it; instead of replacing Jewish communities with the state, it has given those communities the space to flourish and to influence each other.

To complete this process, Israel needs to give its citizens freedom not only from enemies and hostile cultures, but from their own government. Education in Israel would be better and more balanced if bureaucrats would let schools choose curricula and parents choose schools; communities would be more connected to religion if bureaucrats let communities appoint (or not appoint) rabbis and run their own religious services; we’d all be more equal if the state didn’t sponsor academic and judicial juntas that enforce their own self-serving versions of equality. The Zionist notion that the big state will guide its citizens to the ideal balance of Jewishness and democracy has it exactly backwards; it is the little “night watchman” state that seeks to do no more than keep us safe – or rather that serves as the framework within which we keep each other safe – that will create the opportunity for us to figure it all out for ourselves very slowly and very surely.

Some ideologues still think that we are on the verge of messianic times and it’s our duty to restore the top-down control of society by a revived Sanhedrin or Politburo or Council of Sages. But they are all mistaken. The rabbis say that the messianic era will be distinguished only by freedom from political subjugation (BT Shabbat 63a) and that mashiach is one of those things (along with scorpion bites and windfalls) that come only behesach hadaat, when we are least expecting them (BT Sanhedrin 97a). The redemption of the Jewish people will not be bestowed by the state; rather, it will be the result of slow evolution from the bottom up, as healthy Jewish instincts under conditions of freedom are gradually made manifest in the public sphere. If the state and all the determined do-gooders just leave us alone, one day, when we are least expecting it, we might just look around and think to ourselves: you know what, here we are, free Jews living in a Jewish country, building it and sustaining it, learning Torah and mostly living by its commandments, raising proud and non-neurotic Jewish kids. Free at last. Free at last. Thank God Almighty, we’re free at last.

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One more post to go.

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5 thoughts on “Free at Last?

  1. Not sure if this will be your last post, but is there ANY hope for those of in chutz la’aretz who can’t, for whatever reason, make aliyah? Because thus far in this whole series, Shimen’s is the only Judaism that I find remotely possible or desirable in my life and that, as you say, isn’t around any more.

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  2. Luftmentsch, I feel your pain. All I can say is במקום שאין איש תהיה אתה איש. Or in the galitzyaner version, במקום שאין איש איז א הערינג אויך א פיש.

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  3. We pray three times a day for the restoration of the Sanhedrin. Today almost everyone bows down to the the Bagatz. Perhaps it will morph into a Sanhedrin.

    In any case, we have no right to do nothing. With that attitude we would not even have a state.

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  4. I’m a Gentile Christian and find this trend among young Israelis to be fascinating. Yes, it took a state, and it also took a few generations. Here in the U. S. (and in all Western countries) there is such a different milieu among the Jewish community. It’s an awesome phenomenon.

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