Published in The Jerusalem Post on June 7, 1998
We Israelis live in a veritable whirlpool of counter-currents, whose tides drive us into the unknown future, away from the familiar history, culture and mental life of Jewish generations past.
Consider the following contradictory vignettes. They demonstrate just how confused we are about our identity, yet suggest that Jewish heritage still pulls at our heartstrings.
* Synagogue complex: Tel Aviv University opens a synagogue on its campus, a move opposed by most of the university senate. Unmolified by the fact that the structure was designed with pluralism in mind and a hall devoted to Reform and other non-orthodox worship, students demonstrate against its opening, demanding “academic freedom, not devotion to heaven” and “where’s the mosque and the church?”. The magnificent new Torah scrolls may go dusty, for the synagogue is closed on Shabbat! Go figure.
* Sexual liberation: A Jewish family friend of fifty years sends us a fancy invitation to her daughter’s wedding: “we invite you to share in the joy of the marriage uniting Amelia and Elizabeth….”. A lesbian ‘intermarriage’, first one I’ve ever been invited to. (Not going). Two days later, the transsexual Dana International wins the Eurovision song festival, leading to an outpouring of homosexual pride. Haaretz devotes five full-color pages to happy gay and lesbian couples in bold embraces. Meanwhile, the ultra-Orthodox threaten to block the festivities.
* Tzohar to tradition: At the opposite end of the spectrum, traditional Jewish weddings are regaining popularity, the papers report, thanks to the efforts of “Tzohar”, a group of young orthodox rabbis who have set out to re-teach the relevance of marriage traditions in enlightened fashion.
* ‘Dangerous’ dialogue: The hard-core anti-religious left has come roaring back with a series of bitter attacks on the expanding dynamic of religious-secular dialogue. “Dialogue Means Defeat (of the secular)” was one headline this week. “Studying together the ‘Jewish Bookshelf’ is a dangerous endeavor”, assails Prof. Yehoshua Porat of the Hebrew University. It’s part of the nefarious plan by halachic Jews to conquer “our” state, he warns. As if the mere study of Judaism, no matter how open-minded (such as the ongoing talks between leading Bar-Ilan University intellectuals and artists, authors and leaders of the secular left-wing) is an unforgivable concession to the religious, “their” texts, and their agenda.
* Return of the conversion wars: After a successful Shavuot morning prayer service at the Western Wall, protected by the police, the Conservative movement blows the Neeman Commission out of the water with an appeal to the Supreme Court on conversions. Netanyahu’s government responds by re-introducing the Conversion Law, sugar-coated with Neeman’s already-rejected joint conversion college proposal. Concurrently, Chagai Merom and Yossi Sarid ready to introduce legislation mandating the complete separation of religion from state. And the Reform announce a mass fly-in to lobby and demonstrate.
* Abandoning fidelity: A leading Jewish monthly periodical, * Moment *, flaunts adultery as a legitimate Jewish lifestyle, in a front-cover story. The article features Reconstructionist theologian Arthur Waskow who promotes polycentric marriage (where sexual relations are allowed within a circle of couples that love each other), and radical feminist Judith Plaskow who argues that sexuality in Judaism is part of our spiritual self, not beholden to any one partner. Monogamy, she argues, is an unacceptable form of “possession”. (Thank you * Moment * for these pearls of immorality).
* Spirituality returns: Spirituality and the study of religious texts are making a comeback in other intellectual circles. Meretz sponsors a “spiritual evening of study” on Shavuot eve. Writing in * The New Yorker * on Israel’s fiftieth, David Grossman says that “Israel is the only place in which a Jewish person can live with the vital ingredients of all the generations of Jews that have preceded him….can implement the values and ideals that his culture has crystallized…and realize them in the creation of a new and modern reality…..Living in Israel is, for me, still a spiritual adventure”.
Indeed, modern Israel is an ideological maelstrom, changing in unexpected ways, on a truly spiritual adventure into unknown waters. And through all the noise and skirmishing, the Jewish soul, hungering for heritage, is peeking through.