- David M. Weinberg - https://davidmweinberg.com -

A believing nation

Published in The Jerusalem Post [1] and Israel Hayom [2], June 27, 2014.

Print-friendly copy [3]

Israel is a nation of believers, as shown by the massive outpouring of prayer for the kidnapped boys. But the Israeli secular Left is scared of losing the country to Jewish tradition. It thinks that prayer and faith is “polluting” the public discourse and a threat to “Israeliness.” Oy! 

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As I walked into work yesterday after a two week study trip abroad, a colleague of mine grabbed me to talk about the kidnapped boys: Naftali, Eyal and Gilad. She knew that I live in Nof Ayalon, Naftali Fraenkel’s home neighborhood. Naftali’s parents are my friends.

“The mothers of those three boys are amazing,” she said. “Especially Rachel Fraenkel, who spoke so eloquently and inspiringly at the UN in Geneva this week. It must be easier for them as religious women to handle the situation, since they have faith to rely upon. Oy, sometimes I wish that I had such faith too. I am secular.”

I responded to her philosophically. A world without faith is a harsh and cold world, I said; a world without sustainable hope. Religious people indeed believe that the ultimate reality at the heart of the universe is not blind to our existence, deaf to our prayers, and indifferent to our fate. Faith in G-d’s providence is a central tenet of the Jewish religion; indeed, of all the world’s major religions.

I don’t know that such faith makes the situation any “easier” for the families of the kidnapped boys, I told her, but it certainly provides a framework within which to channel one’s energies, desires, needs and aspirations.

Believers are not blind, and understand that G-d “isn’t our employee” – as Rachel Fraenkel poignantly said this week. But they nevertheless believe that prayer and Torah study, good deeds, and initiatives that promote national unity indeed can have a constructive impact in the Heavens.

“Yeah, but I don’t pray,” my colleague responded. “Alas, I just don’t have that faith.”

I countered: “I bet you have more faith than you credit yourself for. After all, we are a nation of believers. Just about everybody in this country feels part of a grand meta-historic journey. A journey that is connected to spiritual powers and a moral heritage invested in the Jewish People that has sustained us for thousands of years and returned us to the Land of Israel.”

“Of course, not everybody in the country is ‘religious’ in terms of the traditional practice of Judaism. Far from it. But I’m sure that you feel, like me, that there is some guiding hand behind the modern renaissance of Jewish life and peoplehood.”

“Isn’t that why we all participate in the Passover seder; because it encapsulates our faith in Jewish history and destiny? Isn’t that what the State of Israel’s founders meant when they wrote in the Declaration of Independence, ‘With faith in the Rock of Israel…’?”

“Yes, I accept what you’re saying,” admitted my secular colleague. “There is something powerfully evocative and meaningful in Jewish history, and I don’t think that we live here only by chance or on a whim. In any case, I admire the religious families of the kidnapped boys for their faith and noble posture in these terrible days. And perhaps I too will light a candle for their release this Shabbat.”

THIS CONVERSATION, one of many in recent days with Jews of all backgrounds, belies the terrible but wonderful truth that when the chips are down and layers of conflicted contemporary identities are stripped away, we are a nation of believers. In fact, I think that Israel is one of the most religious societies in the modern, Western world.

Just look at all the prayer assemblies in every corner of this country over the past two weeks. Just listen to the pop music lyrics on the mainstream, “secular” radio stations. The songs are replete with words of prayer and spiritual longing.

Just wonder at the multiple acts of “hesed” – lovingkindness and solidarity – undertaken by youth groups and volunteer associations, on behalf and in support of the kidnapped boys: from demonstrations at intersections to distribution of sweets to the soldiers engaged in the rescue hunt. These are religious acts, I say!

Widening the lens a bit, I sense a renaissance of Jewish identity in Israel today. Everywhere you go, everywhere you turn, you sense the growing reconnection of Israelis to their heritage.

On Shavuot night in Tel Aviv, many thousands of Israelis – secular Israelis! – participated in tikkun leil Shavuot assemblies, all-night Torah study sessions. Yes, in Tel Aviv!

There are mass, outdoor Kabbalat Shabbat ceremonies in the hip Tel Aviv Port and Jerusalem Train Station entertainment spaces, every Friday night, attended by hundreds. You feel the spiritual searching underway.

Statistical data published by the Central Bureau of Statistics just before Yom Haatzmaut this year revealed the “religious identity” of Israelis as they define themselves. Twenty percent identified themselves as dati (religious) and haredi (ultra-orthodox). Forty percent of Israelis described themselves as dati-masorti or masorti (religious-traditional or traditional). Forty percent of Israelis declared themselves to be hiloni (secular).

But here is the rub: Eighty percent of hilonim (the secular) also say that they “believe in the G-d of Israel.” Eighty percent! In my view, that means that 80 percent of “secular” Israelis are not truly secular! They believe in the G-d of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. They believe in Divine providence over the Jewish People and a Divine presence in Jewish history!

This means that we are a deeply believing nation.

NOT EVERYBODY is overjoyed by these findings, or with the massive and pervasive public expressions of faith that we have witnessed since the hostage crisis began.

Writing in Haaretz, Uri Misgav bemoaned that the fact that “an increasing number of nonreligious Israelis are being swept into the stream” of obscurantist religious sentiments.

“It’s not just the predictable prayer rallies of the religious settler right wing that bother me,” Misgav complained. “Public figures and media personalities from across the political and theological spectrum are parroting how important it is to pray and how ‘everyone is praying.’ From the Knesset, where on Monday a prayer service featured elected officials reading Psalms and the blowing of a shofar, to Channel 2 television’s morning show, where host Avri Gilad donned a large skullcap and announced a ‘mass prayer’ on television… ‘Israeliness’ is being reshaped to exclude other identities (secular, agnostic, atheist and of course – non-Jewish citizens).”

For the fanatical Misgav and his faith-allergic friends, ‘Israeliness’ with a dose of religious identity is a threat. Israelis who pray in times of crisis are a peril to the national identity.

You sense that the secular Left is scared that it is losing the country to Jewish tradition. Too much prayer and faith is polluting the public discourse….. Oy!

Misgav and his Haaretz colleague Chemi Shalev are additionally tearing their hair out at what they irascibly see as a horrible nexus of faith and right-wing ideology; a “noxious” mix infecting Israeli society. “In the current situation, the prayer appeal is mainly to a very specific God – the God of the settler right wing, which wants to bring the boys home and at the same time to assist the soldiers of God’s army in their holy fight against the Palestinian Amalek,” Misgav expectorates.

Shalev rants about “the fuses that have been lit by true believers.” He defames Israelis as “having grown increasingly insular, indignant and intolerant in recent years; prone to bouts of self-righteousness, blind to Israel’s own transgressions, allergic to dissenting points of view. With each phase of the conflict with the Palestinians, Israelis have gradually grown more nationalistic, more thick-skinned and more unsettled. This kidnapping incident could push them over the edge.”

MISGAV, SHALEV and their agnostic, “enlightened” sort are drowning in their own rancor. They are scared by “true believers”– whether they mean believers in G-d or believers in our rights to the Land of Israel.

What they don’t understand is that “religious” and “believer” need not mean, and generally doesn’t mean, “insular, indignant and intolerant.” Rather it means faithful, contemplative, proud and resilient. It means confident in our rights and trusting in our Creator.

Faith is a healthy state of mind on the personal and national levels. Belief in the Rock of Israel is to our credit and is an overwhelming benefit. It is not a danger.

May G-d and the powers He invests in the Jewish People bring the kidnapped boys home safe and sound, soon.