May 15, 2008
The country’s most formidable challenge? Welding its dual identities
Israeli Heart, Jewish Soul
(Page 2 - Previous Page)Religious anomie and polarization are rife in Israel, yet the state is today poised for a historic change. In secular betei midrash (houses of Jewish study) and in programs for instilling Jewish values in IDF officers, nonreligious Israelis are reclaiming Judaism from the ultra-Orthodox and ultra-nationalistic monopoly and rediscovering their Jewish roots. The post-army encounter of many young Israelis with the spirituality of India and the Far East has spurred them to explore their own heritage at home. One only has to listen to the innovative music of Shotei Hanevua (The Fools of Prophecy) inspired by the Zohar or the biblically influenced lyrics of the incomparable Banai singers (Ehud, Meir and Eviatar) to know that Judaism is once again a source for Israeli creativity.
Much is still to be done, however. Serious efforts must be mounted to loosen the Chief Rabbinate's stranglehold over personal affairs -- marriage, divorce and burial -- to rid the kashrut system of corruption and reform the conversion process. Major resources must be invested in facilitating dialogue between Israeli Jews from various religious backgrounds as well as between Israeli and Diaspora youth. The Taglit-Birthright Israel program that has strengthened Jewish identity worldwide by bringing nearly 160,000 young Jews to Israel should be expanded to enable more Israelis to experience different forms of Jewish spirituality in America and elsewhere. National priority must be given to convincing all of Israel's citizens that the state can be made more Jewish without rendering it less Israeli.
In its 60 years of existence, Israel has succeeded in surmounting immeasurable obstacles and galvanizing a nation. But it still faces the most formidable challenge: welding its identities as an Israeli and a Jewish state. The goal is to create an Israel where young kibbutzniks watching a newly arrived American Jew unpack his tallit will not laugh but rather remark, "Sababa" -- cool -- "Want to see ours?"
Michael Oren is the author, most recently, of "Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present" (W.W. Norton, 2007). This essay originally appeared in The Jewish Week, and is reprinted with permission.
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