November 17, 2013
Secular Israelis are Studying Judaism by the Thousands – Israel Report XII
A new kind of Judaism is developing in Israel. Thousands of secular Israelis are turning to the classic sources of Judaism (e.g. Torah, Midrash, Mishnah, Talmud, Codes, Jewish philosophy, ethics, and mysticism) to gain deeper insight, wisdom and knowledge about our people’s essence and roots, and they are learning these texts not from Orthodox rabbis but from secular teachers.
What is emerging is a way of being a modern Israeli Jew that is more than the secular Zionism that emphasized the centrality of the land, the Hebrew language and political sovereignty, and which has nothing to do with the religious Orthodoxy that has alienated the vast majority of Israelis. It is a return, in part, to the Cultural Zionism of Ahad Ha-am that sought to inspire the flourishing of the soul of Judaism and Jewish peoplehood, but with a modern contemporary emphasis.
My synagogue group visited one of the centers of secular Jewish learning called BINA, also known as “The Secular Yeshiva,” located in the Neve Sha’anan district of Tel Aviv. As we entered we saw bookshelves filled with rows of beautifully bound religious books. That, however, is where the similarity with an orthodox yeshiva ends.
Most BINA students don’t believe in God, don’t wear kippot, tallitot, tzitzit, nor keep kosher. Women and men learn together, dress in shorts, jeans, tee-shirts, halter-tops, and sandals, and come from every segment of Israeli society and world Jewish communities.
BINA was founded by scholars from the kibbutz movement in the wake of PM Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination. They pondered how a “religious” yeshiva student could murder the Prime Minister of Israel, and they determined to provide an alternative Jewish environment to attract young Israelis to learn about Judaism, counteract the extremism of the religious right, and close the gap between Israeli Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews.
BINA volunteers spend many hours weekly helping the poor, children, the elderly, infirm, disabled, foreign workers, and migrants. The center is deliberately located in a depressed area of Tel Aviv so its students can work towards tikun olam (“restoration of the world”) as an integrated component of their learning.
A week before coming to Israel, I attended the annual conference of J Street in Washington, D.C., (J Street is a pro-Israel pro-peace American political movement supporting a two-states for two-peoples end-of-conflict agreement between Israel and the Palestinians) and was fortunate to join a small group of J Street leaders for dinner with Ruth Calderon, a new Yesh Atid MK, who had addressed our conference.
Ruth is an Israeli academic turned politician with a Hebrew University PhD in Talmud. In 1989, she established the first Israeli secular, pluralistic and egalitarian Beit Midrash for women and men. In 1996, she founded ALMA which brings secular Israelis to study Hebrew culture. She became famous when she hosted a television program on Channel 2 that discussed classic Jewish texts.
Ruth’s first appearance in the Knesset (January, 2013), where she introduced herself to her colleagues, took Israel by storm. It is considered the most unusual speech ever delivered by a new MK. Her 14 minute address went viral on Youtube with hundreds of thousands of views (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S8nNpTf7tNo).
In that talk Ruth told her story, how she fell in love with Talmud, and that it is impossible to know one’s future without knowing one’s roots. She spoke about the importance in Jewish tradition of open and honest debate, of nurturing the values of inclusivity, diversity and tolerance in Israeli life, and that the state of Israel ought to provide equally of its resources to all religious streams and educational endeavors; not just the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox communities.
In addition to BINA and ALMA, the Israeli Reform movement (i.e. “Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism - IMPJ”) has grown in recent years attracting thousands of Israelis from secular backgrounds to practice liberal religious Judaism.
The IMPJ includes nearly 50 synagogue centers throughout the country, with adult learning led by Israeli Reform rabbis and scholars, a system of schools and a youth movement, summer camps, pre-army mechinot, kibbutzim, and social justice projects addressing poverty, hunger, immigration, foreign workers, women’s rights, homosexual rights, racism, the environment, and religious pluralism.
According to recent polls 34% of Israelis now identify with the Reform movement, whereas only 23% identify as Orthodox.
BINA, Ruth Calderon and ALMA, the Israeli Reform Movement (IMPJ and IRAC), and other grass-roots efforts are transforming Israeli Jewish identity thus bringing hope for a more enriched, open, pluralistic, and democratic Jewish State.