Sunday, February 24, 2013

More Thoughts From Israel

In a conversation with someone who lives there, they made the observation that for Israelis, religion is a "service industry."  We talked about that for a while.  The point is that for a secular Israeli the times that they come into contact with the religion of Judaism are such occasions as bris, bar mitzvah, marriage, etc.  The Israelis have their real lives but for these moments go to the religious "service industry" for what is required by the ministry of religion.
In our conversation we compared this to owning a car.  We own cars for what we want to do with them-- drive places--but we occasionally have to go for "servicing"--new brakes, oil change etc.
Side note-- I think this is why Israelis are not by and large enraged over the treatment of Women at the Wall.  They view women who want to pray with tallitot, etc. at the Wall as people who want to become part of that weird service industry that is so remote and tangential to their lives and feels alien even during the service interactions.  
Side note 2-One way that Reform and Conservative synagogues seem to become successful here is by taking a market share of the service industry--namely bar  mitzvah.  Then with a small percentage of the bar mitzvah families who become interested they are able to create viable communities.
Seeing this-- I see that American synagogues are also in the service industry--in no way to the same extent as in Israel.  Rabbis in America I think are respected much more than rabbis in Israel.  There is a much greater sense that a synagogue can be relevant and important to a person's life, that Judaism can be learned in an important way-- that there can be creativity and life in the synagogue--etc.
Still we hate the part of us that is viewed as service industry-
1. Why do we hate it?  Why do we care if for some people what we do is the prelim to a party?  Is it because it makes us feel like empty props?   Actors but not real?  It cheapens or mocks the sacred?  I think that is all part of it.  I also think that this is a question that is always worth thinking about...  Why do those of us on the inside of our faith--those of us who cannot imagine our lives without the nourishment that our Judaism provides us, view the religion of Judaism so differently than those on the outside?  What is missing?  Where is the disconnect?

2. I think we have two ways to respond to the "service industry" mentality.
Neither is easy--
A. The really hard one is by making the essences of Judaism self evidently important and sacred to people--  to open up Jewish wisdom, beauty, literature, art, music, spirituality to people--so that the Jewish life is intertwined with their own lives--to make Jewish identity--if you will- a vibrant animating feature of who they are.
This is perhaps the primary long range challenge of non-Orthodox American Judaism-- to create a compelling theology, narrative--a way for Jews to see the Jewish story as that which is a defining strand of their lives.

B.  The second is through relationships-- by creating personal relationships with people we change the nature of the "service industry" service--if you will.  Judaism is based in relationships--the essential Jewish model is the covenantal relationship.  Without relationships we become self obsessed--not healthy in any way. 
Religion in Israel Take 2
So, I was asked to make a presentation to the rabbinical class at HUC in Jerusalem--very nice.  I very briefly prepared a couple of texts--twenty minutes into the presentation I realized that it was going terribly. When I used the term "wissenschaft" to describe one way of analyzing a text and received blank stares in return, I realized that I had not connected with the group in any way.
Time to recalibrate-- so--we ended with a brief discussion on religion in Israel--I floated my theory.  Why don't Conservative and Reform Judaism make it here in any significant way? 
As I have thought about this question while here, I have thought about the role that churches play in America.  Robert Putnam, and so many others, point out that church in America is a place to socialize, make friends--be with people, etc.  In church you are not lonely.  Well---- Israel is the most socially connected place imaginable-- this country is one large tangled, interconnected web.  The thickness of relationships here is simply amazing.  Walk down any street in Tel Aviv--and besides seeing couples in the cafes, you see groups of men--everywhere talking, shmoozing, interacting.  Women are in groups also--but it is not as prevalent (why?).  Men have self formed social clubs: army buddies that they keep forever; high school friends stay friends forever.  There is a wonderful sense of camaraderie all across the country.  Our non-Orthodox congregations in Israel provide this social center place for the anglo-olim.  The natives don't need it.
No one in Israel needs a synagogue to be a place where one can exercise the Jewish part of oneself-- that happens by breathing the air and speaking the language.
As far as the synagogue being a place where people find purpose and meaning in their lives-- again -- Israel is a place filled with purpose and meaning.  The country wouldn't last without it.  I think that modern religion can make it in Israel-- the trick is to find a way to connect Judaism with the ethic of the country-- Zionism. 

Next Post--A Friday Night
Last night we had a typical Israel experience.  We went at 10:00 at night to an enormous restaurant in the area of the old Tel Aviv port to what might be called an Israel song fest.  Now--please keep in mind as you read this, that for Israel this was nothing special--these kinds of events happen weekly all over the country.  They are part of the culture--like going to a baseball game in America.
We entered a huge restaurant that had a tent next to it for expansion--the room filled up with hundreds of people-- we ordered food etc.  The singing began-- for over three hours--old songs of the yishuv, Purim songs, Israeli folk songs, psalm texts-- all Hebrew songs.  I knew maybe one-third.  They were songs expressing a love of the land of Israel--songs of the Jewish people-- the music was led by a performing artist-- Gabby Berlin--with a small support band.  He invited others to come join him on the stage, other known (and unknown) folk singers in the crowd.  EVERYONE IN THE CROWD WAS SINGING AND DANCING THE ENTIRE EVENING WITH GUSTO AND JOY.  It was beautiful.  They knew all of the songs--it was an amazing, warm, engaging experience--fun, exciting--simple joy of being alive and living in Israel--a land you love--a land whose history is your history and whose story you embrace. 
Academics might call this an example of Israel civil religion--I don't need anything so fancy--it was Israel culture celebrating, life, family country, land, friendship.  I loved it.  I want if for America.
So the singing went on for over THREE HOURS.  Louise and I left at about 1:20 A.M.  It was just about finished.
Israelis have a thick culture of love of country, devotion to each other.  THEY HAVE A NARRATIVE--A STORY and they sing and celebrate it all of the time.  Contrast this with an American baseball game where most people don't even sing the Star Spangled Banner before the game but stand there embarrassed and awkward. 
They have a story-- we in America have lost touch with our story and as American Jews--it is even more complicated.
This connection to land and people is so energizing and beautiful.  Without it, they could not send their sons and daughters to the army.  Israelis as a society simply seem to know what they are about in a way that seems so lacking in America.  On this--earlier in the week we spent time with another friend who  told us about his son's great disappointment that his asthma prevented him for serving in a combat unit in the army, but had been assigned to intelligence instead.  The son tried to appeal.  The father also felt some disappointment-saying something like "I understand this desire to serve, to give back to the country." Intelligence is also obviously needed--but the national ethic --to pull your weight, shoulder your share, etc.--and these friends are of the strong Left of the country-- Meretz type of voters.
There is nothing in this place that doesn't fascinate me.
It also gives me many thoughts about the American synagogue-- a future posting.

1 comment:

  1. In Israel, wearing the classic wool tallit is a traditional custom on the occasion of Jewish festivals and functions.