Monday, April 7, 2014

Unexpectedly inspired by my trip to Israel

My wife and I just got back on Friday from our trip to Israel for my sister's wedding. I'm still totally jet-lagged.

I'm not usually given to superlatives, but the trip was wonderful, amazing, and inspiring. Why? I'm not really sure. Part of it was just being there for my sister's beautiful wedding, and spending a lot of time with family. But part of it was just being there, in Israel.

It's hardly my first time there. If I count up all the time I've spent in Israel, I've lived there about 3 1/2 years. That includes a year of high school, when my father took a sabbatical from his university, my traditional yeshiva year after high school, and aliyah in my late 20's. Plus various summers.

Still, most of the time I'd spent in Israel previously was during my younger, more idealistic years, and back then, I expected to be inspired and uplifted. Those were the years when I assumed I'd be living most of my life there. So I was never surprised by my reaction to being there. It was home, pure and simple. Being there was the fulfillment of a religious dream.

Now, on the other hand, it's around 15 years since I returned to the US after my short post-aliyah soujourn. And over the years, my idealism kept eroding. I'm much more cynical, and much less likely to be swept away by the religious fervor of my teens and twenties. While I love being a religious Jew, and am inspired in so many little ways by living a halachic life, I also see the flaws and the cracks in the popular narrative of Judaism. That is especially true of the narrative that pertains to Eretz Yisrael, that the return to the land in the last century, and the creation of the state is nothing less than the fulfillment of a prophecy, that Medinat Yisrael is ראשית צמיחת גאולתנו, the beginning of our redemption as a people, the beginning of the messianic process.

In my younger days, I was able to recite the Ani Ma'amin derived from Rambam's thirteen principles with utmost sincerity. אני מאמין באמונה שלמה בביאת המשיח - I Believe... In the Coming of the Mashiach; that was a deep element of my faith, and as part of my deeply Religious Zionist upbringing, was also intimately connected with the state of Israel. Every trip there, every stint I spent living there, was a small and personal part of that grand destiny, my own participation in the fulfillment of a prophecy.

But over the years, my hashkafa changed. As readers of this blog and my page on Facebook likely know, I began to question the dogma of traditional Judaism to an ever-growing degree. Finally I reached the point where I realized, (and internalized), the truth that Judaism isn't a the result of a direct revelation by God, but rather evolved. The Torah was written by humans, and the halachic system is the result of a slow evolution and the development of a complex legal system by human beings. I believe in God, but as an ideal that human beings were striving for when they created this system of belief.

Most importantly for the purposes of this post, I realized two things:

1) The messianic dream is an idea that grew out of a political desire for a re-institution of Jewish independence and restoration to their land. It took on religious overtones over the centuries, but that was a latter addition. I cannot truly say the "Ani Ma'amin" sincerely, except as an aspirational dream.

2) Judaism didn't truly develop in Eretz Yisrael. At least not into the Judaism we know and practice today. It was initially a sacrificial cult that evolved and changed over time, especially in response to the destruction of the temple and exile from our ancestral land. We are probably better off without a temple. Judaism would never have survived without that forced change. We say כי מציון תצא תורה , Out of Zion Emerged the Torah, and that's true to a certain extent. The original Torah, those oral narratives that coalesced into a canonized text, originated in Eretz Yisrael. But the Talmud, the true founding text of our religion as we know it, was written in Babylonia. And throughout the succeeding millennium and a half, Judaism has continued to evolve ever further, into something that second temple era Jews would barely recognize. So while Eretz Yisrael is important, it is not nearly as central to Jewish practice and origins as we like to believe.

All this weakened my connection to Israel. It weakened my commitment to aliyah, except as a possible retirement plan. And the holier-than-thou attitude of some Israelis towards Jews who live outside the land also turned me off, as if they were somehow better Jews simply because of where they lived. It prompted me to develop my own internal justification for living in the US, one that absolved me of any lingering guilt. That justification is that there is nothing inherently better about living in Israel, at least from a religious standpoint. Sacrificing financial security, serving in the army... those are admirable, but doesn't make one a better Jew. Where to live is a personal choice.

It was with this changed attitude that I traveled to Israel two weeks ago. I was certainly looking forward to it. We would spend time with family, and see a lot of old friends. And I always enjoy being there. And, of course, I really needed a vacation.

But what surprised me was that I fell in love with Israel again. And it wasn't inspiring sites, or anything like that. It was just being there. Going to the supermarket and seeing the vast amount of fresh food and remarkable variety of kosher food (or, as Israelis call it, food.) It was taking the train to Tel Aviv. Chattering away in my suddenly much more fluent Hebrew to everyone around me (the level of my fluency picks up the minute I'm immersed). Going to the zoo. It's the little things. No we're not planning aliyah tomorrow, but who knows what the future holds?

In my earlier days, deep in religious awe, I refused to see the flaws and imperfections. This time I was well aware of them. Passing a Palestinian village in the Shomron and seeing how it was in dirty disrepair, while the nearby Israeli yishuv was clean and well-built. Charedim pressing close and begging me for money to help them deal with their self-inflicted lifestyles. A woman's face on an ad spraypainted over. A cab driver screaming obscenities to a driver who cut him off, yet committing the same offense himself not 3 minutes later. People obnoxiously inserting themselves in your business. Dog poop left on the sidewalk far too often.

I can't just chalk all these things up to being "charming" anymore. In many ways, I feel like I have my blinders off. And that's the thing - I expected  to have my religious blinders off, but didn't realize that I'd still love the country, deeply.

For every obnoxious Israeli, there are 10 who are kind and helpful. Yes, there's discrimination against Israeli Arabs and Palestinians, but there are also many people committed to fixing that. The Charedi demographic problem is huge and their intolerance for others is well-known. But at the same time, Charedim can be warm and kind. The same cabdriver who cursed out the other driver? He also engaged in chitchat and seemed genuinely interested in us as people.

And what you realize, when you take off the religious blinders, is that it's really amazing what the country has accomplished. A dead language come to life. A cosmopolitan and liberal society. An amazing high-tech sector. A remarkable intellectual life, with a wide array of cultural institutions and higher learning.

And the fact that religious holidays are national holidays? That makes Israeli culture, even secular Israeli culture, Jewish. The same with the fact that most food is kosher. It returns Judaism to what it once was, in a way - a culture, not a religion.

Moreover, there's something I can't quite put my finger on. Life there is more... real, somehow. More vivid. I feel like I'm more awake while I'm in Israel.

So here it is. I'm a religious Jew. And I'm a Zionist. A very strong one. But I'm not a Religious Zionist. Not any longer. I'm a proud and inspired Secular Zionist. While the building of a Jewish homeland may have taken inspiration from the religious longing for Eretz Yisrael, it was built by blood and guts of incredibly courageous people. When I stand solemnly in front of the the Israeli flag and sing Hatikva, my heart is full, out of pride and a sense of belonging. There's a religious element, sure. You can't really separate that out. The significance of history, and the deep yearning for Eretz Yisrael certainly plays a huge part. But I've jettisoned the part about it being a fulfillment of a prophecy. Instead, it's about the will of a people
להיות עם חופשי בארצנו.

1 comment:

  1. " That makes Israeli culture, even secular Israeli culture, Jewish. The same with the fact that most food is kosher. It returns Judaism to what it once was, in a way - a culture, not a religion."

    Pfeh. You don't know all that many really secular Israelis, do you? You sound like you're talking about the old-time first-generation traditionalist immigrants, like my sister's late in-laws. Rather than my sister and her kids - who treat Yom Kippur as a chance to have a pork barbecue on the beach, who, even though yom tov is a day off from work, they have absolutely no idea of what it's about, or how it's observed. The culture has the form of the Jewish calendar, but the substance of European secularism.