Friday, March 6, 2015

Between Two Worlds: Charting a Path Within the Secular and the Religious

Hannah in Israel with International School students, University of Haifa 
The great contribution of Reform Judaism is that it has enabled the Jewish people to introduce innovation while preserving tradition, to embrace diversity while asserting commonality, to affirm beliefs without rejecting those who doubt, and to bring faith to sacred texts without sacrificing critical scholarship. – A Statement of Principles for Reform Judaism, Central Conference of American Rabbis, 1999
Two weeks ago, my daughter Hannah left for Israel to begin her spring semester abroad at the University of Haifa. A Jewish Studies major who has thoughts of one day becoming a Reform Rabbi, Hannah is on a journey for which I am at once proud, envious, and concerned. She is a passionate young woman who cares deeply about the future of liberal Judaism and a woman’s place in it. She dreams of a peaceful and secure Israel that abides by the moral and ethical principles of its founding and of the values she holds most dear as a Jew. And she cares about human rights, peace, and the future of the planet. She is a courageous young woman for whom I hope her ideals will one day become reality.

And yet, I am under no illusions as to how difficult and perilous a journey she is on. For the next three-and-a-half months, Hannah is likely to gain an advanced education in the complexity and challenges of pursuing a life that walks a middle path between the secular and the religious that is modern day Israel. More than any country on earth, Israel is a mixture of extremes trying to fit within a coherent whole. Broadly speaking, approximately half of Israel’s Jewish population is either Orthodox (20%) or traditional with Orthodox sympathies (30%), while the other half is mostly secular, largely indifferent to Judaism as a religious tradition and, in some cases, dismissive of religious practice and belief (Haaretz op-ed, December 8, 2013).

Jews praying at Western Wall in Jerusalem
It is perhaps not surprising that Hannah in Israel has begun to question how she fits into this widely divergent picture. As she told me on the phone after visiting Jerusalem’s Old City, she at times feels out of place in Israel, as if she is on a countercultural journey with an uncertain future. She loves Israel and its people, but she worries for Israel’s long-term security and future as a Jewish and democratic state, which she contends is being jeopardized by the policies of current Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu. And she sees first-hand the disproportionate influence of the Orthodox establishment over Israeli religious life, with few alternatives.

Of course, to live a meaningfully Jewish life in the United States is far more challenging than in the Holy Land. Even secular Israeli Jews with no synagogue affiliation awaken each morning in a Jewish state, speak Hebrew, and celebrate the major Jewish holidays. American Jews by contrast live in a predominantly Christian country in which Jews are only 2% of the population. Given the increasing secularization of American society, the pull of assimilation and pluralism, and the individual freedoms guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, it is no wonder that many worry about the survival and long-term prospects of American Jewish life. Unlike in Israel, however, Reform Judaism remains the largest Jewish movement in the United States. When combined with the Conservative and Reconstructionist movements, “liberal” Judaism (i.e., Judaism that does not rigidly adhere to halakhah, or traditional Jewish law) makes up the vast majority of American Jewish expression and practice.

Hannah’s journey in Israel is made more complex by the powers ceded by Israeli civil society to the Orthodox rabbinate, which controls what marriages are recognized by the state (only those performed by Orthodox rabbis), and the validity of Jewish conversions, which are recognized in Israel only if performed by the “right” kind of rabbi. Female rabbis are not recognized in the Orthodox movements and women are segregated to the back sections of the synagogue. And because the more liberal Jewish movements (Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist) are considered inauthentic by most Orthodox rabbis, Israel has for many years been all-or-nothing in terms of religious expression and practice. 

As one who struggles at times with my own faith in a secular age, I know that Hannah is on a fascinating journey at once vibrant and exciting, scary and confusing. By seeking to express her faith tradition in meaningful ways, consistent with her Jewish values and the secular ideals of feminism, equality, environmentalism, and universalism, Hannah is walking what can at times be a lonely path. But it is a walk which offers opportunities for deeply personal connections with others hungry for spiritual nourishment in the context of an abiding and enduring faith tradition.

For much of the past half-century, the Holocaust and the founding of Israel represented for many American Jews essential components of Jewish identity. But as important as these historic events are to Jewish history and Jewish experience, they are wholly divorced from Judaism as a religion. “Judaism is bigger than this,” writes Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of Great Britain and author of Future Tense: Jews, Judaism, and Israel in the Twenty-First Century (Schocken Books, 2009). Judaism is a covenant with God and a value-based way of life and ethics. Although the Jewish faith has survived four thousand years of exile, oppression, and persecution, Judaism has more to offer the world than stories of victimization and survival. And while bagels and lox and Jewish comedy have enhanced the American landscape, Judaism is so much more than culture and ethnicity. “Everyone has enemies. . . . Everyone has ethnicity,” writes Sacks. “Judaism is the sustained attempt to make real in life the transformative power of hope. And the world, in the twenty-first century, needs hope.”

As a Reform Jew, Hannah has endorsed a movement that is attempting to persuade secular and non-religious Jews that the pursuit of faith is a lifelong quest, an ongoing journey of questioning and commitment. Liberal Judaism allows Jews to embrace and find meaning in elements of Jewish tradition that does not require rigid adherence to the many prescriptions of halakhah that are no longer relevant to most American and secular Israeli Jews.

Hannah is learning that the search for identity is intricately connected to the search for meaning and purpose. When taken seriously, it can become a guidepost to one's life, but of necessity requires emotional and intellectual struggle. It requires that one engage with the world in all its conflict, ambiguity, and messiness; that one look inward, to meaningful rituals, to tradition, and to God. It also requires that one look outward – to the wider world, to art, literature, music, politics, justice, and the human condition.

Young women conducting religious ceremony at Western Wall
As Hannah and other young American Jews are discovering, there are many ways in which to meaningfully commit to a Jewish life and express a meaningful Jewish identity. Whether she someday becomes a Rabbi or decides to walk a different path, Hannah can become an agent of hope and of Jewish renewal; she can partner with others, with God, and with people of all faiths in making the world a better, more peaceful and compassionate place.

While Orthodox Judaism does not offer a practical or meaningful path for Hannah and most of her contemporaries, neither does a complete embrace of secular Judaism offer a compelling and attractive alternative. To reject any semblance of Judaism’s essential connection to monotheism and a belief in God, to any sense of the spiritual and faith-side of Judaism, risks ignoring or forgetting Judaism’s place in the global project of humankind. If Judaism has an essential task, it is to perform tikkun olam, to heal and repair an imperfect world, to affirm life, seek justice, and create a world in which the divine presence dwells among us all. In walking this path, Hannah can add her voice to the symphony of voices that seek a meaningful life, a meaningful faith, traditions worth retaining, and new traditions worth creating. And she can help shape the future of Judaism for generations to come. It is an exciting journey, and a scary one, and I hope I am around a long time to see where it takes her.

Walking path in Haifa, Israel

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