What does the great bicycle controversy tell us about Judaism in the Jewish State? That there’s much to worry about.
Without going into a lot of detail, this is the story: The municipality of Tel Aviv decided that individuals with paid-up memberships to a bicycle rental program could use the memberships for Yom Kippur if they picked up the bikes before the start of the holiday and returned them after the holiday was over. And not only that: the bicycles would be available to them at no charge. Transportation Minister Israel Katz threatened to reduce the city’s government funding for agreeing to this arrangement, although Katz (who is said to have studied at a Yeshiva in high school) is known to be secular. Katz was supported by representatives of the Religious parties in the Tel Aviv City Council.
With the Days of Awe nearly upon us, I offer a few thoughts:
On Yom Kippur, I want Jews to be in synagogue. I want them to be inspired by the stark and haunting melodies of Kol Nidre and challenged and focused by the requirement of tradition to fast during the holiday. I want them to be struggling with the fundamental concepts of the liturgy for this holiest of days: Sin and suffering, repentance and atonement. I want them to ponder the stirring words of Torah and the prophetic books that are read during prayer. I want them to think about moving closer to God.
But getting Jews to synagogue is never an easy matter. Ultimately, the only things that work are education and personal example, committed parents and inspiring teachers. Jews will make their way to synagogue only if we convince them of the beauty of Jewish life and teach them the simple things that are the foundation of our tradition: Making blessings over food, studying Torah, visiting the sick, finding a path to keeping Shabbat, and doing what is right in dealing with others.
And we know what doesn’t work: Coercion. Trying to impose Judaism on Jews is always a disaster that ends up having precisely the opposite effect of what is intended. It generates resentment and anger and suggests that those who teach Judaism lack the self-confidence and the power of persuasion to make their case.
This is not to say that the State of Israel is neutral about matters of Jewish life. It is a Jewish state; it rightly gives public expression to its Jewish character and proudly promotes the religion, civilization, and culture of the Jewish people.
Still, there is a critical difference between the public sphere and the private sphere. Yom Kippur is a national holiday in Israel; government officers are closed and certain public activities are appropriately limited. But the renting of bicycles in Tel Aviv is organized so as to be a private activity, no different than buying a drink from a beverage machine or renting a video from an automatic video dispenser. There is no justification and no excuse for the government to interfere in any way—yes, even on Yom Kippur.
And, as noted, it is not only wrong but self-defeating. The truth is that most non-religious Jewish Israelis make a point of demonstrating respect for religious sensitivities on Yom Kippur because they understand the religious importance of the day. The best way to undermine their respect for religious feeling is by dictating to them what they can and cannot do in the private realm.
So why, in heaven’s name, would an Israeli Minister—and one who is not religious himself—interfere in this realm of private choice? The assumption, of course, is that he is playing politics and catering to the religious parties for personal and party advantage. And the result is to sow more disillusionment among secular Israelis about the meaning of Jewish religion.
I recently read that in the non-religious government school system, there has been a dramatic drop in the number of students who study Bible, rabbinic literature, and Jewish thought. This—and not the issue of bicycles—is the true tragedy in my eyes. There was a time, not so long ago, when the study of Bible was popular among even the most secular of Israeli Jews. If they are to be drawn back to the study of Judaism and into the synagogue on Yom Kippur and Shabbat, politicians will need to stop meddling in their private lives and start separating Jewish religion from the corrupt world of coalition bargaining.