Not in search of God

The founders of Tel Aviv's Secular Yeshiva envision Judaism as a culture and not a religion.

female yeshiva student 8 (photo credit: )
female yeshiva student 8
(photo credit: )
In a rundown, faded yellow building across from Tel Aviv's Central Bus Station, a little over a dozen students are studying Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik's The Lonely Man of Faith. Around a large table, men in shorts and T-shirts sit alongside women in spaghetti-strap dresses and tank tops discussing the highly regarded text that attempts to explain why there are two creations stories in Genesis. After learning the text together in hevruta (pairs), the class is investigating the differences between the first story, of Adam I, in which he is created at the beginning of creation without Eve, and the second story, of Adam II, in which he is created at the end of creation together with Eve. Each Adam has a different personality, and the students are attempting to understand how to reconcile them. "I think each of us has both Adams inside of us. We each have different sides to us that tell us how to act," suggests one student. "And what is it that motivates us to act?" asks teacher Moshe Samuels, the only man in the room wearing a kippa. "Survival," says one man. "I disagree, in modern society we don't think about survival anymore," contends the woman sitting next to him. "We are motivated by happiness and our search for human fulfillment." "So it's not our search for purpose as determined by God or whoever?" Samuels asks. "No," responds another woman. "Not at all." While the teacher is modern Orthodox, the students are all secular, and the setting is the Secular Yeshiva. Like in any yeshiva, students pore over the Gemara, the Torah, the Shulhan Aruch and Maimonides from morning until evening. But unlike other yeshivot, there is no prayer service, no kosher kitchen and no separation between the sexes. There is a period in the morning called shaharit, but rather than pray, the students meditate or read poetry. At its head is not an old, bearded rabbi, but Tal Shaked, a fair-skinned woman with long blonde hair, who prefers not to be called rosh yeshiva but rather the yeshiva's director. "One of the main ideas of the yeshiva is that there is no one person in charge," says Shaked, a former lawyer with the Jerusalem District Attorney's Office. "There's no one authority, the idea is to expose them to many worldviews." So along with the classic Jewish texts, the students also study Ahad Ha'am, A.D. Gordon and Haim Nahman Bialik with the same fervency. "We don't see any text as an authority but as an inspiration," explains Eran Baruch, one of the founders of the Secular Yeshiva and head of the Bina Center for Jewish Identity and Hebrew Culture, through which the yeshiva is administered. "We treat Ahad Ha'am and Gemara the same way - no text is holier than the other." The intention here in the converted Kupat Holim building in South Tel Aviv is not to study and become more religious, but to learn about Jewish culture, says Shaked. "You can be a Jew without doing mitzvot." Perhaps, but doing mitzvot is half the program at the Secular Yeshiva, where some 150 pre- and post-army men and women spend a year studying two or three days a week and volunteering in the surrounding impoverished neighborhoods the rest of the time. There's even a program for students from abroad to spend one day a week learning in the yeshiva and the remainder of the week in community service. "It's important to combine social activism with learning," says Shaked. "Learning makes their social activism more meaningful." Though they were given the choice to be located in posh North Tel Aviv, the founders of the yeshiva intentionally chose the destitute Naveh Sha'anan neighborhood, full of foreign workers and immigrants, to enable the students to make a difference and to show them that being Jewish means taking part in social action. "We want them to understand that Judaism starts here, in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Israel," says Shaked. "This is their tikun olam [making the world a better place]." WHEN SAMUELS'S class ends late, the students remain in their seats for a few minutes to finish their discussions about humanity and motivation. As in most yeshivot, the students are certainly devoted to their studies, receiving no degree, award or monetary gain from their year at the yeshiva. What's uncertain is where their devotion will lead them and what level of observance, if any, they will extract from their studies. Last Yom Kippur, several students decided to fast for the first time in their lives, not because it was a mitzva, but because for them it was a physical manifestation of their spiritual learning process. "Each person decides for himself," says Shaked, who has decided to light candles every Friday night to carry on her family's tradition. Like most of her students, Shaked grew up in a secular home with no connection to Jewish sources. While looking for a hobby, she decided to take a class at Kolot, an organization with a pluralistic approach to incorporating traditional Jewish texts into life. "It was the first time I saw a page of Talmud," she says. "I was shocked at how deep it was and surprised it wasn't a part of my life. I'm Jewish, I live in Israel and I didn't know anything about a major Jewish text." She wanted to learn more, not because she wanted to incorporate the text into her life and become religiously observant, but because "it belongs to me, to my culture and to my history," she explains. After studying for two years at Tehuda, a Kolot program that prepares professionals for promoting a social project, she searched for a way to impart Jewish texts to other secular Jews. In the meantime she met Baruch, whose dream it was to establish a secular yeshiva. "There is a difficult dichotomy in Israeli society between people who know Torah and Talmud by heart and possess it and use it, and the other side of society which is ignorant, either by choice or because they never learned it," says Baruch, who also grew up in a secular home. "We want to possess these texts and values and create a generation of young Israelis who feel at home in their own culture." Baruch and Shaked decided to work together, and last September the Secular Yeshiva opened its doors. "We decided to take a step forward and study in a more serious way, from morning to evening, with a syllabus and teachers, and that kind of traditional study in Jewish vocabulary means a yeshiva," he says. "But we are secular, and Bina works with the secular part of Jewish society. So that's why we decided to call it the Secular Yeshiva." Though the intention at the yeshiva is to produce "talmidim hachamim," but not observant Jews, Shaked insists that the study is not just academic. "It's much more personal than that. We study Shabbat and the values of Shabbat, but it's not just knowledge - the student can decide not to drive on Shabbat or he can decide to drive to the beach on Shabbat and spend the day there with his family because that's also a value of Shabbat." Indeed, the idea is "to learn and to keep - but not in the Orthodox way," explains Baruch. "There is no rabbi telling people what to do. People study, and if they want to do something they can do it in their own way." AS THEY finally make their way out of the classrooms, the students take a break to eat lunch. The food is kosher and cooked every day by a religious woman, but there's only one set of dishes and silverware that is used for both milk and meat, rendering the kitchen not kosher. The students don't seem to mind. Tal Wolfson joined the yeshiva just a few months after finishing the army. The crew-cut 24-year-old says he recently started keeping Shabbat "in my way, the secular way," by not wearing a watch - because it is a day of rest - and by learning the weekly Torah portion. "The secular look at Judaism as a very rich culture and each person has his own dialogue with it and has the choice to agree or disagree with what he learns," he says. When he first started attending classes at the yeshiva, his secular parents were confused and upset, he says, because they thought he was going to become religious. "But really, this is the only place I could study and still live my regular life. In a religious yeshiva, I wouldn't be able to learn with girls, I'd have to wear a kippa and I'd need to pray every day," he adds. "It's important to learn to know what Judaism is, and for me, this is the only place to do that." Liron, 25, a pretty girl with long, dark curly hair, lives in one of the poor neighborhoods surrounding the yeshiva and decided to start studying there after becoming involved in one of its community volunteer projects. "It's been amazing to take a year of my life and pause to look inside myself and discover my identity," says Liron, who also started lighting candles every Friday night. "Before, I felt like an outsider," she says in her shy, quiet voice. "Now, I'm proud when I'm in the home of one of our religious neighbors and I see all the Jewish books on their shelves and I can say I know them." SAMUELS, THE only Orthodox man in the building, has no qualms about teaching a classroom full of secular students who have no desire to reach his level of religiosity. Having worked in informal education both here and abroad, he says his ideological mission is much more basic. "I think the most crucial issue in Israeli society is identity," he says, "and the people who come here are searching for a Jewish identity." When he is the only one left in the classroom, I look him dead in the eye and ask the obvious question: Why are you really here? "I really have no intention of making anyone more religious," he replies, laughing at the assumption. "I think it's just important for every Jew to be able to open the Talmud and know what's going on." For some religious educators, that's not nearly enough. Learning Torah requires a much deeper commitment, says Rabbi David Stav, head of the Petah Tikva hesder yeshiva. "I admire and respect every desire to learn Jewish sources, and it's necessary, but not sufficient," he says. "Torah is not only wisdom, it's not only something you ought to know, but something you ought to feel and fulfill, and to learn Torah in the full meaning of learning Torah you need to have a fear of God and a commitment to the values you're learning." But despite everything else that's missing, God is the most noticeably absent figure in the building, and the most significant factor separating the Secular Yeshiva from all the others. Despite the shelves full of tractates of Mishna and Gemara and the earnestness with which the students study them, the feeling is that God does not dwell in the halls of the Secular Yeshiva, and it seems most of the students and teachers don't really want Him there. "We are trying to develop Judaism as a culture and not as a religion," says Lior Tal, director of Kolot's Zehut program for secular Jews and a teacher at the yeshiva. "In religious Judaism, everything is about worshiping God, whereas when you see Judaism as a culture, the main attraction isn't God, but rather the connection between man and man. This way it's relevant to everyone." When asked whether he believes in God, Tal adjusts his glasses, looks me straight in the eye and says, "No. I don't believe in God." Neither does Wolfson, though he hesitates to say so because of a previous interview with a different newspaper. "I told them I didn't believe in God and they made it the headline of the article," he says. "So now I'm much more careful how I answer that question." Liron is still grappling with the age-old question. "It's very complicated," she confesses. "I'm still trying to figure it out." For observant Jews, however, Judaism and God are inextricable. "As a religious man, I believe Torah is a part of a world of fear of God and belief in God," says Stav, "and even if someone comes at it from the direction of culture, he will either come to my conclusion and end up immersed in it entirely and commit himself to its values or he will stop learning it because it doesn't make sense to learn something you aren't committed to. "I still think it's better to learn Torah than know nothing, like many Israelis," he adds, "but I don't think [this approach] will survive." RABBI YEHUDA GILAD, of the more liberal-minded Ma'aleh Gilboa Yeshiva in the kibbutz of the same name overlooking the Jezreel Valley, says that precisely in light of the detachment of most secular Jews from Judaism, initiatives like the Secular Yeshiva should be encouraged. "I'm somewhat ambivalent about it because, on the one hand, even using the name yeshiva for a secular place is inappropriate," he says, "but on the other hand, I believe the very fact that people are seeking a connection to Judaism and Torah is a very positive thing and I support that." Just a few months ago, in fact, Gilad took the students of his yeshiva to visit the Secular Yeshiva for a day to see what it is and how it works. "It wasn't easy for them," he says, "but I thought it was very important that they see such a phenomenon because it could be the beginning of a trend in Israel. Obviously I wouldn't recommend to a religious person to learn there, but when speaking to a secular person, who is not going to come learn at my yeshiva, I think this is a positive place. If it will bring people closer to Judaism this is the important thing in my eyes." Gilad recalls that when he spoke to Shaked during his visit to the yeshiva, she said she didn't like calling it the "secular" yeshiva because it sounded very extreme. "She said she would prefer to call it the Israeli yeshiva," he explains, "but decided upon the 'secular' yeshiva so as not to intimidate people to think they would end up becoming religious if they go there." Rabbi Ya'acov Ariel, the chief rabbi of Ramat Gan and the president of its hesder yeshiva, finds more difficulty with the "yeshiva" part of the title. "A yeshiva is a place where you learn Torah in an atmosphere of Torah and where no one has any other desire other than learning Torah and doing mitzvot," he says. "Boys learning with girls is not a yeshiva. There is no problem with secular people learning Torah, but studying in a yeshiva means implementing what you learn. "If you learn about keeping Shabbat in the Talmud, then you need to keep Shabbat; if you learn in the Talmud to give charity, you need to give charity. You can't study Talmud and not implement it - that's not a yeshiva." Like Stav and Gilad, Ariel "blesses" the fact that there is a secular circle interested in learning Torah, "but we hope that they will integrate, identify and implement what they're learning." AND THE Orthodox aren't the only ones with a problem defining the Secular Yeshiva as a yeshiva. The government has yet to respond to its requests to be defined as such, a title that will enable it to get much needed funding and support. Because the yeshiva operates as part of a joint program with the army, to get certified as a yeshiva it must be recognized as one by the Defense Ministry. Before that can happen, the defense minister must obtain a recommendation from the Organization of Hesder Yeshivot, and it seems highly unlikely the recommendation will be a positive one. "But the law doesn't say they need to give a positive recommendation," says Shaked. "It just says they need to give their opinion. It doesn't say what their opinion has to be." Education Minister Yuli Tamir has pledged her support to the Secular Yeshiva, saying she would do everything in her power "to promote funding for yeshivot, not only for the Orthodox." A secular woman, Tamir says the Secular Yeshiva is "very promising" because it "provides young people with the opportunity to explore Judaism with a relevance to their lives." It is equally important, she adds, that it be called a yeshiva, because it is a way for secular Jews to repossess their Jewish heritage in the same framework as any other yeshiva. "This is our way of saying Judaism is ours as well," she says. "Why shouldn't I have my own yeshiva, too?" Currently, the yeshiva is defined as a mechina (preparatory school), which is eligible for government funding after two years of operation. Otherwise, funding comes from the federations of Los Angeles, New York and Chicago and the New Israel Fund, as well as private donors from both here and abroad. "But aside from the money, it's important that the State of Israel to recognize us as a yeshiva," says Shaked, "because that recognition would be a very significant step." THIS SHAVUOT at yeshivot across the country, students and their teachers will stay up all night learning, a traditional way to commemorate the day God gave the Jewish people the Torah. At the Secular Yeshiva, the students have also planned the traditional Tikun Leil Shavuot, the subject of which will be love, one of the central themes of the Book of Ruth, which is read on Shavuot. "There are three commands to love in the Torah," says Tal. "To love God, to love your neighbor and to love the convert." The students will take classes on the meanings of love in these different contexts, and will then watch a film on love by Dorit Rabinyan, after which they will have a discussion with Rabinyan, and finish off the night by singing Hebrew love songs together. "Of course I don't agree with breaking Shabbat or holy days," says Gilad. "But we need to see the alternative from their point of view - which is watching TV at home without any connection to Torah or Judaism. Obviously watching a movie on Shavuot isn't the ideal, but for secular people this is a very positive alternative - even if they're watching a movie or listening to music - because they're searching for their roots and for a connection, and this is a very good start." In fact, Gilad says he believes that students at the Secular Yeshiva will definitely become more religious, starting the process there and then searching for more mainstream yeshivot to learn even more. "I believe you can't be indifferent to what you're learning," he says. "The Torah is very powerful, and it will bring them closer to Judaism and make a big difference in their lives." But not only is there no intention for the students to become religious, Dov Elboim, one of the yeshiva's founders and teachers, says firmly that "if one of them does, it's a sign that I'm a bad teacher." Elboim grew up in a haredi, anti-Zionist household in Jerusalem and left that lifestyle at 17, before going into the army. "There was a lot of hypocrisy, a lot of lying, and I searched for a life that was closer to what I believed in." Leaving the haredi community wasn't easy, says Elboim, and his father excommunicated him for a number of years, but he doesn't regret his decision to stay secular for even a moment. "I would be disappointed if the students became religious because it's not a serious path, the answers are too easy," says the author and editor-in-chief of Yediot Aharonot's publishing house. "I have nothing against people who become religious, but most who do believe their way is the only way, and that's the problem. "In the Orthodox world there's a feeling that either you take the whole package or you take none of it. In this world, you can choose what you want to keep. But to choose, you have to know what the choices are, and that's why you need to learn, and that's why this yeshiva is so important." Today, he and his family have made peace and learned to accept each other's different lifestyles, which, he says, "is the most important thing." THE SECULAR YESHIVA is still waiting to be accepted by the rest of the yeshiva community, with the hope "that in five years, we won't have to call ourselves the Secular Yeshiva anymore," says Shaked, "and we can call ourselves just yeshiva and it will be obvious that secular people can study Judaism, too." One thing all sides can agree on is that the Secular Yeshiva has the ability to mend the rapidly expanding rift between the secular and the religious. "The fact that there is this thirst for Jewish identity and Torah learning is a positive thing," says Gilad, "because as someone who believes the gap between religious and secular people is an important challenge, I think the Secular Yeshiva is a good starting point for bridging that gap." "If secular people start learning their traditions," says Elboim, "they will open up more toward the religious community and each side can then get closer to the other." As their lunch break draws to a close, the students dispose of the remainder of their lunches and make their way towards the classrooms for their next class. Wolfson and Liron sit together in a small room, Gemaras open in front of them on the desks, and wait for Tal, who will be teaching a lesson in political science using Jewish sources. "We want to change the public's opinion so it can know that Judaism belongs to everyone," says Shaked. And, concludes Gilad, "in our times, any sort of connection to Judaism is important, even if it's not in my way." Before class starts, Liron approaches me tentatively. "I just want to say one more thing," she says. "This is the first time I've been interviewed, and I just wanted you to understand what this year and what this place means to me. "I don't think there is a totally secular person in Israel today. Even the most secular person has a brit mila, or eats some matza on Pessah. Secular people are just more open than Orthodox in searching for what's the right way for them. I'm Jewish, and I just want to know what that means so that I can continue the traditions, so when I have children, they can grow up knowing what it means to be a Jew."