THREE LADIES – THREE LATTES: Who is a (religious) Jew?

Three Ladies, Three Lattes looks at percolating issues in Israel’s complicated social and religious fabric. Secular Pam, modern Orthodox Tzippi and haredi Danit answer your questions.

A Jewish youth wears a 3D printed kippa made by computer science Prof. Craig Kaplan of University of Waterloo in Ontario (photo credit: CRAIG KAPLAN)
A Jewish youth wears a 3D printed kippa made by computer science Prof. Craig Kaplan of University of Waterloo in Ontario
(photo credit: CRAIG KAPLAN)
Dear Ladies, I read your column with great interest. However, I question Pam’s definition of herself as “secular.” The label “ hiloni ” for non-religious Israelis is surprising; “secular” means “having no relationship to anything religious or spiritual.” Whereas many Israelis don’t observe Shabbat or kashrut, they often circumcise their sons, put mezuzot on their doors, have some sort of Seder, etc. Pam says she has a “go-to rabbi” – why would a secular person have such a thing? Please explain your definitions of yourselves.
Ellie Morris
Pam Peled:
In the Diaspora (South Africa for me, London for my late husband), we were proud to be traditional Jews; we could daven away with the best, we never ate ham. And we drove to shul on hagim , and parked around the corner.
Here there’s no overlap – you’re religious, or you aren’t; each sector seems to hate the others. One Friday, my youngest daughter requested Kiddush at midday. Her teenage friends were visiting later, and she feared they’d see candles and think us dati (religious). Martin and I were truly shocked. We gathered our brood and discussed the Spanish Inquisition. Had we made aliya to hide our traditions? Unfortunately, lately I am siding with my daughter. Religion, tragically, has been hijacked in Israel, by extreme cultists who are anything but Jewish. Deviants who kill those with alternative sexual proclivities or hurl firebombs at babies may be dismissed as crazies, but why are almost all Jewish terrorists religious? Add the everyday corruption of the rabbinate; extortionist kashrut certifications; exclusionist, cruel conversions; the tra-la-la surrounding mikve immersions – each year, Halacha seems more stringent. Turned off by the marriage of state and a religion that cynically controls all life-cycle events, sickened by greedy rabbis in top spots, oppressed by the lack of public transport for those too poor to drive to family on Saturdays, maddened by black-coated hooligans protesting cinemas open before the witching hour, people like me are flying from any appellation including us in their fold.
Which leads to such weirdness: Is Israel bad for the Jews? The jury is out.
Danit Shemesh:
The word “hiloni” is quite offensive to me. It means “the profane.” How is it possible that an entire Jewish population’s essence is contrary to the sublime? “Yehudi” means to appreciate, to feel gratitude, which is the sublime quintessence. In our lives, there is a delicate balance between the sublime and the profane. We live by both the physical and the metaphysical. Yes, they are both necessary, but at the same time dichotomous. If we placed them on both ends of a scale, what would the secular tilt look like? Is the sublime a “nice” thing, or is it the purpose of life? We all believe in something; the question is how much we are willing to invest in our beliefs.
Defining ourselves by joining a sector cultivates a sense of belonging; however, it also restricts individuality. Of course, within any group, there is a continuum of individual beliefs. How would one characterize the haredim? As those who sport beards and sway in prayer? Are the dati leumi (national religious) those who wear sandals and sing “ Hatikva ”? To be considered secular, must one go to university and search for the cure for cancer? This is an oversimplified view. Still, that which we boast on our “identity card” is what we proclaim to be. Every community expects a minimum of adherence to a collective belief system.
If we were to strip ourselves of the categorizing, we would find a collection of fantastic individuals who live by a personal faith. Maybe it’s time to stop labeling.
Tzippi Shaked:
I place myself in the “ Torah umada ” camp (a philosophy combining Torah and secular knowledge). However, definitions are complicated; I’m not sure how many of us fully think them through. We deal with this issue in the last chapter of Three Ladies, Three Lattes: Percolating Discussions in the Holy Land . How we define ourselves links to our understanding and interaction with the “Judaism” of others. In our book, we discuss questions that should be part of our national discourse: Should Torah and Jewish values play a central role in how the country is governed? What commandments/ritual should someone keep in order to be considered a practicing Jew? What is the raison d’être of a Jewish homeland? Is the Torah Divinely inspired/the Gospel Truth/a collection of quaint myths/a guideline for picking and choosing comfortable beliefs and practices? The burning issue of the day is not the extremism that Pam decries, but the erosion of respect and civility regarding Judaism of “the other.” I suspect Pam defines her Jewishness as something in line with Western sensitivities, only keeping utilitarian aspects of the faith that conform to her personal preferences. I don’t have a problem with that. My Judaism allows room for others – atheists and haredim alike – although I have trouble digesting harsh rhetoric and violence from any sector. Pam questions whether Israel is bad for the Jews. Israel without Torah and derech eretz (common decency) is definitely bad for the Jews.
What is the best way forward? Let’s hear from our readers.
Comments and questions:
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