Easy to be Jewish, but easier to decrease observance - opinion

Israel has yet to become the place of the ingathering of exiles

A CHABADNIK helps a man put on tefillin in Safed. (photo credit: DAVID COHEN/FLASH 90)
A CHABADNIK helps a man put on tefillin in Safed.
(photo credit: DAVID COHEN/FLASH 90)

In an article on July 7, David Jablinowitz, The Jerusalem Post’s op-ed editor, argued that Yair Lapid becoming prime minster is poetic justice given that his father, Tommy, was a Holocaust survivor who said he would leave Israel’s premiership to the next generation. I agree wholeheartedly.

The Nazis attempted to murder Tommy Lapid simply for being Jewish and his son now occupies the highest political position in the State of Israel – a Jewish state established in the wake of the Holocaust where any Jew can come to if, God forbid, they face danger in their home country.

I disagree, however, with Jablinowitz’s dismissal of the argument that it is easier to be lured out of Orthodox Judaism in Israel than in an Orthodox neighborhood in the Diaspora. From my perspective as a visitor from Canada, it is precisely the case that Jews in Israel are laxer with their observance of Halacha compared to people in similar communities in the Diaspora.

Over the past two months, I have observed so many instances of kippah-wearing Jews publicly violating Halacha that I have lost count. I was quite shocked to see yeshiva students in white shirts and black kippot dancing to secular music next to scantily clad young women at Mahaneh Yehuda market on a Thursday night.

I was similarly surprised when I saw religious men walking with their wives, who wore hair coverings, stopping on Ben Yehuda Street to watch a woman sing in a street performance. In North America, these acts would be met with unfriendly gazes at best.

 BARS AND restaurants do a brisk business at Mahaneh Yehuda in Jerusalem. Israel regularly ranks as one of the happiest nations on earth. (credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90) BARS AND restaurants do a brisk business at Mahaneh Yehuda in Jerusalem. Israel regularly ranks as one of the happiest nations on earth. (credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

I have seen many traditionally dressed men and women go to a restaurant and neither wash their hands before eating bread nor say the grace after meals. Perhaps the most perplexing example of halachic laxity I witnessed occurred last week. As I walked home after Shabbat morning prayers, I had to do a double take as a man wearing tzitzit was making his way down Jaffa Street on an electric scooter. Nobody else batted an eye.

To be clear, I am not judging the choices that individuals make with respect to their Jewish observance. I am questioning their decision to make such choices while wearing kippot, tzitzit and long skirts. When a Jew dresses in such a way, they indicate to the world that they have made a commitment to observe Jewish law.

Accordingly, non-Jews as well as Jews who have not received a thorough Jewish education often assume that one who wears a kippah always acts in accordance with Halacha. Jews who dress traditionally therefore need to be extra careful with respect to how they act outside of their homes.

Oh the irony 

THE PROFOUND irony here is that it is so much easier to live an observant life in Israel. Kosher grocery stores and restaurants are the norm in many parts of the country, synagogues abound, there is little to no pressure to work on Shabbat and holidays, and the list goes on. I therefore support Jablinowitz’s criticism of the argument that it is easier to live an Orthodox life in the Diaspora.

Observing Jewish law is certainly easier in Israel, but, compared to the Diaspora, it is also far easier to get away with violating Halacha here, while dressing in the same way as an Orthodox Jew would in the Diaspora. Whether this is because wearing a kippah in Israel carries less weight is a question that I do not have the answer to. Would these same people wear a kippah in the Diaspora? I would assume so. Crucially though, they would likely be more careful with how they present themselves to the outside world.

Regardless of how religious they are, Israelis live in a society that is deeply influenced by Judaism. As Jablinowitz notes, Shabbat is the national day of rest and Jewish holidays are national holidays. Being wished a shabbat shalom by storekeepers on streets named after prominent rabbis and Jewish historical figures brings me a truly special feeling.

Nevertheless, I do not believe that Israel is witnessing the ingathering of exiles, as Jablinowitz argued it is. How would Ramban feel if he saw Jewish people driving on a street named after him on Shabbat? Should Jews be able to stop in Tel Aviv for a plate of shrimp on their way to the messianic redemption?

I am not arguing that the state should enact laws to require its Jewish citizens to adhere to Halacha. To the contrary, I value the freedom that Israelis have to live their lives as they choose. But, as influenced as Israeli society is by Judaism, engaging in the culture is not a substitute for engaging with Judaism itself.

There is a fascinating distinction I have observed between Israel and the Diaspora that serves as a microcosm for secular life in both places. While rabbis and yeshiva students at the Chabad tefillin stands in the Diaspora need to help almost all of the people they flag down, many stands in Israel are unstaffed, indicating that a large percentage of Israelis know how to wrap tefillin but choose not to do so.

In other words, Diaspora Jews often refrain from engaging in Jewish rituals because they do not know about them or because they are difficult to do in a secular society, whereas their Israeli counterparts do so simply out of choice. The latter environment is perhaps more concerning than the former for Jews worried about decreasing in their observance.

The messianic era marked by the ingathering of exiles will be a time when Jews from around the world unite in Israel and willingly engage in Judaism. Although I agree with Jablinowitz’s statement that one should never take for granted the fact that they can see a random bus in Israel heading for the Western Wall, it must be stressed that the Western Wall – not the Temple – is its final destination. Even in Israel, we are still very much in exile.

The writer is a graduate of McGill University, where he majored in Jewish Studies. He will be attending Cornell Law School in the fall and co-wrote an original commentary on Pirkei Avot that is being published later this year. He is an intern at The Jerusalem Post this summer.