Civil Fights: Secular Israelis reclaim their heritage

For any society, nurturing cultural roots begins with studying its canonical texts.

tali school 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
tali school 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Current events provided plenty of unwelcome gifts for Israel's 60th birthday, from the prime minister's investigation to Hizbullah's virtual takeover of Lebanon. Yet amid all the bad news, one item boded well for the country's long-term health: According to the Education Ministry, the number of ordinary secular schools offering extra hours of elective Jewish studies has doubled over the last two years, while the number of students choosing to take these classes has soared by 92 percent, from 18,000 to 34,500. These figures reflect a growing trend of secular interest in Israel's Jewish heritage, which has also sparked numerous programs for adults in recent years. These include the establishment of several secular mechinot, where students spend a year between high school and army engaged in Jewish studies; a secular yeshiva; secular batei midrash (study groups); and numerous institutions that offer adult education programs in Jewish studies for the secular public. The TALI school system - secular schools with a mandatory enhanced Jewish studies curriculum - has also boomed, growing 30 percent in the last three years alone, to 165 schools with some 35,000 students. While none of the above programs approach Jewish texts from an Orthodox perspective, the texts themselves - Bible, Talmud, medieval Jewish philosophers - are the same as would be found in any Orthodox high school or yeshiva. And the goals are similar as well: to engage with the texts on their own terms in order to plumb the richness of Judaism's cultural heritage. "We want to build a generation of male and female scholars who know the texts, to make them desire Torah study for its own sake," declared Eran Baruch, head of the Bina Center for Jewish Studies, which runs the secular yeshiva, in a newspaper interview last year. That is a sentiment any Orthodox yeshiva head could endorse. So is the explanation offered by Dr. Eilon Shamir for the new program on "social Judaism" that he helped to launch at Beit Berl, whose courses cover topics such as attitudes toward "the other" in the Talmud: "We want to present Judaism as something that represents holiness and refinement of our natures, in contrast to the cynicism and egoism of capitalist culture." THIS BURGEONING secular interest in Jewish studies is good news for Israel for two reasons. First, it could ease the religious-secular rift that increasingly threatens the country's future. While this rift has many causes, it has been exacerbated by the fact that many secular Jews are largely unconversant with basic Jewish texts. This ignorance facilitates both the religious dismissal of secular culture as "non-Jewish" and the secular dismissal of religious culture as "benighted." But secular Israelis' growing realization that these texts are their heritage as well creates the basis of a common language that could help to bridge these differences. It is easy for religious Jews to sniff at secular counterparts who quote UN conventions as the source of their values, but harder to dismiss secular Jews who quote the Talmud as the source of these same values. Similarly, it is easy for secular Jews to sneer at religious Jews who find their life's meaning in ancient texts, but harder to do so when they themselves see these texts as sources of inspiration and meaning. Moreover, this development provides a potential basis for joint social action. Such action is already a focus of many of the new secular programs: Shamir, for instance, started his program because he believes Judaism can serve as the basis for a struggle to improve society; at the secular yeshiva, students must devote part of their time to working with students from nearby slums. And a similar trend is burgeoning in the religious community, from "urban settlements" - groups of young religious Jews who "settle" in distressed neighborhoods and run programs for the residents - to organizations like Bemaaglei Tzedek, which issues "social kashrut certificates" to eateries that pay their workers fair wages and benefits. Thus one can easily imagine fruitful cooperation between religious and secular Jews who both seek to improve the world through social action based on Jewish values. And nothing could do more to promote religious-secular rapprochement. But there is also a more fundamental reason why this growing secular interest in Jewish sources bodes well for Israel's future: Without nurturing its cultural Jewish roots, Israel is liable to indeed become a nation of "Hebrew-speaking goyim," as some religious Jews contemptuously deem it, lacking any distinct Jewish identity. And if the Jewish state is culturally indistinguishable from any other Western state, its citizens are liable to question whether the sacrifices necessary to maintain it are worthwhile. For any society, nurturing cultural roots begins with studying that society's canonical texts. Thus students in all Western countries study foundational texts of both Western civilization in general and their own countries in particular. For a Jewish state, these texts are the Bible, the Talmud and the medieval commentators and Jewish philosophers. One need not agree with these texts, any more than one must agree with Shakespeare. Indeed, classical Jewish commentators frequently disagree with each other. But to be an educated Jew, or an educated resident of the Jewish state, familiarity with them is essential. For too long, secular Israelis have dismissed these classical texts as outdated and irrelevant. But today - as Shuki Yaniv, principal of a Beersheba high school that recently introduced a course on Jewish liturgical poetry as an elective, explained in a newspaper interview two weeks ago - "there is much greater awareness [among the secular]... that engaging with Judaism is not only for the religious, and that it also appropriate for our students to study Judaism." Indeed, Judaism is the cultural heritage of every Jew, religious and secular alike. And today, more and more secular Israelis are seeking to reclaim this heritage. It is easy to underestimate the significance of this trend, because its impact on Israeli society will be felt only years down the road. Yet few developments could do more to ensure that we will still be celebrating the Jewish state's birthday in another 60 years.