Derfner: Who's living an incomplete Jewish life?

All of us secular Jews in Israel are living incomplete Jewish lives.

AB Yehoshua 88 (photo credit: )
AB Yehoshua 88
(photo credit: )
I am a secular Israeli Jew, a secular American-Israeli Jew to be more precise. To be even more precise than that, I'm an atheist. But I think anybody taking an objective, disinterested view of the life I live would have to say it's a Jewish life. I'm a citizen of the Jewish state, all my neighbors are Jewish, I deal almost solely with Jews in the course of a day (which drives me nuts, I wish there were some gentiles around). I speak Hebrew, my children grow up learning not only about Israel but about Judaism, which is very important to me whatever they do with that knowledge. We celebrate the Jewish holidays, and even go to a Reform synagogue on some of those holidays - strictly for the kids' sake, and, to a lesser extent, for my wife's sake, though. For myself, synagogue has never been anything but a bore. Yet regardless of my secularism, even my atheism, the fact that I'm a Jew living in Israel, surrounded by Jews and participating in the daily life of the Jewish state, makes the life I'm living a Jewish one. I know it and anybody but the most closed-minded religious Jew knows it, too. NOW LET'S take my brother-in-law and sister-in-law and their children living in Thornhill, just outside Toronto. They are ultra-Orthodox Jews, living according to Jewish law. My brother-in-law studies in yeshiva before work, my sister-in-law teaches in the synagogue kindergarten, my nephews and nieces study in yeshiva. They all dress like ultra-religious Jews and they live in a heavily Orthodox neighborhood. Their behavior is marked by a modesty, generosity and ultra-conservatism that obviously has a lot to do with their religious beliefs and practices. Anybody taking an objective, disinterested view of my in-laws' life in Thornhill would call that a Jewish life. Anybody who just sees them would know it. Even A.B. Yehoshua would know it. EVEN YEHOSHUA, the scourge of the Diaspora, would never suggest that my in-laws' life isn't a Jewish one. However, based on his recent, highly controversial remarks, he would say that my in-laws are living a "partial" or "incomplete" Jewish life. A complete Jewish life, as far as he is concerned, can only be lived in Israel. I think he'd be right about my in-laws - they are living an incomplete Jewish life because they're living in the Diaspora, not Israel. Like Yehoshua, I think all Jews in the Diaspora, even the most religious of them, are living only partial Jewish lives. Life is not only personal, it's also public, it's also national, and the only country where one can live a public, national life that's fully Jewish is Israel. BUT WHAT about the personal side of Jewish life? Is it possible to say that one's personal life is Jewish if he is basically indifferent or maybe even disdainful toward Judaism? Not necessarily as a subject for study, but as a belief in God and a practice of that belief? Judaism, the Jewish religion - isn't that also a vital part of the Jewish life, the personal Jewish life? Even if you're a Jew living in Israel? I think it is. I think all of us secular Jews in Israel - including Yehoshua, who referred to "the dull and worn-out value of Jewish spirituality" in a Haaretz magazine essay - are also living incomplete Jewish lives. In fact, I'd say my in-laws in Thornhill and other seriously religious Jews in the Diaspora, Orthodox or non-Orthodox, are not only living as Jewish a life as Yehoshua and the rest of us secular Jews in Israel, they're living a more Jewish life. We're just living a more Israeli life. It's a Jewish life, too, no question about it, but the Jewish part is in the outer shell, in the public, national, Israeli-Jewish part of our identity. For serious, honest-to-God religious Jews in the Diaspora - people whose days revolve around Jewish law, prayer, mitzvot and usually religious study as well - Judaism isn't in the outer shell of their lives, it's in the core. It suffuses their personal life, and usually their communal life as well. Yes, their lives would be more Jewish, completely Jewish, if they lived in Israel. But the lives of us secular Israeli Jews would be so much more Jewish, completely Jewish, if we were religious. Look at your typical Orthodox Jew in the Diaspora, then look at your typical secular Jew in Israel. I'll make it easier: Look at a Diaspora Orthodox Jewish wedding, then look at an Israeli secular Jewish wedding. Which is more Jewish? Who has further to go on the road to a complete Jewish life? You may be thinking: So, Mr. Atheist, why don't you become a religious Jew? My answer is that while I've been exposed to Judaism and I'm interested in Judaism, I've become absolutely convinced that I don't believe in it and that religion, any religion, is not for me. Furthermore, I don't think that the more Jewish life is necessarily the better one; religion brings out the best in some Jews and the worst in others, and so does living in Israel. But whatever I think of Judaism or Zionism, it doesn't mean I have to deny the obvious - that in Jewish life, devotion to the religion of Judaism is at least equal in importance - more so, I think - to citizenship in the Jewish state. Imagine the Jewish Diaspora without the State of Israel. Then imagine a 100% secular State of Israel in a whole world without any practicing, believing Jews. Obviously I wouldn't want to choose either one, but if I had to, as an atheist Israeli but also a Jew, I'd choose the former. In the Jewish life as in any other way of life, the core is more important than the shell.