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Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Secular Vs. Religious: Will it Lead to Civil War?

I got a phone call from my mother the other day and she mentioned my blog post, 'A Jew or Not A Jew: Who Can Say "I Do" In Israel'. She said to me, in frustration, "Ray, I don't understand why your generation isn't up in arms about this issue.  Why aren't you storming the courts and flooding the Knesset with letters?  Don't you want to be able to marry in Israel without having to comply with the demands of the Rabbanut [Rabbinical Court]?"

Well, my mother is right, as mothers usually are...although my mother is especially right being a Reform Jewish Cantor and social activist. What could I say to her in response that would help her to understand the situation between the secular and the religious in Israel? Why don't I storm the Knesset or gather friends to protest for our rights as Secular Jews to marry in Israel as we wish? Why aren't there more secular activists speaking out in the name of the oppressed Israeli atheists?

The first thing I noticed as I sat with a few of my girlfriends last night, some married, some desperate to be married and others simply frightened of the word, was that most people don't really think about the way they do things.  They just do things the way everyone else does it.  People yearn for tradition, and when it comes to weddings, people need tradition.

From the moment of their child/grandchild's birth Jewish mothers and grandmothers wait in anticipation of the wedding day, which they have already sketched out in their heads. It will be beautiful.  He will be Jewish, she will be Jewish and the whole family will be there.  The ceremony will follow the traditions of our ancestors and our ancestors' ancestors.

Many children of my generation, only two generations removed from their grandparents, follow ceremony and tradition blindly specifically because of the fact that it doesn't mean much to them.  They don't see the significance of the rituals or the Rabbinical law, but if it means something to their parents and grandparents...well, they may as well do it their way: the way it's been done for centuries.

There are those couples who just can't be bothered to go through the whole dance with the Rabbanut that is required before getting married.  They fly off to Cypress to avoid the long process. And there are the few who take a moment to think twice.  They do exist and they do care.

So why don't these few make a big stink?

Hypothetical: Let's say the secular, or non-Orthodox, did storm the Knesset with letters to protest the marriage system; let's say we even set up protests in Jerusalem.  I believe our fate would be the same as the Women of the Wall (נשות הכותל).  The Women of the Wall is "a group of Jewish women from around the world who strive to achieve the right for women, to wear prayer shawls, pray and read from the Torah collectively and out loud at the Western Wall (Kotel)  in Jerusalem, Israel".

The Women of the Wall have attempted several times to protest the strict guidelines imposed by Israeli Law via the religious right to deny women the right to conduct Jewish ceremony or prayer services at the Western Wall, the last standing wall of what was once the Second Temple and what is considered the holiest Jewish site in the world.  

Only a month or so ago, the group convened at 7 am in front of the Western Wall with a Torah Scroll and conducted the traditional ceremonial prayer service in honor of the new moon.  The all-female group convened in the women's section- being that the Wall is divided into two sections. 2/3 of the wall is sectioned off for men and 1/3 is left for women. According to Orthodox Judaism, women are a distraction to men, should not be visible or audible when men are praying, and really have no reason to be praying at all. 

Not long after the Women of the Wall began their ceremony, men on the other side of the divide began shouting nasty comments and throwing things over the divide.  As Anat Hoffman, leader of the group began to lead the group in song toward Robinson's Arch with Torah in arms, the women encountered what they described as a "blockade" of police who arrested Anat for "not praying in conjunction with the traditional customs of the Kotel [Western Wall]".

Here we have a group of Jewish women forbidden from practicing Judaism at the holiest Jewish site in the world. Here we have a secular Israeli policeman removing a religious Israeli woman from a religious site because Orthodox Jews do not agree with her way of practicing Judaism. Her Judaism offends them. If there are violent reactions towards progressive female Jews from the Orthodox, imagine how the religious would react to secular demonstrators.

But it is not only fear of violence that deters young secular Israelis from taking a stand.  There is an epidemic of widespread cynicism and apathy among Israelis of my generation who intentionally distance themselves from anything remotely connected with religion.

Take, for example, the fact that this story didn't come up once in conversation with my friends: my friends who are educated politically aware secular Jews; my friends, most of whom finishing up their masters theses in everything from International Relations and Special Needs Education to Chemistry and Archaeology.

How is it that my friends simply don't find this to be a compelling story?

Israeli youth is extremely jaded.  To deal with politicians is to dirty oneself with the politics of Israel.  Nearly every one of my friends believes that there is hardly one clean politician left in Israel.  It's nearly impossible to avoid corruption.

And anyway, who has the time and financial stability to take off from work and protest?  Most of my friends, like me, can barely pay my electricity and water bills and are moving from apartment to apartment year after year as our landlords hike up our rent.

Money, though, is a poor excuse. What is money if one has no freedom, right?

Well, if somehow the secular youth were to organize and stampede the Knesset...if it were to occur...if we could somehow make it happen... what then? What might happen?  All out civil war.

As it is, the religious right is easily persuaded to use violence against any "offensive" behavior.  All too often we hear of religious Jews throwing stones at secular Jews who drive through their neighborhood on Shabbat.  All too often women in Jerusalem are pressured by religious propaganda  to dress modestly and sit in the back of the bus.  Hell, my best friend who has a new born baby has no problem breast-feeding her baby in public anywhere else but in her hometown, Jerusalem, where she fears she will be ostracized and possibly harmed by the throngs of Religious that are fruitfully multiplying if she even made the attempt.

In a state that fears for it's own survival, the secular Jews are willing to give up their freedoms in favor of maintaining stability within the state. That's how it seems to be going right now and I'm not sure if or when things here will change.

1 comment:

  1. OK - I'm loving the way you describe things. However, I'd like to clarify something. When I asked why you are not storming the K'nesset, it was a metaphor. Storming the K'nesset would not be productive. I'd love to start with just caring. I'd love it if your friends would talk about this. I'd love it if they talked about it with their parents. Start the conversation. Do Tel Avivi's know about the Women of the Wall? Do your friends understand what Reform Judaism is and how strongly it advocates for the rights of all your secular friends. IRAC, an arm of the URJ is vociferous in its legal battles for your rights, for the rights of Jews and Palestinians - all Israelis. But do any of your friends know about it? Do they know who Anat Hoffman is?
    The fight is being fought at the Wall and in the Supreme Court. IRAC has won every law suit it has brought to the court so far. So what's most important is for your friends to know about this and to know that triumphs for these cases (access to the Wall, the Rotem Bill and many others) equals freedom for all Jews in Israel to be Jewish the way THEY want to be Jewish. Or not.


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