“I was educated like everyone else my age (in the 60’s and 70’s)… By my teens, I already sensed something was missing. The new liberated Israeli identity was good and nice but lacking. I missed depth. I lacked language, a past, heroes, places and stories…”
—Ruth Calderon, educator; former Knesset member.
How often does a Knesset speech go viral? Well, in 2013 Ruth Calderon’s first speech as a new member of Knesset became a YouTube sensation. Not only did she, a secular woman, teach a Talmudic passage to hard-core secularists and Haredim alike, but she courageously reformulated a new hope for Israeli society “where all young citizens of Israel will take part in Torah study as well as military and civil service.”
Such a vision was meant to constructively agitate both orthodox secularists and the Orthodox religious establishment toward building a shared Jewish home.
Her words reveal a seismic shift taking place in Israeli Jewish life and would have been unimaginable just a decade before.
Too many Israelis – by their own admission – feel like strangers within Jewish culture. They want to return “home” on their own terms and rebuild a new relationship to Judaism. They want to forge new conversations between Judaism and Zionism in order to open-up a new Jewish future for Israel’s citizens.
Over the past decade, dozens of institutions and forums have popped up all along the secular Israeli landscape that create new opportunities for Israelis to engage Jewish learning and make it meaningful for their modern Israeli lives. Music, art, poetry and literature are all mediums in this cultural revival.
This revolutionary reorientation towards Judaism in broad swaths of secular Israeli society is breathtaking. Where not all that long ago Judaism was something to be dismissed or greeted with disdain, now Jewish traditions and learning are perceived as a life-giving source for values and wisdom one can access to meet the social and political challenges of contemporary Israeli life. Israelis on the left are searching for new inspiration, something that has more heft than liberal individualism.
But this phenomenon of Israelis building a new relationship with Judaism is not only the purview of the hilonim (secularists).
This explosion of new energy within Israeli society has impacted multiple sectors of Israeli Jewish life. As an example, in January 2020, the first siyum (concluding party) for women on the occasion of the conclusion of the daily cycle of Talmud study was held in Jerusalem. Michelle Farber, a resident of Raanana and the Founder of Hadran, an organization advancing Talmud study for women, is the first woman in Jewish history to teach an entire cycle of the Babylonian Talmud on-line. Thousands of woman and men participated in this celebration – both in real time in Jerusalem and virtually globally – and her work continues to expand the numbers of people studying Talmud at an advanced level.
Most excitingly, this renewal of cultural and religious activity is organic to the Israeli scene. It’s not imported.
This renaissance is occurring on a grass roots level, inspired by local spiritual entrepreneurs, working outside the State system of centrally controlled religion. And not surprisingly, this work is thoroughly embedded in Israeli culture.
Forging New Jewish Conversations
This turn towards traditionalism and Judaism is occurring alongside the flourishing of Israeli national identity. Shmuel Rosner and Camil Fuchs recently published a broad survey of Jewish identity within Israel today. Their essential conclusion is that Israeli society is developing a home grown, robust Jewish identity that fuses traditional Judaism and Jewish nationalism.
That is to say, alongside traditional observance and values like Shabbat and holidays, Israelis are folding in their commitments to the land of Israel, to the State, and to the army in their understanding of Jewishness. Within this formulation raising one’s children to serve in the IDF is a value that is part of their understanding of being a good Jew. Israeliness and Judaism are merging.
Professor Kimmy Caplan claims that a similar dynamic is also occurring in Haredi communities. The classic Haredi isolationist, anti-modern, anti-national identity is giving way to a more nationalistic and integrating posture. The use of modern Hebrew and even Hebrew slang within Haredi circles is becoming more and more common.
And with language comes the internalization of other Israeli values. While keeping their religious commitments, they are increasingly integrating into Israeli society as a whole. Caplan labels this process Israelization.
Again, from the left and from the right, we see movement into the cultural center of society which is characterized by the rhythms of the Jewish calendar, distinct Israeli takes on tradition and Israeli nationalism.
Ultimately, Israeli Judaism represents not one but many diverse, creative, and authentically Israeli attempts to put Judaism into meaningful conversation with contemporary life. Israeli Judaism is a movement to return “home” and in order to build a new Jewish future.