Sunday, October 22, 2006

Twenty Four Hour Time Differential Treatment

Simply add nine hours to the time that you see to find out what time I really posted the blog. The best way to do this is to add 9 to the number, and if it's greater than twelve, subtract twelve. For example, 5:57 AM. Add 9, so you get 14:57 PM, then subract twelve, and you get 2:57 PM. I posted this blog at 9:57 AM according to this computer's clock.
Israeli Culture - Jewish Culture

I spent my first observed Shabbat in Omer, the suburb of Be'er Sheva in which my mom and her sister (Tzila) and family live, and it was pretty nice. One of the biggest things that I'm adjusting to is that, for a person who is observant in Israel versus in other places, here all the places and things being spoken about in the davining [praying] (which are from the Tanakh) happened right here in places that you can visit. It's amazing how in the U.S. when I davin, even though it's real, there is something theoretical about it, which of course I would only know once I've davined here. It's something that I'm still trying to connect in my mind, which I probably eventually will. For example, if you go to the Kotel [Western Wall] and davin (which I haven't yet) and you read the Akeidah (binding of Isaac), that occurred right on top of the area where the mosque is. I mean, you're recalling the binding of Isaac literally within a very short distance from where it actually occurred. That's a bit overwhelming to me and I'll have to perch on that one like an egg for a while before I actually get it. On top of that, Israel is basically all Jewish, so being an observant Jew here takes on a different meaning, one that I'm still trying to get because I've gotten so used to davining in physical galus [exile]. There isn't much that sets you apart from other people here, although that's not what drove me to be observant in the States, but a side-effect of being observant in the States is that being different can become a motivating factor. Here, the only thing that makes you different, if even, is that one is observant and one is not. Even the culture here is religious, which apparently makes some people come to the conclusion that since the culture is religious, the need for religion itself is called into question.

The other day I had a conversation with the husband of the lady for whom my mom works (she babysits her daughters). He was telling me how in Israel, everything and everyone is Jewish, the shops (for the most part) all close on Shabbat, and basically everything is kosher (regardless of what type of hechsher you choose) - you don't need to do much to be religious. I thought to myself, "That's interesting. Does your intent in your mind and heart have to be observant, or can you just follow all the laws without meaning to? Does that count as being religious?" I strive to say "yes," because on one hand, you cannot control a person's mind and heart, and so the way for a religious state to function is by providing, for example, only kosher food. But in Israel too you may buy kosher cheese and kosher meat and make an un-kosher meal, so religiosity still boils down to a willful choice. On top of that, there are places where you can buy non-kosher foods, and from the way he made it sound, they are labeled "non-kosher foods." Hehe, that's a bit crude - legally speaking it's like saying, "Here's where you can do all the illegal stuff." State law and religious law - different concepts. So in light of that, I would say "no," living in a state where the opportunity to be religious is provided for you in mass quantities does not amount to being religious, because your choice can always be to not be religious. The conclusion? You cannot really be religious by osmosis, you must have a say in your absorbing it. His opinion was that Israel should not be a theocracy, forcing you to eat kosher and closing your store on Shabbat (since working is prohibited), and indeed we see that all of the people in Omer close their stores on Shabbat willfully; what they do at home with regards to turning lights on and off, for example, which is also prohibited by Jewish Law, is done in the privacy of their own homes. His point was that free will should be the only determining factor in choosing to comply with Jewish Law, and I can agree, but so many people don't use their free will for that same stated purpose.

But maybe, I'm thinking, I'm thinking like a galus Jew, like a Jew who has lived in a place where his surrounding culture is so separated from Jewish religiosity that he has been forced out of necessity to create a definition of Judaism that is explicitly religious. That, at least, is what the man intoned of "galus Judaism." (my phrase) But then I thought, "the Torah says not to eat these foods," so observance is not a matter of culture or responses to adversity, it's plain out law. In times of adversity the law might be the only social adhesive that the Jews have, but if you take away that adversity, the law does not disappear. And I think that's the unique scenario in Israel; the overarching external threats have "suddenly" disappeared, so now the people have the chance to ponder if they really need the Torah or not. They begin to wonder if perhaps they can replace that "older" social glue with a newer one, and that's the creation of Israeli culture.

Now here's the interesting question - how Jewish is Israeli culture? It's pretty Jewish, but for the last 2,000 years "Jewish" has meant "being a minority within a non-Jewish majority," and so a Jewish country challenges the notion that to be a Jew is to define yourself as the opposite of everyone all the time. That's why 56 year-old Israel is still being created - the date of Israel's independence was, to a degree, an arbitrary date in the history of the Jewish people - it did not stop Jewish history, it just redirected it to a different direction. We must also consider that Israel allowed Jewish history to continue, not just because all the Jews (of Europe at least) would have been murdered, but because it allowed us to keep our identity intact, which was soon to become impossible in Europe. Nevertheless, even before I was becoming observant I had the feeling that Israeli's seemed to think about the creation of Israel as the end of their history as Jews, which then allowed (and necessitated) a culture that was, in their minds, not Jewish. This makes sense if the attempt to break from Jewish history was the attempt to break from the darkness that was so closely attached to it, from the Ashkenazi (European Jews') perspective. By discarding Jewish identity, perhaps one could discard the onslaught that came with it. The brilliant irony of this is that the external threats have not disappeared, they are still there, in the form of Arab state policies, i.e., Islam, and there is even an internal promise of destruction connected to the external nations, the farce of Palestinian nationalism.

I'm pro-Israeli culture though, if I understand that the State of Israel is the first collection of Jews in thousands of years into a sovereign political and social entity, then I have no choice but to accept that it exists. That I accept the existence of Israeli culture of course doesn't exempt me from being a critic of Israeli society (and from seeing its good points too). It's not enough to just accept it though, like I'm simply tolerating something that would be better if it did not exist. Culture is what happens when you put a bunch of people together in defined borders, especially if they have a common basis for identity, like the Jews. So here Israeli culture is the basis of expression of identity, which is being Jewish. The only thing I can pray for is for Israeli culture to reap value in producing a culture which is reflective of Jewish values, and Jewish values are religious in nature, not secular.

You can't ask for every single individual to become the most machmir Jew out there, but you can ask for them to be mindful of the most basic of mitzvah's, like kashrut and Shabbat. It is not too far beyond the reaches of human imagination to envision and create a society in which everybody recognizes Shabbat. The first Zionists, many of which were Socialist ideologues, lifted the kibbutzim (small socialist communities) into existence by the labor of their very hands and turned them into flourishing centers of production for the entire State. Today, many production companies are known by the names chosen by those original kibbutzim - by many tokens, the kibbutzim were a success. The Socialist Zionists were motivated by Herzl's words, "If you want it, it is no myth," - "Im tirtzu, ein zo hagada." Preparing food before Shabbat so that one does not have to cook during that time is an easy task compared to erecting and establishing kibbutzim from nothing. So again, it boils down to a matter of choice.