My family and I have just returned from a visit to Israel in honor of my son’s bar mitzvah and I wanted to share with you an interesting aspect of our trip, and to hear your take on it. It seems that wherever we went, average, non-religious Israelis knew a lot about Judaism, and sometimes even more than us as religious Jews. We found that very interesting and encouraging on one level, but on another, it was frustrating because whenever the discussion turned toward observance, they were adamantly opposed to it. How can they be so knowledgeable on the one hand, but so unwilling to observe on the other?
Mazal tov on the bar mitzvah of your son! It sounds like you made the best of it, not only by exploring Israel, but also by exploring Judaism with Israelis. No doubt this enriched your son’s appreciation of the variety and diversity of the Jewish people. Still, your question shows you are a bit unsettled about the tension between Judaism and secularism in Israel.
It’s important to remember that the early leaders of the secular Zionist movement were themselves raised in religious families. As young adults, they rejected observant Judaism, which in their minds was the source of continued Jewish suffering, in favor of a worldview and lifestyle that would redeem the Jewish people and gain the admiration of the nations.
Since many were rooted in Jewish education, and proud of their Jewish identity, and their agenda was to protect and preserve the national identity of the Jewish people, they naturally drew upon and adapted the teachings and practices of Judaism to their program, but with a secular, nationalistic bent.
This approach was manifested in all spheres: social, economic, the military and education. The result is that the average secular Israeli is raised with a much stronger sense of Jewish identity and Jewish knowledge than Jews of western countries. On the other hand, this Jewish identity and knowledge is often purely secular and nationalistic in nature, imbued with a religious-like fervor of its own.
Since much of Israeli education in these matters aims at undermining millennia old Judaism and replacing it with the new (now outdated) Zionist zeal, Israelis who come through the system are taught, at best, a purely secular/academic view of Judaism, and more often a slanted, propagandist and cynical view of traditional Judaism and Jews.
The result of all this is the source of the frustration you felt about Israelis being Jewishly so close yet so far. Nevertheless, it is the average Israeli’s familiarity, which, although may make them “hard to handle”, also enables them to quickly accept Judaism once you pare away the peel. This is the dynamic behind the significant teshuva movement taking place in Israel today, of which the following story is just one example.
There was once a Torah scholar who rarely left the insular confines of the ultra-religious neighborhoods of Jerusalem until one day he needed access to an old religious text in the Hebrew University Library. Once there, he learned through the morning in yeshiva-like fashion by reading out loud. By noon, he took out his lunch, ceremoniously washed his hands for bread, and then recited the after-blessing in the customary audible way. The librarian eyed this peculiar behavior with disdain, but refrained from chastising him for his “unorthodox decorum” until after he finished his blessings.
The visibly secular Israeli young woman reprimanded the rabbi: “I don’t expect you to be aware of the decorum appropriate to a university library so I overlooked your noisy learning, clumsy washing, eating in the library and blessing out loud. But as a rabbi, I expect you to at least say the prayers right. You said ‘she lo nikashel’ (may we not falter) at the end of the third blessing and those words aren’t part of the prayer!”
Amazed at her awareness of the subtlety of the text, he nevertheless insisted on the correctness of his version. She produced siddur after siddur from the library shelves, and none had the rabbi’s version. Apparently, she was right.
The scholar returned to his neighborhood and after a long search, he finally found an official source for his family’s custom. He copied the page, encircled the relevant words in red ink, adding arrows for emphasis, and mailed the page in an envelope addressed: “To the young librarian who worked on such-and-such a day who argued with me about the version of birkat hamazon”, Hebrew University Library, Jerusalem.
Needless to say, he never heard back from her.
A year or two went by. He received an invitation to what looked like a religious wedding but he didn’t recognize the names of the bride or groom. Realizing he didn’t receive an invitation by chance, and not wanting to offend, he attended. There, he didn’t recognize anyone. Eventually, he was told that the bride would like to speak to him. Once near the women’s side, he just barely recognized the now obviously Orthodox secular librarian. “Is that you?”
She explained that at the time he came to the library, she had been going out with a non-Jewish man. He was pressing for marriage, but she was uncertain for that reason. A few months went by, and he finally gave her an ultimatum, either she agree to marry or it’s over. In a whirl of confusion and mixed emotions, she got to work only to find the rabbi’s peculiarly addressed letter, which had only then arrived. When she opened it up and saw the words “may we not falter” so emphatically highlighted, and considered the strange course of events through which this message was communicated to her, she understood what she had to do.
She broke up with the boyfriend, investigated Judaism, became religious, and was now about to marry a young Israeli man of similar background with the intention of building a religious home and family. The most important guest at her Orthodox wedding, she explained, was the “unorthodox” rabbi and addressee who saved her from faltering.