Archive for September, 2014

Of Uman, Community and the 21st Century “I”

Some years ago I celebrated Rosh Hashanah in Uman. I went there out of curiosity and a wish to understand the trend. But when I began to wander around the town among the thousands of Jews engaged in prayer, something happened to me: I became one of them. There was something contagious about the gathering together, or perhaps the brotherhood of men, or the mass prayer, and I was captivated by the intoxicating charm that pervaded the place like unseen fog. I took pleasure in the immersion into it, and let myself fall in love with the whirling goings-on around me.

There are many reasons why Uman is a special religious event, but in truth one need not travel that far in order to feel an integral part of community prayer. It can be found in every synagogue, every day. Especially on holidays – and even more so on the High Holidays – many Israelis who never attend synagogue during the year come to be part of the festival. I think it is not surprising that the Yom Kippur services attract so many. The ‘holiest day of the year’ somehow compels us to gather together. It is worth trying to understand why.

Let us look at the question from the opposite side: Can the High Holidays be celebrated alone? Not from a Halakhic perspective, or even from the question of social feasibility, but mainly from an existential-religious point of view: can Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur or Sukkot be celebrated by the lone individual? Festivals are generally designed to be community events and it is easy to understand how holiday traditions strengthen ties between community members. It is also known that holidays are troubled times for those without family or community with whom they can celebrate. But our question addresses a different issue: is there a religious, spiritual meaning to the community celebration?

We who have been raised, educated and live in a western, democratic society share a worldview that places the individual – his rights, obligations and above all, his autonomy – at the center. The monolithic, autocratic status of the individual is an assumed prerequisite of our justice system, economy and form of government. The logic upon which all this is based is straightforward: The individual is responsible for his opinions and accountable for his acts, for which he alone reaps reward or punishment.

To understand how vastly different this worldview is from one that is family or tribal-oriented, one need only examine the ancient customs and laws of society that assigned collective responsibility for the deeds, good and bad, of its members. The practice of blood revenge and honor killing make sense and can be perceived as just only if the entire tribe assumes responsibility for all its members, or because the family is seen as one social and legal entity. Yibum, the levirate marriage laws, is another example; it is appropriate only if brothers are bound to the perpetuation of each other’s names. Today, of course, the situation is very different. The individual – not the family, despite our fondness for saying so – is the cornerstone of modern society.

It is apparent to us that holding the individual responsible for his deeds represents a moral leap forward in the social and legal realms (a fitting answer to the prophet’s cry, “If the fathers ate sour grapes should the child’s teeth be set on edge?”). But from a spiritual-religious point of view, individualism lacks a vital dimension. Our modern eyes view a religious individual as one who has a personal relationship, whether more or less intimate, with God. Or we may speak of someone who is ‘on a spiritual journey,’ expected to bring that person to a loftier plane, through a private, internal transformation. Yet I maintain that by shifting from communal to private religiosity, we have lost an important element in our spiritual lives.

To clarify the matter, I refer to Emile Durkheim (1858-1917), whose writings form a basis for research on religion as a social feature. Durkheim spoke of man as Homo Duplex, the “double man”, i.e., an individual and a social being in one. Each of us has these two sides and none of us can be understood by looking at only one dimension of identity. Durkheim goes on to observe the difference between a religion rooted in the individual, dependent upon his choice and designed according to his needs, and a religion of community, bequeathed to the individual by his ancestors, that first and foremost answers communal needs. Though related, they are distinct.

The process of secularization experienced by the West over the last few hundred years has significantly weakened the latter (which has split into a growing variety of streams and movements) and has brought an unprecedented measure of popularity to the former (consider, for example, New Age spiritual circles). As a sociologist it is easy to guess that for Durkheim, the communal ceremony was the formative premise of the community. But Durkheim posited another important argument: that the collective ceremony was also the formative premise of religion and religious experience.

According to Durkheim,

The very act of congregating is an exceptionally powerful stimulant. Once the individuals are gathered together, a sort of electricity is generated from their closeness and quickly launches them to an extraordinary height of exaltation. Every emotion expressed resonates without interference in consciousnesses that are wide open to external impressions, each one echoing the others. (The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, p. 217)

Gatherings thus have more than just a social aspect; they have experiential meaning. The individual who celebrates as part of the community heightens his powers of perceptiveness and the force of his emotions, and when these are directed towards the Divine dimension, a powerful religious experience is produced. Thus, celebration of a festival by an isolated individual poses not only a technical Halakhic and social difficulty but also results in a deficient religious experience. Without reducing our religiosity to solely the experiential, we can still establish that communal prayer and celebration carries religious added value. The spiritual resonance between members of a community at a ceremony or prayer is conducive to an emotional receptiveness that enables us to reach a much more heightened sensitivity than we could reach alone.

We can therefore see that collective ritual practice not only shapes the community, it also fulfills each individual’s need for community. In other words, we need community not only in order to survive or to meet the challenges of life more efficiently, but also in order to develop culturally, spiritually and religiously. We are communal creatures no less than we are individuals. Without understanding ourselves as Homo Duplex, comprised of two active identities – the personal and the communal – we cannot comprehend how vital the collective religious ceremony is for us.

To return to the High Holidays: The communal prayer services on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the family meals, the welcoming of guests in the Sukkah, all these bring us together to address our God in concert. Not by chance are the festivals designed thus, and not by chance is the community present in the synagogue on the High Holidays in increased numbers. Our ability to truly celebrate the holidays is dependent upon our doing so with others. The singular sanctity of these days and the desire of the many to make them special bring added emphasis upon their communal observance. The start of a new year is intensified by shared celebration.


Aired in The Times of Isreal. English translation: Penina Goldschmidt.

Assembly-line Jewish conversion

The situation resulting from the immigration of hundreds of thousand of people who are not Jews according to halakha (Jewish religious law) during the 1990s poses a tough challenge to Orthodoxy, a challenge it doesn’t seem able to meet. The reason is simple: In contrast to the conservative and technical nature of halakha, public opinion is characterized by flexibility and joie de vivre. While those hundreds of thousands of people are considered non-Jews by halakha, as far as most Israeli citizens are concerned they are Jews in every respect.

In a poll published by Haaretz a month ago, 75 percent of the secular people questioned said they would not try to prevent a marriage between a relative and “a new immigrant who isn’t Jewish according to halakha,” while among the religious-Zionist respondents only 29 percent wouldn’t object to such a marriage and among the Haredim only 5 percent. All told, 56 percent of Israelis wouldn’t make a big deal about a relative marrying one of these hundreds of thousands.

And lest we think that we dealing with broad cosmopolitan pluralism, the same survey revealed that with regard to a relative marrying an Arab or a European Christian, the objection among the total Israeli population would be 72 percent and 53 percent, respectively. In other words, Israelis aren’t open to everything; these veteran immigrants are simply considered by most Israelis to be Jews, whatever the halakha might say.

The recent debate over the “conversion law” proposed by MK Elazar Stern (Hatnuah) blatantly revealed the degree to which this is almost completely an intra-Orthodox struggle. Stern and the Habayit Hayehudi party want to expand the conversion apparatus, while the Haredi parties object. What emerges from this is that if there is no reform in the conversion process, weddings between those who are Jews according to halakha and those who are not will continue, and those who want to avoid marrying their descendents will be forced to keep genealogical records.

The problem is that even if such a reform is enacted, there will still be those among the strictly religious who will not recognize it and will not accept the descendents of such converts as Jews. So either way there will remain a group of Orthodox Jews that will insist, contrary to most of the nation, on relating to part of the people as non-Jews. The struggle over conversion conditions is nothing but an internal Orthodox scuffle aimed at determining the limits of that group.

So here we have another example, one of many, of self-centered patronizing by the State of Israel’s Orthodox establishment. Its members are fighting among themselves for the right to convert people who aren’t interested in converting, to make them eligible to marry people who even now see nothing wrong with them, and all this just so that they themselves will find it easier in the future to see large parts of the Israeli people as Jews – even though Israelis themselves have long ignored the halakhic categories that this group considers so important.

But what makes this ridiculous festival so sad is a deeper issue. This whole story illustrates not just the Orthodox establishment’s narcissism, but also demonstrates in the most extreme fashion how a major proportion of Israeli rabbis take a totally technical and utilitarian view of halakha, and perhaps of the entire Jewish religion.

After all, what’s going on here? We’re talking about conversion, which is probably the deepest, most personal, and most difficult thing a person can do; it’s changing one’s identity, entering a new framework of meaning, and in this case making a covenant with God and the Jewish people. Conversion is being turned into a pathetic bureaucratic matter, a mechanical procedure entirely designed to calm those rabbis so that their children or their neighbors’ children won’t marry non-Jews, so there won’t be “assimilation.” For this they will expand the conversion system, ease the conditions for conversion, and conduct a marketing campaign for joining the Jewish people as if it were soft drinks.

These rabbis don’t seem to care what motivates the converts or what spiritual journey they have been through. The main thing is to accept them and convert them on an assembly line so that there will be as many Jews as possible – that is, more people who agreed to take some classes and say “Amen” to everything they’re told. All this is to get their status changed on their identity card so the only democracy in the Middle East will allow them to get married and in general treat them like human beings.

And if that’s what the rabbinical establishment looks like, is it any wonder that so few people want to convert?


published today in Haaaretz.

Tomer Persico

“The blog of one of the conference participants, Tomer Persico, has made him one of the most consistently interesting observers of Israeli religious life.”

Yehudah Mirsky, "Aquarius in Zion", Jewish Ideas Daily, 17.5.12

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