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Judaism beyond secularism, beyond Orthodoxy

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Judaism is not a religion. According to Leora Batnitzky of Princeton University, it was only presented as such in places where Jews came to claim the same civil rights as Christians.

Judaism is not secularism. It’s a way of life that doesn’t really distinguish between the religious and the secular. As the late Gershom Scholem, one of the great 20th-century exponents of Judaism, once said in an interview, “My secularism is not secular.”

He knew that even the Hebrew language is suffused with notions of God. Living in Jerusalem for most of his life, he was aware that as much as he or his Jewish neighbours might have questioned conventional religion, argued about the existence of God and doubted the efficacy of prayer, they had their day of rest on Shabbat, thus imitating God, who, according to Scripture, rested on the seventh day. And they couldn’t celebrate a festival without finding themselves in the orbit of religion.

Israelis who describe themselves as secular may, in fact, be no further from the Jewish faith than graduates of Jewish educational institutions in the Diaspora who purport to be religious.

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Judaism is more than Orthodoxy. Orthodox Judaism doesn’t have the franchise on the heritage of Israel. When its adherents are described as religious to the exclusion of others, it’s polemic, not factual. Jews who live a different lifestyle, and for whom Judaism doesn’t centre on law and ritual observance aren’t necessarily irreligious or untouched by the sense of the sacred that permeates all of Judaism. They may not know what Scholem knew, but that doesn’t mean that they have no intimations of God, or that they are insensitive to the distinction between holy and profane.

The early pioneers who sought to escape the ambiguities of Diaspora existence and were determined to build a new society in Eretz Yisrael were often imbued with socialist fervour. Some tried very hard to remove all traces of religion from their world by replacing it with ideology, but they didn’t really succeed. They still rested on Shabbat, celebrated holidays that were rooted in Jewish tradition and spoke Hebrew, the language that embodies Judaism, even when they tried to write God out of their script.

Some of their descendants have gone further in their effort to suppress the religious dimension in their lives, despite the language they speak and the history they know. Some graduates of Israeli secular high schools and universities have never been inside a synagogue and they often manifest their “free thinking” by taking vacations abroad during Passover and the High Holidays.

We should, therefore, have good reason to applaud the efforts by Israel’s minister of education to make students in secular schools conscious and appreciative of Jewish thought and practice. But according to reports, much of the recommended curriculum is little more than indoctrination in the ways of Orthodox Judaism and the politics of religious nationalism.

The Secular Forum, an Israeli group that seeks to preserve the values of Israel’s founders, has protested against it, not because it objects to the kind of religion that Scholem had in mind, but, in the words of Naomi Zeveloff in the Forward, they’re against “the use of religious themes to explain secular subjects.” The Secular Forum called it a “systematic and ideological move” to “reshape the mindset of secular pupils by presenting an Orthodox Jewish view of the world in texts, exercises, illustrations and seemingly innocuous sentences interspersed in textbooks.”

Surely there must be a more effective way to alert students to the depth of their Jewish heritage than, as Zeveloff reports, teaching about kosher and non-kosher animals as part of the second-grade math curriculum.

If Israeli educators want all Jewish students to appreciate the religious foundations of their heritage, they’ll have to find less partisan ways of showing how the many manifestations of Judaism should be described, even when they can’t be easily defined.

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