To be Jewish, even without God
Why does Leonard Cohen know Balaam's blessing and masses in Ramat Gan stadium do not? How do we return to ways of Jabotinsky and Brenner? In a paper drawn up for Presidential Conference, Prof. Ruth Gavison urges us to develop Judaism's cultural side and ignore the divine element. Is there such a thing as a Jewish identity?
Immediately after the first song he looked at the thousands sitting before him and said the most appropriate Jewish phrase for the moment: "How goodly are your tents, oh Jacob; your dwelling places, oh Israel." The masses clapped in excitement but it was obvious to me that the excitement mostly stemmed from the revered figure mumbling some words in the local language making us feel proud, similar to Clinton's stammered "Shalom, haver."
But Cohen didn't learn to memorize a random Jewish text written in Latin letters to impress the Israelis (and I do beg Clinton's forgiveness). No, he knew and understood exactly what he was saying and why. He knew that when Balaam stood on top of the mountain with the intention of cursing Israel by the order of the reigning tyrant Balak, the king of Moab, he was so overwhelmed by the people of Israel's massive presence that he broke into song and coined this monumental phrase for generations to come.
Cohen also knew, at the end of the concert, to bless the audience with the traditional Priestly Blessing, being a cohen himself, and not conclude with a random meaningless quote.
But I doubt, and pardon the generalization, if most members of the audience, which was mainly comprised of Ashkenazi seculars, comprehended the context beyond the actual words. And why is that? Why should he – a secular Canadian Jew who spent five years in a Buddhist monastery know it, and they shouldn't? The answer is painfully simple – because he has a rich profound Jewish identity, despite being secular.
Jewish identity, Gavison's version
This issue, the question of the existence of a Jewish secular identity is one of the most important and painful issue the Israeli society faces today, in my opinion. Not just me, it appears that other more important people than I feel the same way and are hardly religious, such as President Shimon Peres and Professor Ruth Gavison.
On Tuesday the second Israeli Presidential Conference organized by President Peres will begin, one of the topics on the agenda being Jewish identity. I spoke to Prof. Gavison, who was asked to write a position paper ahead of the conference, on the subject. In the paper, Gavison discusses the question of Jewish identity, the nature of Judaism in the present day and the extent of its importance for the existence of the Jewish people, while debating fundamental dilemmas which define the Jewish identity, including the role of religion in shaping Jewish identity, the State's role and even the role of the Holocaust.
Aside from being a legalist of the highest order and one of the leading Israeli public figures on matters of law ethics, the court's role and more (and also my teacher in the Hebrew University's Faculty of Law over a decade ago..), in recent years Gavison has been addressing the issue of the line between state and religion, among others, in the framework of the Gavison-Medan covenant, the editing of Haim Cohen's book on who is a Jew, and more.
I asked her whether she thinks there is such a thing as a Jewish secular identity. She replied an unequivocal yes, but added that it is not a coherent or stable identity and more importantly isn't passed on to future generations in an orderly way.
She believes that the secular society needs to put in great effort into dealing with these questions – how does one form this identity? How does one impart it to future generations? How does one make it dynamic, evolving and relevant?
There is no solution, she says, but to acknowledge the fact that Judaism is a religion + culture + civilization and that, for the sake of the argument, we need to neutralize the element of God from it and in fact develop the cultural aspect - yes, it is possible to disregard the Godly aspect in the bible on the sublime-religious context and remain with the literary, moral, principled, legal, level. This also applies to the Talmud, the answers and questions literature and the entire Jewish religious world.
Obviously the term "to neutralize the God element" bothers me as a religious person, but neither I nor the likes of me are at the center of the issue, and in this context it is also obvious to me that she is right. Didn't the founding fathers of Zionism and the new "Israeliness" do just that – Jabotinsky, Ben Gurion, Brenner and others? Where have they failed? In imparting it onwards.
Today, those figures' third generation has no knowledge and awareness but it does know, as Prof. Gavison said, that "they threw the baby out with the bathwater." When they wanted to eliminate God, pardon me, they eliminated everything and were left without an alternative in the Jewish context.
Therefore, in order to sustain the Jewish-particular identity, alongside a cosmopolitan, democratic and humanist identity, it takes thorough and profound work common to seculars and religious alike who need to understand that our togetherness here cannot be dictated by one side or one opinion.
The conversation with Prof. Gavison dealt with much more that what has been described, it was rich and fascinating and left me with many open questions. I am glad to be part of a community which deals with these questions so intensely and holds deep, piercing and times painful and extremely controversial discussions on it. But as we in our community - on the "micro" level, like Prof. Gavison and the organizers of the Presidential conference - on the "macro" level, believe: We don't have, nor does the Israeli society as a whole has, the privilege of not discussing it, because it concerns us directly.