A movement of stunning popularity is drawing secular Israelis, determined to break the Orthodox monopoly on Jewish sources, to study traditional texts like the Bible and Talmud. Now that Zionism has liberated the Jewish people, they are out to liberate Judaism.

EVERY THURSDAY NIGHT, in a ranch house near Tel Aviv, pollster Mina Zemach and businessman Boaz Zurabin jointly host a study group on Jewish philosophy for two dozen of their influential friends. In North Tel Aviv, bastion of secular Israel, psychologists meet weekly to discuss midrash, or rabbinic interpretations of the Bible; a course on Jewish mysticism is about to open in North Tel Aviv’s country club. Pluralistic versions of the traditional beit midrash, or study hall – where adults learn together in pairs – are being formed in the northern upper-middle-class town of Zikhron Ya’akov and in the southern working-class town of Yeroham. And a pilot program is about to introduce Jewish study into local community centers, with the aim of creating programs throughout the country by next fall.

Those groups and programs are part of an amorphous but growing movement of secularists seeking Jewish literacy by turning to the study of Bible and Talmud – a movement whose sudden popularity has stunned even those who are leading it. “Something” is happening which almost none of the experts predicted: that at a time of rising secular-Orthodox tensions, many secularists would begin seeking their place in Judaism rather than opt for a “post-Jewish” Israeli identity. And while it is too early to predict where the trend will ultimately lead, activists say it will transform Israeli culture and prevent the country from dividing into two rival peoples – one with little interest in Judaism, the other with little interest outside it.

The movement’s goal isn’t to transform secularists into Orthodox Jews but the opposite: to create new variations of a Jewishly rooted secular identity. Activists see the recent controversy over Gil Kopatch – the TV comic whose often-bawdy commentaries on the Torah portion of the week aroused intense ultra-Orthodox opposition – as a milestone in affirming the right of secularists to define their own relationship to Judaism.

The movement’s approach relies heavily on psychological and literary, rather than explicitly religious, analyses of traditional texts. In study groups, bareheaded men and women learn together – anathema to Orthodoxy. Some groups are exclusively secular, while others draw together secular and liberal Orthodox in an attempt to develop a common Israeli culture traversing the religious and political divide.

About two dozen intellectuals are sitting in a small Jerusalem living room, crowded together so intimately that their shoulders touch. They include leading left-wing journalists Yaron London and Amnon Dankner and rabbis from West Bank settlements. They hold Xeroxed sheets of prayers and Talmudic passages dealing with death, and debate the Jewish approach to mourning.

“I never imagined that saying Kaddish would be so powerful,” says David Ohanah, a secular historian whose mother has just died. “But why do we need a prayer in Aramaic?” counters Yaron London. “If it isn’t in clear Hebrew, it should be thrown out.” “The music of the Aramaic text is its power,” argues Amnon Dankner, “it has the ring of generations.” London: “An Indian rain dance would have the same effect.”

They call their informal group Shaharit, referring both to dawn and to the age-old early morning prayer service, affirming the new and the old. Shaharit’s agenda isn’t just creating a high-level secular-Orthodox study group, though, but a lobby for Jewish culture in the educational system and the media – for example, expanding Jewish programming on government TV from its half-hour, Saturday-night Orthodox “ghetto,” as Dankner calls it. The purpose is to strengthen secular Israelis’ Jewish identity – challenged by what Shaharit members see as increasing nihilism in secular culture and rising fanaticism within Orthodoxy, which dominates Israeli Judaism. “I have no intention, with God’s help, of becoming Orthodox,” says Dankner ironically. “This is about making a new secular contribution to Judaism.”

THE KEY WORD THAT EMERGES in conversations with the movement’s leading figures is empowerment: that is, helping secularists overcome a sense of Judaic inadequacy and repossess traditional texts. Among secularists, ignorance of Judaism is clearly growing. “I’ve heard teachers misquote the first line of the Shma,” the basic Jewish prayer, says Deborah Weissman, who directs Kerem, a veteran Jerusalem institution training teachers in humanistic Judaism.

Yet despite the ignorance, a clear majority of Israelis still identify with Judaism: According to polls, almost all Jewish Israelis attend Passover Seders and circumcise their sons; last year, 70 percent fasted on Yom Kippur. The “Jewish empowerment movement” – a loose coalition of institutions and informal study groups, many of whom scarcely know of each other’s existence – is aimed at precisely that secular majority which wants to affirm its Jewish identity but is increasingly uncertain about what “Jewish” means.

There is nothing new about groups promoting the study of religious texts among secularists. Institutions like the Shalom Hartman Institute, Kerem and the kibbutz movement’s college, Oranim, have long encouraged secular encounter with Judaic sources. But now those pioneering institutions suddenly find themselves at the center of unprecedented public interest. And while there are no statistics of how many secularists are turning to Jewish study, leaders of the empowerment movement say that the number is climbing into the thousands.

At Jerusalem’s Elul – a Jewish study center bringing together secular and Orthodox educators, artists and graduate students, whose enrollment of 300 this term is double last year’s – hardly a day goes by without the office receiving a request for help from some new group trying to form. “We used to think Elul would remain unique,” says Yair Caspi, a non-Orthodox sociologist who directs Elul, founded eight years ago and funded by private donors from abroad and by the Education Ministry. “Now groups all over the country want to adopt our model. We can’t handle the number of requests. We’re in shock.”

A new group called the Milah Institute is targeting the cultural, business and political elites with free classes on basic Jewish literacy. Its groups include a class on the Torah portion of the week for Knesset members and a class on Talmud for executives of Fogel-Levine, a leading public relations firm. According to founder and head Mordechai Gafni, a 35-year-old American-born Orthodox rabbi, Milah plans to create 150 study groups, each with some 25 participants from “cutting-edge Israel,” as he puts it.

Gafni represents a new kind of Orthodox outreach activist, whose goal isn’t to convince secular Jews to put on tefillin but simply to “know what they’re rejecting,” and who accept the necessity of secular interpretations of Judaism. “An unholy alliance between secular Zionism and the religious establishment has stolen Jewish knowledge from the people,” he says. “Both say it belongs only to the Orthodox.”

Though institutions like Milah and Elul are clearly allies, tensions could emerge between Orthodox patrons of empowerment and its secular leaders, who may eventually feel the need for cultural independence. The movement will also test the intentions of its Orthodox supporters: whether they can be satisfied with developing a common Jewish language with secularists or whether they really hope to bring them “back into the fold.”

The ultimate Orthodox staging ground for secular empowerment – and the Harvard of the movement, which has produced some of its most important leaders – is the Shalom Hartman Institute, which on December 1 opened its new, $ 9-million Jerusalem campus. It is built of pink stone and glass walls, with outdoor corridors shaded by awnings and stone gardens with wild flowers growing between the boulders. The campus houses a progressive Orthodox high school, a think tank for dealing with the ethical and philosophical problems of running a Jewish state, and a beit midrash for 60 young secular and Orthodox scholars.

AND THIS NEW PROGRAM: A BEIT midrash for some 100 teachers and principals from secular high schools, which seeks to transform them into emissaries of Jewish empowerment. Participants meet in an octagonal-shaped hall built of pale wood beneath a glass pyramid roof, studying issues like power and morality and the meaning of holiness, and attending lectures on innovative approaches to Jewish education. While secular schools have emphasized history and archaeology in Bible study, the Hartman approach – more conducive to post-collectivist Israel – urges students to find a personal connection with the Biblical narrative, to think of what the text means to them.

Rabbi Donniel Hartman, 38, son of philosopher and Hartman Institute head Rabbi David Hartman, directs the educators’ training program. Every week he visits another participating school to meet its teaching staff, to encourage wider participation in the school’s Jewish educational efforts. One night recently, he traveled to North Tel Aviv to meet with several dozen teachers in Beit Sefer Tikhon Hadash, one of the city’s best schools. Just inside the building’s entrance is a bulletin board with newspaper clippings about the Rabin assassination, as if the shock of that event was still immediate here. Another bulletin board is devoted to Amnesty International; nearby hang student murals based on ancient Egyptian and African art. Though no Jewish symbols are visible, the school’s principal, Tamar Gordon, who calls herself a “Hartman groupie,” has recently introduced classes on Judaism and modernity, on topics including democracy and mercy killing.

Speaking a fluent, American-accented Hebrew, Hartman tells the teachers: “Judaism isn’t a spectator sport but a participatory sport. If 3,000 years of Judaism are foreign to you, you’ve placed yourself outside the game. Too many Israelis believe that authentic Judaism is the Judaism they hate. Don’t say you’re not religious.’ I hate that term. Define yourselves by who you are. You have to say, I’m a Shabbat observer and this is my Shabbat’ – however you mark it. And whatever you do, don’t ask me how many Orthodox Jews think like me. Why do you need validation from people whose ideas you oppose?”

Then it is the turn of the teachers to speak. How do you expect me to dialogue with violent right-wingers, demands one man. And what about those “blessed” amulets distributed as election bribes by the ultra-Orthodox, adds a woman. Hartman listens patiently to secular Israel’s visceral revulsion against Orthodoxy, and then says that those complaints miss his point: that secular Israelis need to take responsibility for their own Judaism, and stop giving the Orthodox veto power over their Jewish identity and practice.

Finally, one woman says, “What you’re saying is very nice, but how many Orthodox Jews are there like you?”

Hartman spreads his arms in a massive shrug and laughs.

THE CATALYST FOR THE empowerment movement, agree activists, was the murder of Yitzhak Rabin by an Orthodox Jew speakinvg in the name of Judaism. Says Elul’s Yair Caspi: “Israeli society had a pact: The Orthodox would maintain Judaism, and the secularists would be exempt from it. But the assassination convinced many secularists that they were wrong to trust the Orthodox with Judaism, that their interpretation could lead to terrible distortions, even murder.”

Empowerment activists differ widely in their motives and goals. For Amnon Dankner, Jewish study is a way of immunizing Israeli culture against the excesses of Americanization. For Donniel Hartman, the aim is to foster secular-Orthodox dialogue by helping secularists create their own Jewish language. For Yair Caspi, though, the goal is challenging Orthodoxy’s hegemony over Israeli Judaism – which could even lead to a deepening schism between reinvigorated secularism and an Orthodoxy threatened by the new ideological competition.

But the activists all share an enthusiasm and optimism rare in today’s Israel, where perhaps the only sensibility uniting political and cultural antagonists is a deepening pessimism. “Of course we’re going to change the country,” says Hartman. “It will take at least a generation, but we’re going to win.” Activists believe that this is a historical turning point, the subtle moment when secularists are realizing that they must create a new Israeli Judaism – however vague that concept seems for now. Says Yair Caspi: “We don’t realize the depth and significance of what’s about to happen here. It will change all the rules of how our culture operates.”

Empowerment activists speak about “conquering” Jewish knowledge and texts the way Zionist pioneers once spoke of conquering the wilderness. The similarity of language isn’t coincidental; for the empowerment movement, say activists, is the next, inevitable phase of the Zionist revolution, which liberated the Jewish people but not Judaism. Caspi: “Our goal is to return secularists to Jewish culture and to restore Judaism to the modern world. To make the Torah a living Torah again, relevant to the individual, the family, the economy, life.”

Perhaps the most ambitious attempt at creating that new Israeli Judaism is the founding of a liberal arts college of “Hebrew studies,” called Alma – Aramaic for “world” and Latin for “soul.” The name is meant to indicate the school’s philosophy of embracing the universally human and the particularistically Jewish. Alma – which will open next fall in Tel Aviv, and whose active supporters include novelist David Grossman and poet Daliah Rabikovitch – plans to be at once a university and a beit midrash. Students will build a personal library around a chosen theme of study, drawing from world literature, traditional Judaic texts and secular Hebrew works, in an attempt to create an integrated Israeli identity.

Alma’s founder is 35-year-old Ruth Calderon, a key figure in the empowerment movement who co-founded Elul and is completing a doctorate in Talmud. Calderon – who speaks with a slightly raspy voice, as if made hoarse from having to compete with the shrillness of Israel’s cultural antagonists – defines her Jewish identity as perceiving all of human experience through a “Jewish filter.” It is, she says, an approach she learned growing up in a mixed Bulgarian-German family. “Our Jewish identity was both relaxed and profound. Our God was sweet, while our secularism was without hubris. That is the Mediterranean approach: non-dogmatic and natural. The new cultural message will come from that form of Judaism.”

Calderon, who is secular, studies a page of Talmud every day. “When I first discovered Talmud as an adult, I was angry,” she says. “Why had this wonderful book been hidden from me? The Talmud – with its arguments and dichotomies and relentless depth – teaches me how to hold paradox and not give in to easy answers. But I don’t feel obligated to live my life according to the halakhic decisions reached by rabbis centuries ago.”

When Calderon first approached Tel Aviv City Hall officials for help in finding a location for Alma, she was met with suspicion and even hostility. One City Council member told her, “We need humanistic values, not Judaism.” An official suggested she set up a club rather than a school, “since studying Judaism is like studying karate.” Says Calderon: “Once they realized I wasn’t a closet Orthodox missionary, they started to relax and cooperate.”

Not surprisingly, given the intensification of the Orthodox-secular culture war, some secularists see the empowerment movement as undermining their camp’s commitment to a thoroughly Westernized, democratic Israel.

Indeed, the profusion of interest in Jewish texts could mark the beginning of a new kind of culture war – this one within the secular camp itself, dividing those advocating continuity between Israeli and Jewish identities from those seeking to sever them. The op-ed page of the daily Ha’aretz has become in recent months a centerpoint for that growing debate within the secular camp, pitting empowerment advocates like Amnon Dankner against militant secularists like journalist Orit Shohat, who in one recent piece mocked secular Judaism and urged a return to a “secular stream worthy of its name.”

“For too long people without cultural or historical responsibility have run this country’s culture,” says Dankner, a non-observant Jew who attended yeshivot as a youth and who emotionally identifies with both the Orthodox and secular worlds. “Now we’re going to challenge their hegemony.”

One concrete expression of the secular backlash is a demand by a newly formed group of educators to create an autonomous authority for the secular school system within the Education Ministry, like the authority which oversees the Orthodox state school system. Group members fear that Education Minister and National Religious Party head Zevulun Hammer will attempt to impose Orthodox and nationalist views in secular schools.

Hammer has become a focus of secular fears by emphasizing the need to teach “Jewish values” while seeming to downplay education for democatic values – and by appointing Avraham Lifshitz, a former leader of the Bnei Akiva Orthodox youth movement who once urged Orthodox soldiers to disobey orders that contradict halakhah, to head the ministry’s new Authority for Values Education.

Hammer’s defenders among empowerment activists note that it was he who, in a previous term as education minister, appointed the Shenhar Commission which urged a pluralistic approach to teaching Judaism to secular students, and that he encouraged the founding of the Tali school system, whose 24 affiliated schools promote non-Orthodox Judaism. Hammer has also apparently agreed to the creation of a new school network called “Talya,” which will teach secular humanistic Judaism without prayer and rituals.

One afternoon recently, Hammer visits the Hartman Institute’s new campus to address the secular teachers and principals studying in its beit midrash. When he rises to speak, no one applauds. Clearly uncomfortable, Hammer stares at the ceiling and delivers a rambling talk about the right of all Jews to possess Jewish texts.

Then the questions – or rather, anxious pronouncements – begin. Growing religious extremism is alienating our students from Judaism, says one principal. Not just the lack of Jewish values among secular students, says another, but the lack of democratic values among religious students is depriving us of a common language.

Hammer, restoring eye contact with his audience and speaking more forcefully, replies: “No one side has a monopoly on values. Each side needs to be modest. I want a serious budget for teaching Judaism and democracy and citizenship. One is as important to me as the other. And everyone will teach Judaism according to his understanding.”

Their anxiety eased, the educators applaud the minister – uneasy allies in a struggle that’s only beginning.


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