Who would have suspected that John Lennon’s imagined land with no religion might be found in 2007 in the Jewish state?
A friend of mine commented recently that Tel Aviv strikes him as a very odd place. As a Jew living in the United States, we live in a sea of religious expression. You can’t walk five blocks in New York without passing a church synagogue, mosque, or other house of worship – to say nothing of the evangelists of the streets, whose loud preaching is an intrinsic part of the cacophony of our morning commutes. As a Jew then, he explained, he found himself surrounded by some sort of religion, even if it was frequently not his own. Religion, at least, was always in the public square.
Not so Tel Aviv. You can walk up and down the avenues of Tel Aviv, or drive through the wealthy northern suburbs, but so long as you stay north of Yaffo, you’ll find nary a house of worship. Secular Israelis, nominally Jewish, simply do not build religious institutions. In Israel, youare either dati – observant – or chiloni – secular. Though most Israelis actually practice some traditions, and describe themselves as masorti – traditional, synagogue attendance outside the observant camp is limited to the High Holidays, and perhaps a handful of other occasions. Unlike their non-Orthodox counterparts in America, Israelis don’t build alternate houses of worship. Largely, Israelis have only one shul, the shul they don’t go to, and it’s Orthodox.
Or is it? Perhaps some of that is starting to change. The Israeli Conservative movement (Masorti movement) has made some important gains in recent years, in particular, securing the right to pray at Robinson’s Arch, a part of the Kotel. Even the Reform movement has begun to recognize the importance of investing in Israel. And most recently, native Israelis have founded the Secular Yeshiva, a unique religious institute in Tel Aviv, as reported by Haaretz.
It’s no surprise then that in Israel’s most secular city, there is an eerie absence of religion in public. But Judaism today is undergoing upheaval. Everywhere you turn, Jews are breaking out of denominational boundaries and are finding new, even revolutionary means of expressing and practicing their faith. In this maelstrom of creativity there hide the bugaboos of syncretism, hybridization, and assimilation, but nonetheless, Jews are flying without the wires of tradition and are obliterating the demarcations that once may have defined them. Nobody knows where this will go, but in a period of relative peace and prosperity for the Jewish people, I am proud to be a part of this flowering of Judaism.