Friday, January 25, 2008

Two Faces of Israeli Religious Life

While in Israel last week, I went to Matan, the center for women’s Torah study located in the Katamon neighborhood in Jerusalem, to listen to Daniel Epstein a terrific teacher and significant philosopher. He had studied under Emmanuel Levinas, the great Jewish-French philosopher at the Sorbonne. Epstein’s lecture that day focused on Martin Heidegger and Vladimir Jankelevitch, a philosopher entirely unfamiliar to me. These are intellectual luminaries whose writings are scarcely accessible to me when translated into English. Epstein was speaking in Hebrew. I was in over my head. However, the experience had sociological importance and it is this aspect that I focused on.

When I am in Israel, usually three times a year, I visit religious, educational and cultural activities that I can learn from. Invariably, I am bowled over by the richness of what is available, the extraordinary number of study groups, lectures and public events in Jerusalem alone that reach for spiritual and intellectual growth. At Matan, there were about eighty persons seated in a small auditorium. Nearly all were women and most, but not all, were religious, coming from the dati leumi or national religious sector of Israeli Orthodoxy. The average age was about sixty and the audience was there not simply to listen or to take notes. As Daniel Epstein spoke for seventy-five minutes, all but a handful were writing the entire lecture, as they had done in previous weeks and would do in future sessions.

I have never seen anything like this in the U.S. For Israel, the occasion was a tiny slice of the abundant smorgasbord of informal religious education that is the daily fare in Jerusalem alone. Those who came to gain knowledge were simply dressed. A similar profile is evident when perhaps nearly one-thousand mainly seminary-age students come each week to Yeshurun Synagogue on King George Street in Jerusalem to listen to Rabbi Motti Elon. At these occasions, there is an evident feeling of anticipation and joy.

Invariably, those whom I see are ordinary religious Israelis, including persons who made aliyah or their children and not charedim or the fervently Orthodox, although they certainly have an abundance of study opportunities, at least for men. What is also striking is the articulateness of those who lecture. Their skill is constantly on display, not because they are showing off but because they are gifted teachers and that is a large part of the explanation of why many come to listen and learn.

Yet, there is a flip, even sad, side to this picture. The religious community in Israel is blessed with a surfeit of persons with intellectual and spiritual attainments who would like to make their mark. Their ambition is not pointed in the direction of material acquisitions but to a respected place in the educational sphere or communal life. Unfortunately, there apparently are not sufficient opportunities to satisfy this need. One senses among the religious intelligentsia pockets of melancholy and disappointment and only more so because these people are chasing their dreams in the Jewish state. There are feelings of unfulfillment because too many do not and probably cannot receive recognition or positions commensurate with their skill, learning and dedication. I meet people who are flitting from one dream to another, always somewhere over the rainbow.

There are other religious persons whom I see in Israel, younger people in the yeshiva world sector. They are in the main students who are here for a year or two of yeshiva study or kollel families, Israeli and from abroad, living here temporarily or permanently. The picture I have consists entirely of what I see and does not include what these students are doing when they are in the Beth Medrash or study hall. It obviously does not include the far greater number of yeshiva and kollel students whom I never see. Doubtlessly, what I am saying here covers the relatively small number who in my judgment do not display spiritual behavior befitting their status. What I and I believe others see is an instinct for hedonism, a desire to live it up, to have a good time running around and spending.

This is evident in restaurants and hotels and in public places. Instead of modesty, there is boisterousness and what may be described as prostkeit, which I translate as spiritual squalor. Admittedly, these are young people and young people have an excess of energy. These students may simply be out to enjoy life before family responsibilities and other realities induce a settling down. Still, it is not the Torah’s way.

I acknowledge again that I am unfair, that by a comfortable margin yeshiva and kollel students behave appropriately. Yet we cannot ignore the crude behavior that we often come face to face with. It seems that among too many in the yeshiva world the
cellphone is as much an accompaniment as any sacred text.

There is no obligation for young Torah students to live monastic lives or to be steeped in despondency. Joy is a good trait. There is, however, a religious obligation to know who you are and where you are and to be modest in public. Those who study Torah are familiar with the precept of marris ayan, of how onlookers may mistakenly misinterpret certain behaviors. There is a religious requirement to show restraint, to avoid the prospect of misinterpretation.

Those who engage in Torah study need to recognize that acting as big time spenders in a raucous fashion makes an impression on those who are witness to this behavior. Especially in Israel where overwhelmingly Israelis face constant financial pressure and emotional strain arising from the security situation, what are they to think of religious Jews when they see inappropriate activity?