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A sense of space: Envisioning an Israel that enables religious difference

A kibbutz funeral where a Rolling Sones song is played provides a glimpse of how Israel should embrace an expansive view of pluralistic Judaism

By Donniel Hartman
I just returned from my first funeral in Israel where, instead of reciting psalms, the ceremony began with the Rolling Stones’, "You Can’t Always Get What You Want." It was beautiful. I don’t want music played at my funeral. As an Orthodox Jew, I find that the rituals of burial and mourning as developed by our tradition to be just right for me. It was beautiful, however, because this was exactly how the man who died had wanted to be buried. It was beautiful because it was moving for the family and represented the way they wanted to remember their husband, father, brother, uncle and son.
The funeral took place at a private kibbutz cemetery. As such, it was not regulated by a government Ministry or appointed authority which determines how one should be buried, what is required, and what is authentically Jewish. It was beautiful and deeply moving, because it presented an image of what religious life in Israel can and ought to be.
As the home of all Jews, Israel must be a place which is also the home of all Judaisms. It is a place which must serve as a common fabric for Jewish life, not by enforcing one form of Judaism on everyone, but to the contrary, by being the place where all Jews learn to respect each other and develop ways to share our common space with each other.
What is it about Israel that has made this experience so rare, which has created a reality that has moved Israeli Judaism so far off its course? Outside of Israel, the separation of state and religion has led to the emancipation of Judaism and the Jewish people. As one of the primary beneficiaries of this separation, it is natural that we have been one of its primary advocates. In addition, as small minorities in other’s societies, we dare not violate their rules, even when we might disagree. As a result, in North America, no ultra-Orthodox Jew, for example, would even contemplate acting in any way that would undermine the rights and space of liberal Jews.
In Israel, however, the vast majority of Jews have rejected the notion of separation of state and religion. As a Jewish state, we have chosen that the Jewish religion should have a dominant role and place within the culture, language, and policy of the State. When we came home to Israel we came to a place where we did not need the separation of state and religion in order to grant us legitimacy and basic rights.
Here we can be full and proud Jews who no longer have to hide our Jewishness. Here we could be Jews outside of our homes no less than inside. This was as true for the secular Jew as for the orthodox one. All wanted to express their Judaism differently but were united in the excitement at the opportunity which being a part of the majority culture afforded them.
As a majority, we also were free from the inhibition of worrying about having to live in accordance with standards determined and governed by others. Coming home to Israel was akin to the young adult moving in to his own apartment for the first time: "It’s my house now, and I can play music as loudly as I want and store my clothing wherever I please."
This sensibility and experience is one of the beautiful things about Israel, and which gives us its sense of Jewishness and home. At the same time, however, the fact that we haven’t developed a way to balance our desire that Judaism be a part of the public life and domain, and at the same time enable religious difference, is an oht kayin (the Mark of Cain – a stigma or disgrace). That which was so essential in defining Israel as a Jewish home is now itself undermining the sense of home.
The young adult who wants to rebel must ultimately grow up and learn to live with roommates, a spouse, and neighbors, not to speak of her own children, who themselves will grow up. A home, while having boundaries and shared values, is an intimate space which can only flourish to the extent that respect and privacy are indigenous to its function.
Today I experienced that sense of space. This was not the Israel in which one voice determines who is a Jew, who can marry whom, who can officiate where, and who can say Kaddish. It was an Israel manifested in my expansive view of the rolling mountains visible from the cemetery that seemed both endless and capable of containing us all. I got a taste of a beautiful tomorrow in the midst of a mournful and sorrowful funeral.
I pray that this space will not be confined to days of sadness but will become that which all Israelis see as self evident, and expect and demand from their Judaism and their State. It is only then that Israel will truly be a Jewish state and the homeland of the Jewish people.


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