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A Song for Many Voices: The Soul of Secular Israel

In spite of its undeniable shortcomings, Zionism's dizzying success has been to create native generations of Israelis who see the Land as their natural home.
Illustration: Abstract/Adobe Stock
Illustration: Abstract/Adobe Stock
Dr. Rani Jaeger is a Research Fellow of the Kogod Research Center and head of the recently formed Tanakh Initiative at the Shalom Hartman Institute. He was one of the founders of the Institute’s Be’eri Program for Pluralistic Jewish-Israeli Identity Education. Rani received his doctorate from Bar-Ilan University on Jewish-Israeli culture as perceived by the poet Avraham Shlonsky. He was a participant in the first cohort of the Beit Midrash for Israeli Rabbis and received rabbinical ordination

Though this may not make headlines, Israeli society is engaged today in a fervent search for spirituality. For the larger public, the phenomenon is understandably eclipsed by politics, security and the economy. But for its many and diverse practitioners, the quest is a rich and vibrant experience.

The Israeli relationship with spirituality, like the concept itself, has been complex and fluid. The youthful revolt of the first Zionist pioneers had enshrined national revival and physical labor in place of religious practice and belief, though some, following the teachings of A.D. Gordon, espoused a spirituality of the soil. The secular leaders of Israel in its formative years glorified the struggle for existence, but discounted the miraculous aspect of Jewish national revival. As the state began to prosper, the political, educational, and civil establishment worked tirelessly to infuse the hearts and minds of Israelis with enthusiastic loyalty to the ethos of the modern nation. Israeli religious Jews continued to follow the paths of tradition throughout these transformations, and many felt deeply committed to the collective Zionist effort of the secular (hiloni) majority. Spirituality, in the age-old sense of connection with the divine, or a search for transcendence here on earth, continued to be present, in various forms. But the grand narrative of the national revival of the Jews in the State of Israel left spirituality at the margins of local culture and thought. Down-to-earth Zionism was all that good Israelis needed in order to have a fulfilling life.

A turn in the other direction was not long in coming. It is customary to argue that mainstream Israeli society experienced a surge of spirituality in the 1970s, when the belated arrival of American-style ’60s consciousness coincided with the widespread demoralization that followed the Yom Kippur War. Israel’s near-failure to withstand a coordinated Egyptian-Syrian invasion in 1973 led Israelis to lose their faith in the political leadership and the values it upheld. A considerable number of Israeli Jews found an answer in hazara b’teshuvah, a “penitent return” to Orthodox (dati) or ultra-Orthodox (haredi) religiosity. Others began searching for different ways of enriching their lives with something beyond national pride. Those embarking on the journey soon discovered that the ground had already been cultivated for them.

Growing Pains

Early Israeli quests for spiritual fulfillment, occurring already in the 1950s and 1960s, were not always included in the frame of the “epic narrative” that Israelis tend to tell about themselves. Too little, for example, has been written about the inspiring figure of Dr. Yosef Schechter, a Haifa educator and intellectual, who introduced his students to the riches of the Bible, Talmud, Buddhism, and existentialist philosophy. Some of his students came together in a movement called “the Schechterists” and established in 1960 the Galilee community of Yodfat. Appropriating traditional religious terminology, the enthusiastic members attempted to craft a way of life – a “halakhah” – out of the lofty mythic visions (aggadah) that Schechter preached.

In 1982, Schechter described Israelis’ need for spiritual engagement:

The transformation brought about by the Zionist pioneer and socialistic movement, which formed mainly in Eastern Europe, can be articulated as follows: Instead of focusing on the realm of the relations between man and God; instead of holding onto the Torah and mitzvot and hassidut, which in the past comprised the core of the spiritual realm, Socialist Zionists aspired to redeem the Israelite nation by expanding and deepening the interpersonal realm, which also assumed an essentially metaphysical character (although they would not openly admit this). At present, we must be our own critics and evaluate this all anew, since the interpersonal realm is shrinking, and loses its metaphysical character primarily because of intensified industrialization and economic pragmatism. It seems necessary to me to strive now to reclaim, somehow, this realm of the relations between man and God, which has been rejected from consciousness until now, and to infuse it with meaning.

Political and military events (such as the 1982 Lebanon War and the first Intifada of 1987), as well as the wrenching displacement of socialistic values by capitalism, coincided with increased soul-searching and experimentation with lifestyles that presented an alternative to the mainstream “Israeli Zionist” way of life.

Two decades after the establishment of Yodfat, other groups began to form sustainable communities. Hararit (est. 1980) and Yahad (est. 1992) in the Upper Galilee are communities of practitioners of transcendental meditation; Harduf (est. 1982), also in the Galilee, is an anthroposophist community; Ne’ot Smadar (est. 1989) in the deep Israeli south was founded by followers of an Israeli guru, Yosef Safra, who preached “man’s self- study” by combining a myriad of methods, Eastern and Western, with the Hebraic foundation of study, or limmud.

All the while, however, the classic course to spirituality remained a passage from a secular lifestyle to strict Orthodox practice, and often the ghettoized world of ultra-Orthodoxy. The figure that has become emblematic of this move is Uri Zohar, a famous and highly influential Israeli film director, actor and comedian, who became a hozer b’tshuva in the late 1970s. Zohar’s metamorphosis personified a genuine revolution – the all-Israeli role model ogling breasts on the beach was transformed into the model of the pious Jew, beating his breast on Yom Kippur.* Zohar symbolized the irreconcilability between two cultural realities that fervently denied the each other’s relevance, even though they were “stuck” together in the same small country.

Within mainstream Israeli culture, the hazara b’tshuva movement inspired considerable resentment. For secular society, the departure of one of its sons or daughters into the bosom of the strictest religious environment raised many unanswered questions. The “where did we go wrong” of loving parents and caring educators reverberated in the hallways of Zionist agenda-setters. What’s more, hazara b’tshuva was often experienced by secular Jews as a physical and emotional rupture, a tragic separation from the person who chose to follow the paths of Torah. The lyrics of Ya’akov Rotblit to Mati Caspi’s music in the song “Hi Hazra B’tshuva” (Her Penitent Return), express the anguish of a man who has learned that his lover had become deeply religious:

I then fell helpless, a yelp in my throat
They said that she, too, had “returned to the fold” …
And her lips are soft, mumbling prayer
I wish I could cry over me, over her… 

Yet at the same time, many secular Israelis felt another sense of loss. If “classical” Zionism was all about giving new meaning – an appreciable value that underlies a pragmatic cause – to the life of the Jew at the price of shedding one’s spirituality, then part of Israel’s growing pains was the recognition that something valuable was also gone, and had to be restored.

God talk on Prime Time TV

Perhaps the most fascinating stage (both figuratively and literally) for this restoration has been Israeli music. Beginning in the late 1980s, Israeli audiences have become exposed to, and have increasingly embraced, musicians who openly discuss and sing their spiritual quest. Themes that were traditionally relegated to the quarters of Hasidic music, niggun and piyyut, generated songs that conquered the sales charts, and were performed on primetime TV and in the finest live venues.

The list of artists representing this new spirituality is long. Folk-rock troubadour Ehud Banai has always been close to Jewish tradition. Banai began his career in the late 1980s with songs of political protest and personal experience, slowly drifting toward materials to which religious Jews would also respond. But rather than distance him from his original cadre of secular followers, this move only marked Banai as a continuously evolving artist, who might sing about political turmoil in the 1980s, and reminisce in 2004 about studying Gemara with a long-gone friend:

The acceptance of “spiritual” or “religious” music by secular Israelis also marked a deeper shift in Israeli society. In music, the distinction between kodesh and chol (the sacred and the profane) blurred significantly. Brothers Meir and Evyatar Banai, Ehud’s cousins and successful musicians in their own right, each underwent an open process of hazara b’tshuva, and continued their musical careers after their personal transformation. In an interview published in the daily newspaper Yediot Ahronot, Evyatar Banai asked his elder brother Meir: “From which religious genre do you come?” Meir answered: “I am a freelancer; all those divisions are long gone. Passé.” Indeed, some popular artists who have not made any “official” religious commitment have also begun incorporating Jewish spirituality into their works. Veterans like Shlomo Gronich, and younger singers such as the hip-hop artist Muki, are but two examples.

The irrelevance of the old divisions is perhaps best represented by Shuli Rand, an actor who became ultra-Orthodox in 1998 and initially seemed to follow in the tracks of Uri Zohar. But rather than desert his art, Rand harnessed his work as an actor, and also as a musician, in the service of his personal spiritual quest. His debut album of 2008, “Nekudah Tova” (“A Good Point”), was a hit on the playlists of Israel’s main radio stations – not the ultra-Orthodox ones – “going platinum” with sales of more than 50,000 copies. In his songs, Rand addresses God personally, but his lyrics typically express uncertainty rather than certitude, as in his searing (and successful) single, “Where Art Thou?” Despite his physical, spiritual and existential relocation to the haredi world, Rand chose to launch his concert tour in Tel Aviv’s shrine of the performing arts, the Tzavta Theater. The reviews in the mainstream media were overwhelmingly positive.

The mosaic of ultra-Orthodox, religious and secular Israeli Jews that comprised the audiences at Tzavta (which means “together” in Hebrew) testified, by simply attending, that a new cultural reality had taken root. Tel Avivians who would never set foot in shul applauded songs of the search for God, while the solidly religious listened in earnest to a song dedicated to the memory of playwright Hanoch Levine, a close friend of Rand’s and an iconic figure of liberal, secular Israeli culture.

Shedding the Fear of Praxis

Israeli folk music plays a special role in the evolution of an audience into a spiritual community. This nostalgic genre, ranging in subject from Galilee shepherds to Tel Aviv romance, and in melody from Russian songs to Bedouin debkas, is deeply enmeshed in the cultural fabric of secular Israeli Jews. Performance of these songs may vary from symphonic orchestrations to a simple arrangement of voice and guitar. In its most typical setting, this music is experienced by Israelis in gatherings known as shira b’tzibur, literally, public singing. Shira b’tzibur events have become, in secular Israel, a form of collective expression of identity that borders on the cathartic. Surely this qualifies as “spiritual” experience, but such branding would discomfort many participants, for whom the word connotes God, Jewish ritual, and other categories that veer dangerously close to hazara b’tshuva.

A parallel route to spiritual fulfillment is the rediscovery of Jewish learning, the study of Jewish texts in havruta – literally, with friends – as traditionally done in the beit midrash. Overcoming memories of compulsory Bible classes at high school, secular devotees of Jewish learning view their participation as an intellectually challenging opportunity to recharge their Jewish identity. Rejecting the notion that Torah, Talmud, Kabbalah and Hasidism are solely “owned” by Orthodox Jews, institutions such as the Shalom Hartman Institute, Oranim, Bina, Alma and Elul, offer these secular seekers a home, while remaining sensitive to their attitude toward ritual. Here, too, many hilonim fear that such activity could draw them too deeply into religious life; they are happy to study as long as this separation between study and praxis (which strikes practicing Jews as highly artificial), is strictly observed.

As students multiplied and secular interest in Jewish learning grew, the conversation with the tradition yielded surprising results. One of these was the discovery that in quality learning, not only does the student ask questions of the text; the text asks questions in return. For example, one can study Tractate Brachot as an historical document, or examine the topic of prayer and blessing as relevant to current concerns. Some non-religious students found that the learning did not expose them to the “threats” of tradition, but rather opened them up to new experiences and understandings. As this realization reached larger numbers of people, a critical mass was formed, leading to a shift of emphasis from secular Jewish learning to experimentation with the shared experience of prayer.

In the past decade, the secular search for spiritual fulfillment has expanded to communal organizations of a new sort. In these groups, the core of the experience extends beyond study, to the social and ceremonial aspects of the Jewish life cycle and calendar. This development was facilitated by two important cultural intersections: first, the encounter of young Israelis with India, where every corner of life is sown with ritual and ceremony. The journey to India, made by thousands of young men and women fresh out of the IDF, left a strong impression on many, and broke down the walls of cynicism toward spirituality in general, and ritual in particular.

Secondly, the increased exposure of Israelis to the Jewish liberal movements that are normative in the United States had decisive importance: it inspired new Israeli forms of religious Judaism that did not see themselves as obligated to an Orthodox interpretation of halakha. This encounter occurred in the framework of study programs (such as the Gevanim program of the San Francisco Federation, the Bavli-Yerushalmi long-distance learning program, and others), or through connections woven between Israeli educational institutions and liberal synagogues in the U.S. The fertile collaboration between Midreshet Oranim in the Galilee and the synagogue B’nei Jeshurun (known far and wide as “BJ”) on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in New York is but one example.

In less than eight years, a sizeable number of communities have sprung up, all seeking to explore and renew Jewish ritual. Among these are Niggun Halev in Nahalal, the Tel Aviv prayer group Beit Tefilla, and others. Each of these communities has its own unique character, but they all share an experimental spirit, seeking new ideas, values and ceremonies that reflect an underlying dialogue with Jewish heritage and Israeli culture. Unthreatening and inviting, this new type of Jewish ritual group continues to attract increasing numbers of individuals.

Zionism’s Dizzying Success

Israelis have come a long way in their understanding of spirituality. From an either-or society of secular pragmatism versus religious spiritualism, with very few shades in between, Israel has come to accept spirituality as an important social and cultural element. Labor movement leader Berl Katznelson was already aware of the danger that Zionist fascination with pragmatism posed for the future well-being of the people residing in Zion. In a speech carried at a memorial service for national poet Chaim Nachman Bialik in 1935, he prophesied:

Today in the Land of Israel we are at the stage of laying the groundwork. We are preoccupied with piles of sand and cement and the shells of buildings. Our attention is not yet devoted to furnishing the house, to its interior design. We are making a mighty effort to ensure that the skeletal frame be broad and sturdy, that the building can accommodate all those who enter it. But we do not yet know how to widen our horizons within this house … Since the days of those who returned from Babylonian exile we have not had a building of this sort. We do not yet have time to spare for a deep spiritual life. The only thing that justifies the life of our generation, that provides it with meaning, that infuses it with sustainable value, is the act of construction itself. Other than that we are frail and feeble, like plants that have not yet properly taken root….The danger of becoming uncultured lurks on every corner. Our heart is set on nothing more than the satisfaction of basic needs. In the same way that those who cultivate the sand dunes do not begin by planting vineyards and orchards, but with grasses whose task it is to prevent the sands from migrating, to turn sand into soil, we too are devoted to nothing but labor, the revival of Hebrew, the first stirrings of social and cultural life. But other days are still hidden from sight. Many Jews shall inhabit the Land and our cultural ailments will disquiet them. And what is discussed in our days with scorn, due to overwork or dullness of spirit, shall become for our future generations a considerable spiritual liability.

It is sometimes difficult for Israelis to admit that although their home is far from perfect, it rests on solid foundations. In spite of its undeniable shortcomings, Zionism’s dizzying success has been to create native generations of Israelis who see the Land as their natural home. This rootedness has pushed Israelis beyond the pragmatism that Katznelson feared would prove a “spiritual liability.” Their refusal to accept this predicament propels the search for inspiring and empowering ways to revitalize Israeli Jewish culture.

From Havruta, Vo. 2, No. 1, Summer 2009, “The Spiritual Quest”

* One of Zohar’s most famous movies was Metzitzim – a word that literally means “peeping Toms,” but plays on the Hebrew slang for breast.

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