Monday, November 25, 2013

It’s Only Natural

Why Israel is the foundation upon which the house of Jewish culture can be most safely built

By Ran Baratz for Mosaic Magazine

It’s Only NaturalHillel Halkin’s Letters to an American Jewish Friend first came into my hands serendipitously. I knew of its existence in English but was unaware of a Hebrew translation. Then, on one of our regular visits with my wife’s parents at Kibbutz Maoz Haim in the Beit Shean valley, I found myself rooting through sacks of dusty books that the kibbutz library was offloading before sending them the way of all paper. There, among other finds, it lay—and in my native tongue.

Walking back to my in-laws’ house under the scorching sun, I opened to the first page, the second, third, fourth, and finished inhaling the rest in the cooling mercy of their air conditioner. I was struck not only by Halkin’s abundant intelligence but also by his intellectual honesty and courage. Of course, I already agreed with much of his thesis concerning the nature and meaning of Judaism after the establishment of the Jewish state. For his American Jewish readers, his analysis of their condition must have struck like an arrow.

Well established by now are Halkin’s all too accurate forecasts of the demographic decline of American Jewry. But that’s the least of it. The question is: why. And the answer, from my perspective, is related to a motif that runs like a scarlet thread through his book: the artificiality of Jewish identity in the Diaspora versus the natural identity of Jewish life in Israel. As a native Israeli, I hope I can contribute something to this trans-Atlantic conversation.

For Jews living outside Israel, especially in the liberal West, it can be hard to grasp the extent to which Judaism in Israel is predominantly a religion of the people.

I recall a Friday afternoon in the northern town of Rosh Pina. From the karaoke machine at a nearby swimming pool, Mizrahi music with a hip-hop beat reverberates incessantly. Suddenly, the yowlings of the immodestly dressed Jewish girls and their male counterparts in swimsuits and flip-flops are interrupted by an announcement crackling over the public-address system: “Shabbat begins soon!” Silence falls. Soon, showered, in white blouses, kippot out of pockets and on heads, they are making their way to synagogue, secular rock lyrics yielding to traditional sacred melodies.

Ask most of these pious young shul-goers: who is your favorite Jewish philosopher? How can Torah and science be reconciled? Do you think that choosing Judaism is an existential decision? They will think you insane.

Now ask:

Is there a chance you will marry a Gentile? “No way.”

Would you risk your life to fight for the Jewish people? “Absolutely.”

Do you believe in God? “Yes.”

Will you bequeath all this to your children? “A hundred percent.”

Are you proud to be a Jew? “With all my heart.”

Are all Jews brothers? “Yes.”

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