What better day than Lag BaOmer to talk about civil religion in Israel? Lag BaOmer, the thirty-third day of the counting of the Omer, is celebrated throughout Israel by bonfires. Lag BaOmer is one of those holidays every Israeli child celebrates from early childhood and probably through the army. It wouldn’t surprise me if here and there Arab children celebrate it, as well.
The orthodox have their references to rabbi Akiva’s pupils who died of a plague and the celebration in honor of Shimon bar Yochai on this day, but in a real sense, for the rest of us, these justifications have become excuses for a national, an Israeli holiday. The date is synonymous with bonfires, and feasting on marshmallows and potatoes as the cool nights of spring are about to turn into summer’s flame.
In the early 60’s, Robert Bellah proposed that the United States had a “civil religion;” that is, the American society was framed by principles and a divine purpose that were articulated in the U.S. calendar, national holidays, and even in political speeches. The national holiday that epitomizes Bellah’s thesis is Thanksgiving Day, in which the immigrant experience is relived, the bounty of the land and God’s beneficence are praised, and, although in fact, the Indians would be nearly eradicated, the holiday is a paean to inter-racial tolerance and mutual dependency.
Israel also has a civil religion. This is no small achievement for a nation that is only 64 years old, and, yet, for numerous reasons, it is often ignored. My children, although raised in what is termed a “secular” family in Israel, were also raised, as is every other Israeli, on a Jewish calendar, which is the national one. They dressed in costume on Purim, roasted potatoes on Lag BaOmer, and decorated sukkot when young. As a good friend of mine always says, one of the virtues of living in Israel is that everyone celebrates at the same time; and, when you enter a shop, whether it’s at a Jew’s or an Arab’s, you’re wished, hag sameach. (The downside is the traffic jams on the eve of Pesach and Rosh Hashanah.)
But Israel has also created its unique national holidays of which the jewel in the crown is the passion week from Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Day, to Memorial Day, a week later, which is immediately followed by Yom HaAtzmaut, Independence Day. We move from the grief of persecution to that of sacrifice for our loved ones, who died defending us, to the communal joy not just of freedom but of a newly realized society or what Rousseau might have termed, a newly confirmed social contract, based on the sacrifice mourned the day before. That week, which I have called “passion” week like the week before Easter, symbolizes all the great themes in the Jewish-Israeli narrative.
A truly civil religion, in my opinion, embraces all its citizens. And there we have a problem. Unlike the American civil religion, the Israeli is exclusive. The narrative of the Israeli civil religion implicitly excludes Arabs. Druses and Bedouins can be a part, as they, too, are mourned on Memorial Day, but I don’t see where or how Arabs can fit in. Recognizing the “nakba” on Independence Day, although it’s a liberal answer, contradicts the substance of the day in the civil religion. No one but no one can celebrate the nakba. Haredim, the ultra-orthodox, are also excluded, as until now they have not taken part in defending the country, and, by choice, they often do not recognize national holidays as legitimate.
So we do have a civil religion, and I wish it would be recognized for what it is, as the proud product of a secular society that reinterpreted its historical narrative and gave it substance in its calendar. It needs, perhaps, to be modified, but on Lag BaOmer, when everyone goes out to celebrate, it is as apparent as the flames and smoke that rise to the sky.