Last Sunday, I helped a woman at the supermarket put her heavier groceries into her cart. She’d requested assistance from the store clerk, but no staff was available. She spoke with an accent, and I responded to her Hebrew “תודה” (thank you) in Russian, “с удовольствием” (with pleasure). Her eyes widened; and gesturing at my yarmulke and fringes, she responded in Russian, “Боже мой! Кто-то, одетый, как вы! Ваша неделя началась с мицвы; спасибо!” (My goodness! Somebody dressed like you! Your week began with a mitzvah; thank you!)
Story of my life.
Born in Israel, raised in the USA, raising my family in Israel. I’ve spoken Russian all my life, and I am also married to a Russian olah. I speak Hebrew with an American accent, and Russian with a barely discernible one. Almost all of my family identifies as secular, as do the great majority of Russian speaking Jews.
Halakhic practice at first attracted me for humanistic reasons – family, community, nation. I was always Jewish to my core, and halakha gave me a way of expressing this, of playing an active role in the preservation of my people. My interest in Judaism led me to first consider and eventually believe in God, not vice versa. Even today, should God’s existence be somehow (impossibly) disproven, I would continue to follow halakha, driven by the sense of Jewish identity, pride and nationalism I inherited from my family.
By the end of the nineteenth century… the Jew in Russia… belonged to a community which, outside the provinces of government and civil law, had all the marks of nationhood: it had its own popular art, something of its own literature, unmistakably its own language. It was the only community in the world in which a Jew could not merely drift away from his religion or be indifferent to it, but actively reject and combatively oppose it, and still see himself and be seen by others as recognizably and meaningfully a Jew. It was here that secular Judaism was born.
– S. Clement Leslie, The Rift in Israel, 1971
This Tisha b’Av I find myself thinking about how disparate intentions may result in identical behaviors. The halakhic observances of this fast day are nearly identical to those of Yom Kippur. No eating, no drinking, no bathing, no washing, no anointing one’s self for pleasure, no marital relations, no wearing leather shoes. However, the intentions behind these two major Jewish fast days are dramatically different. Tisha b’Av is our national day of mourning, whereas Yom Kippur is our holiest day, the day we stand like angels in prayer before God.
The inverse, of course, is also true. Identical intentions may result in disparate behaviors. Two Jews may be motivated by their love of God, Israel and Am Yisrael, but exhibit their love in different ways and come to different religious conclusions. For example, while Centrist Orthodox Rabbi Maryles acknowledges that Open Orthodox leaders Rabbi Katz and Rabbi Fox “truly believe they are serving God and serving Klal Yisroel,” still he “could not disagree with them more.” Such an acknowledgement is very important.
Tisha b’Av commemorates the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. The Babylonian Talmud in Tractate Yoma 9b explains that second Temple was destroyed due to sinat chinam (baseless hatred) [among the Jewish people]. A natural question, of course, is “how can we resist this human inclination for hatred, particularly among Am Yisrael?” For those of us concerned with Israeli society, the palpable tensions within the Jewish population are disturbing.
There’s a lot of misunderstanding among us, which has led to a lot of hateful words and behaviors. Easier to dismiss those who act differently than imagine that their motivations may be relatable. Easier to “other” them out of mistrust than attempt mutual understanding. But people’s behaviors and motivations are not always linked in obvious ways. Tisha b’Av and Yom Kippur remind us of this.
Recently, I’ve been analyzing Hiddush’s public opinion polling, conducted by the Rafi Smith Polling Institute over the years. Specifically, I’ve been running a comparison of opinions held by olim from the Former Soviet Union (FSU) with those held by the general Israeli Jewish public. Unsurprisingly, olim from the FSU are more supportive than the general Jewish public of religious freedoms in Israel. Take marriage freedom, for example:
for Hiddush – Religious Freedom for Israel
For me, neither religious Jews nor secular Russian Jews are “the other.” I feel I am both, among other identities. I relate to the messianic vision for the State of Israel that many in the religious Zionist community hold dear and holy, and I also empathize with the secular Israelis’ desire to live free of the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate. In truth, my identities actually converge when it comes to religious freedom in Israel because I am convinced that the Chief Rabbinate has long been distancing Jews from Judaism. Such a political, divisive and cynical Rabbinate as ours will never bring mashiach.
Religion has come to divide the Jewish people. As I reflect upon the intentionality with which I hope to imbue my Tisha b’Av, I think of our once great Temple, but also reflect upon the ongoing redemptive process of the development of our modern Jewish state. I think of both the Jews who are fasting, and those who are not, and how so many love Israel and the Jewish people regardless.