A heavy, embarrassing silence settled over the audience in the large lecture hall of the Civil Engineering Department at the Technion. A fog of puzzlement and, even, amusement, stemming from the subject that the speaker had chosen. Not often does the Union of Transportation Engineers and Planners delve in subjects outside their specialty, and here we were listening to a lecture on why it was important to find a solution for the mass Aliya from the past USSR so that they could be considered Jewish. Turns out that the speaker had been very helpful in securing the hall for our convention, and to thank him and to “honor our host” (a traditional Jewish gesture), he was given the first lecture of the morning.
The talk was more of a plea than an explanation. Of the near million immigrants from 1990 till today, about two-thirds are not Jewish according to Jewish law. Yes, most are the descendants of Jews, the minimum requirement being that at least one grandparent was Jewish, but with the wives and children included, the vast majority of the immigrants could not be considered Jewish, even by minimum requirements of Jewish law. The problem was clear. If the immigrants were not Jewish, then those marrying them (by civil marriage) would have non-Jewish children and Israel would slowly and inexorably become “non-Jewish” too.
Of course, I, as many of my colleagues was acquainted with the issue. In the first office where I had worked, there was a middle-aged civil engineer, a recent immigrant from the USSR. He and his wife, also a civil engineer, had three children, the youngest about seven or so. They were, fortunately for them, both Jewish, but making Aliyah was for them still a big adjustment. Last I saw him, he had his own engineering firm and the seven-year-old girl was already an engineer herself, married and an observant Jew.
Being maybe one of a few in the hall who was observant, I refrained from asking any questions, in a way to lower my profile. Still, I was surfeit with questions. For by my own reckoning, most of the immigrants came because of the dire economic conditions in the now broken-up former USSR and not so much from a desire to live as Jews in Israel. And indeed, if to become Jewish, then why should the Olim want to be more Jewish than the majority of non-observant, secular Israelis? If lacking any desire to observe kashrut or Shabbat, could someone still be converted to Judaism? And what was the speaker suggesting, perhaps a mass sprinkling of holy water to absolve Israel’s collective conscience? In my opinion, the secular State of Israel, by bringing so many non-Jewish (non -Halachic) immigrants had little right to demand that the Religious Courts find a non-Halachic solution to such a vexing problem. The Olim would be equal citizens in a secular society and only if they truly wanted to be Jewish they would be allowed to convert.
Almost fifteen years have passed since then and the problem has not, and cannot, recede. Instead, Israeli society has progressively become more secular, and it is not uncommon to find, where there are large concentrations of secular Israelis, stores selling pork or non-kosher restaurants open on Shabbat. To cater to the large population of those Israelis “without a religion”, there is a growing demand to find solutions for civil marriage, civil burial, and public transportation on Shabbat.
Unlike the issue of conversion, public transit is definitely an issue relevant to transportation planning. And indeed, when planning the bus lines for the Golan Regional Council some years ago, I had no problem including even special bus lines in the knowledge that their main purpose would be to improve mobility around the Kineret on Shabbat and to serve the largely secular residents in the Golan. Still, as far as I see it, increasing the public’s mobility by public transit on Saturday is a side issue that can, or could be solved by a variety of measures without operating the bus system as on a weekday. If the main purpose of public transit is to be an alternative to private cars and to relieve the congestion on our roads, then buses on Saturday has a little overall effect. If needed, and if justified by demand, limited-service can and should be provided. Making Shabbat a Saturday, or just another weekday is a different matter.
Shabbat, or the Sabbath, has always been one of the pillar stones of Judaism and, along with kashrut, or Jewish dietary laws, differentiate the Jewish People from the surrounding population and the glue that has bound us together as a People. Israel, as the only nation-state with a Jewish majority, is the cradle of Jewish civilization and the natural historical and religious center of all Jews. That the State of Israel and her citizens can turn their back on their collective history and culture seems. from my perspective, as a sad commentary. As if taking a page from the prophecy of Hosea (a part which is read as the Haftorah reading for Parshat HaMidbar. which was last week), Israel of today has turned to foreign idols of monetary success, unbridled desires to “eat what is tasty” and to material satisfaction and has abandoned what once what made us be Jews. In the name of personal freedom, we have cut ourselves off from our own heritage.
וְלֹא-תִקְרְאִי-לִי עוֹד, בַּעְלִי. יט וַהֲסִרֹתִי אֶת-שְׁמוֹת הַבְּעָלִים, מִפִּיהָ; וְלֹא-יִזָּכְרוּ עוֹד, בִּשְׁמָם. כ וְכָרַתִּי לָהֶם בְּרִית, בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא, עִם-חַיַּת הַשָּׂדֶה וְעִם-עוֹף הַשָּׁמַיִם, וְרֶמֶשׂ הָאֲדָמָה; וְקֶשֶׁת וְחֶרֶב וּמִלְחָמָה אֶשְׁבּוֹר מִן-הָאָרֶץ, וְהִשְׁכַּבְתִּים לָבֶטַח. כא וְאֵרַשְׂתִּיךְ לִי, לְעוֹלָם; וְאֵרַשְׂתִּיךְ לִי בְּצֶדֶק וּבְמִשְׁפָּט, וּבְחֶסֶד וּבְרַחֲמִים. כב וְאֵרַשְׂתִּיךְ לִי, בֶּאֱמוּנָה; וְיָדַעַתְּ, אֶת-ה.
Tonight is Shavuot, and along with the cheesecake, the flower arrangements, and the other modern expressions of the holiday’s significance (Kibbutz Dalia with its dance festival), there is also the story of Ruth the Moabite and her journey to Judaism. For most, all too many, The Book of Ruth is another excuse to criticize the Israel Rabbinate for its “uncompromising stubbornness” to be more accepting of converts (and as a modern Orthodox Jew in Israel, I too believe in the need of changes in the attitudes of the rabbis of the Rabbinate). When was the last time that you read about Ruth’s uncompromising love of Judaism and her willingness to sacrifice Family, Country, and Culture (as well as position, as the Midrash says she was of royal birth) to be a beggar in Bethlehem? Her personal sacrifices and her travails that she overcame led her to be the great grandmother of King David. What are we willing to sacrifice in order to keep and honor the Judaism of our great grandparents? Instead, we talk about the fashionable conceit of “making Judaism accessible for Modern Jews”.
Shavuot is also known as the Holiday of Receiving the Torah, or Jewish Law. Another Midrash is that at the giving of the Torah the souls of all Jews, past till the present, were gathered at the foot of Mount Sinai. Included with those Jewish souls are all the converts to Judaism, who, having sincerely accepted Judaism is Jewish as, if not more so, than those who were born Jewish. Perhaps one of the lessons we can learn from Ruth is the need for us to make accommodations to our religion and not that our religion change to suit our whims.
Perhaps what Israel needs is not more commerce on Saturday and public transit, but rather a dialogue of how Israel, as a society can learn to appreciate Shabbat, a day of rest and holiness in our modern lives. Otherwise, we may end up taking the public bus from Shabbat to Saturday only to find out that we have lost our way.