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Ysoscher Katz
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Tel Aviv won’t change nor should it

Israelis are being pulled in two dramatically different directions, one devoutly Orthodox and the other passionately secular
Activists from the Rosh Yehudi organization set up a 'mechitzah' divider made of Israeli flags ahead of a public prayer event in Dizengoff Square, Tel Aviv, on Yom Kippur eve. September 24, 2023. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash 90)
Activists from the Rosh Yehudi organization set up a 'mechitzah' divider made of Israeli flags ahead of a public prayer event in Dizengoff Square, Tel Aviv, on Yom Kippur eve. September 24, 2023. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash 90)

By now, many of us have seen video clips of the clashes in Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff square on Yom Kippur eve and then again as this sacred day was coming to a close. Like so many others, I was horrified by the verbal and in some cases even physical violence, and devastated by the ugliness of it all. But, unlike many of my fellow decriers, I am not as disappointed with the outcome. Because, the way I see it, this was not a fight between good (datayim) and evil (chilonim). This was a battle between two very frum groups, one of them devoutly Orthodox and the other passionately secular. 

And I for one do not share the dream of the dati leumi organizers of the Dizengoff Square minyan that one day ALL of Israel will be as religious and as devout as they are. That is a chimera which is practically unfeasible and theologically undesirable. 

By now all of us must realize that, either by supernal design or by historical default, Judaism always was and always will be multi-vocal, not univocal. 

The symphony would be a perfect analogy for describing the inter-denominational and inter-communal dynamic of 21st century Judaism, their multi-vocality. 

Symphonies are performed by multiple artists, each of them playing their own unique instrument, but their artistic output is harmonized with the other performers. While each musician contributes their unique sound to the composition, their individual sounds are enhanced by the accompanying musicians. 

Similarly, that is how our communal dynamic functions. 

The various types of Judaism operate alongside each other. Each of them produces a unique spiritual song while at the same time also enhancing the spiritual message of the other religious communities. Orthodoxy would be incomplete without the unique sound produced by secular Judaism, and so too in turn is non-observant Judaism enriched by the way we in the Orthodox community practice it. 

(In the past, Orthodoxy perhaps imagined a utopian world in which everyone comes to eventually embrace observance, but at this point in our history that no longer seems realistic. Thus requiring Orthodox thinkers to embrace an alternative and more realistic model, one in which observant Judaism operates alongside other versions, as parallel pillars, operating side by side, rather than as totemic-like hierarchies, where one version is culturally superior to the other.)

As a religious Jew who cherishes a Judaism that is optimally enriched by insights from Jews across the spectrum, I therefore would feel impoverished if I were to live in a world where all Jews are like me and practice my version of Judaism. It would be bland, monotone and unexciting. My observance’s optimal potency is dependent on a vibrant and sophisticated secular alternative which is in constant dialogue with the Judaism I practice. 

In order to sustain the integrity of a symphonic rather than a uni-vocal Judaism, Tel Aviv needs to maintain its unique and distinct secular Jewish identity —- as a complementary counterpoint to Jerusalem’s religious cultural identity. 

Both cities are crucial to the Jewish narrative, but they tell different stories. The story of Am Yisrael (Judaism as a nation and culture) climaxes in Tel Aviv, while in Jerusalem one encounters the punchline to the story of Torat Yisrael (Judaism as a religion). True, the narratives of Am Yisrael and Torat Yisrael frequently intersect and the protagonists are often the same but they still tell two very different tales, both of which are extremely important.

And for parallel Judaisms to thrive and fully blossom each needs their own capital city to serve as the flagship geographical beacon from which its distinct Torah spreads outwards. Jerusalem needs to be the capital of observant Judaism, while Tel Aviv will serve in that capacity for cultural and historical Judaism. 

A country’s capital isn’t just its political center, it is also the home of its primary cultural institutions. The capital city is the concrete manifestation of the values, aspirations and beliefs which animates its collective spirit, a spirit that is felt and manifest in the cultural institutions that usually dot capital cities, but it is also palpable in the public sphere, the cafes, parks, promenades, etc. 

Very often we, consequently, had two capitals, different cities in Israel serving as different cultural landmarks. In fact, there is even textual evidence for this premise that Israel had parallel capitals operating side by side but playing distinct cultural roles. Over the years, people have identified various locales as Jerusalem’s sister capital, places like Jericho, Tiberias, or Meron. (Happy to share references upon request.) Today, that place is Tel Aviv. Jerusalem and Tel Aviv are therefore modern Israel’s twin capitals. 

(For those who value a city’s metaphysical currency, it is worth noting that both cities have a lot to offer. Each of them have their metaphysical focal point, where one goes for an infusion of transcendence. Jerusalem has the Kotel, while in Tel Aviv one finds metaphysical sustenance at the beach. You take a midnight stroll on the tayelet (the boardwalk), starting in Yaffo and culminating at the tip of the city, where Tel Aviv meets bourgeoise Herzliya. In the midnight quietude one can hear the narrative of Am Yisrael embedded in the city, the ocean and the waves. The visual and auditory aesthetic of that stroll is transcendental.)

Consequently, for me, if Rabbi Zeira, the person at the head of the movement to one day turn all Tel Avivim into punctilious Orthodox Jews, and his garin torani cohort succeed with his privately stated goal to be “machzir be’teshuva” (have them “return” to Orthodoxy’s fold) all of Tel Aviv that would be a huge blow to my personal experience of Judaism’s multivocality. (I spend two month every summer in Tel Aviv and am spiritually nourished during my time there by the explicit and implicit conversations constantly going on between myself and the overwhelming secular Judaism of Tel Aviv.) 

But the loss would not JUST be personal. Medinat Yisrael’s essential purpose would be diminished as well.

It was never meant to house a univocal version of our unique covenant. From the outset, its charge was to be a home for a multiplicity of Judaisms. I therefore fervently hope and pray that any attempt to change that fails.

PS. The opinions expressed herein are my own and don’t reflect the views of any institution or philosophical movement)

About the Author
Rabbi Ysoscher Katz is Chair of the Talmud department at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah. He received ordination in 1986 from Rabbi Yechezkel Roth, dayan of UTA Satmer. Rabbi Katz studied in Brisk and in Yeshivat Beit Yosef, Navaradok for more ten years, and is a graduate of the HaSha'ar Program for Jewish Educators, Rabbi Katz taught at the Ma'ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls and SAR High School, and gave a popular daf yomi class in Brooklyn for more than eight years.
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