In a shtreimel or tattooed, we are brothers

Watching the widening gap between secular and religious Jewish Israelis is heartbreaking. Both sides have their own valid arguments: secular Jews often sneer at and undervalue the contribution of religious Jews to keeping Israeli society something other than the anomie-, enuui-filled and content-free society that a pure secular capitalist society can easily become and some religious Jews have unfairly demanded almost complete isolation from secular life, including, most controversially, serving in the army – while benefiting from state funds.

But why are the two sides so isolated from each other that they have begun to confront each other as enemies? Let me challenge the simple secular answer: “Because the religious Jews keep to themselves”. Is that so true? At the end of the day, it’s religious Jews that have performed most of the Kiruv among us, and although that often has the end goal of making secular Jews more religious, I don’t think it’s fair to say that that’s the only goal: in fact, a significant portion of that Kiruv has had the goal of making secular Jews feel more comfortable operating within religious society. On the other hand, secular society can’t perform Kiruv as a group – Kiruv to what? By whom? – so it’s the responsibility of individual secular Jews to seek out the company of the religious, to befriend them, and to make sure that they can and do learn from each other. As someone who has worked in an office where very secular Jews and Lubavitch – and Satmar! – Hasidim worked together and befriended one another, this is not as difficult as many people think.

Why not? Why shouldn’t there be an unbridgeable gap between a tattooed, club-going secular Jew in Israel and a Hasid dressed in the clothing of an 18th century Polish landowner, between an army veteran speaking the latest in Tel Aviv slang and a Chasid whose home language is still Yiddish? I claim the gap is smaller than we think – it takes a shockingly small effort of will power to cross — because, underneath all the obvious differences, both deep and cosmetic, we share, in common, some of the most profound beliefs about the world. Our Jewish heritage – the instincts, inscribed in the body and soul, passed down by our ancestors – what the French sociologist call the “habitus” – is always available, like the two sides of a zipper, to draw us together with the least amount of effort, and these instincts are on an even deeper level than the decision to (or to not) believe in God and attend secular observances. From a secular point of view, saying that the same moral struggles and experiences have marked us, profoundly, as a people, and that these moral struggles are always available as a common language to draw us together, is the same as saying, in religious language, that every Jew has a “Pintele Yid”, a “Yiddishe Neshama”.

After all, is not the most liberal secular Jew among us singed, profoundly, by the moral message of the prophets and the hope of Isaiah for peace? Are not the most religious and insular of the Hareidim pickled in the same culture of passionate irony that animates Israel as a whole? Who, that has spoken with them or lived among them, would deny this?

At our best, we are the people, who as the very name “Israel” testifies, wrestles with God – the idea of God, the idea of meaning in the world, and the idea of what it means to be a moral man and fight for a moral world among and between a society that often seems so cruel and so immoral. And whether we believe that Jacob is a mythical ancestor or an ancestor in the flesh and blood – and mythical ancestors are, as any psychoanalyst will tell you, no weaker and often profoundly more influential than our biological ancestors – we are the people to whom he bequeathed a world in which we wrestle, through the night, with the angel, and are neither victorious nor are destroyed. We struggle against it with humor, with skepticism, with doubt, but also with hope and faith, and this is the mix, that, in different proportions, unites even the most aggressively secular or most insular religious Jew among us.

Is not even Marxism, perhaps the most secular of the Jewish heresies, not steeped in the idea of the prophets, that there are only some men that can read the writing on the wall, and that the writing foretells that the rich, mighty, and unjust are sure to fall? Is not even Christianity, the offshoot of Judaism that turned the most hostile towards its spiritual parent, steeped in the belief that the world must become better and more harmonious despite the evidence of a Roman government that crucifies the innocent and tortures the poor? Hasn’t the significant work of the Kiruv organizations showed us that in the most troubled of our youth there is something that responds to the ancestral messages indelibly inscribed within our hearts?

The political and social differences between Religious and Secular Jews are real, and some confrontation is therefore inevitable. But how should that confrontation be handled? With the violent language and inbred suspicion of enemies? Or as brothers, who, however different their views of life, however different their interests, knows that they have lain at the breasts of the same mother, experienced the same struggles of childhood and youth, and are determined, not merely to squeeze the highest possible profit out of each other, but to remain, as a family, in love? I would beg everyone to remember that in the Seder, one of the few rituals of the Jewish people that even secular people maintain, the wicked son is not the one who says “I do not believe.” He is the one that says “What is this thing that happened to you”, thus cutting himself off from the destiny of his people. Perhaps back then, a simpler time, there was no room, at the Seder table, for the sceptical son – but the sceptical son is among us now and he is different, very different, from the wicked son. Let us not be the cause from turning each other away from the table.

About the Author
Barak Ben-Shem is a Jewish "Israeli-American" (Born in the US to Israeli parents.) He has run an investment fund for the last ten years and before that ran a private equity fund in Romania. He is a PhD candidate at Columbia University, studying sociology.