Yair Sheleg- The Jewish Renaissance in Israeli Society: The Emergence of a New Jew

Yair Sheleg a decade ago wrote a great book The New Religious Zionists[Hebrew]. In that book, besides the actually discussion of the new Religious Zionist trends, he gave us glimpses into the breakdown of ideology in the settlement of Ofrah, the rise of Maaleh film school, Shababnikim wandering around Jerusalem, the Habakuk movement, and how American Yeshivsh are bringing materialism to the Israeli Haredi world.

His new book The Jewish Renaissance in Israeli Society: The Emergence of a New Jew [Hebrew]deals with the rise of new cultural religious trends in Israel. The chapters give us a kaleidoscope of the turns to kabbalah, Rebbe Nachman, Piyyut, and Eastern religion in Israeli society. He documents the rise of secular study of traditional texts and the rise of hiloni prayer communities. His conclusion is that these trends are part of the rise of the new age and spirituality in Israeli culture.

His last chapter, available online here, deals with bigger cultural issues. He sees the original Jewish cultural element in the state of Israel was more negative than positive, stores are closed but the positive content is going to the beach, or people continued to hold Passover sedarim but did not make them their Hiloni own version. Sheleg sees the rise of a new religious culture in Israel as breaking down the divide between Dati (religious Zionists) and Hiloni since now both sides share texts, experiences, and ritual. Both side are now buying the same books and creating the same Jewish events.

Sheleg sees the new Jewish Renaissance as an internal dynamic from the breakdown of the socialist ethos, especially of the youth movements. The heroic stance of Brenner, Katznelson, and the glorification of the early Kibbutz is no longer the model. The ubermench, warrior, Cannanite ideology is over. It is also a change from the reluctance to create new Jewish forms by authors like Bialek. The new individualism leads to a greater acceptance of the demands of religion- religious coercion is no longer the issue.

Sheleg goes out on a limb by thinking that it may lead to greater reconciliation with the Arabs/Muslims since Israeli identity will be more religious than nationalist Zionism.

Sheleg emphasizes that this is a cultural revolution not a religious one. A common culture in the media, society, and lifestyle.

Sheleg as a journalist treats the material in a descriptive manner. But I find it interesting from a historical and theological point of view. There is a shelf of books from Bialek and Agnon to Eliezer Schweid and Shlomo Avneiri discussing how to create an Israeli culture that incorporates Jewish elements. For most of them, the answer is the classics: Bible, Mishnah, Aggadah, liturgy, and the rationalism of Maimonides. And for most of them these texts are to be studied in an anthology to allow a romantic approach removed from the religious context of the study hall. Think of Sefer Ha-Aggadah.

This new approach is about direct experience of religion in a spirituality context. And what is the new canon of classic texts? Zohar, Kabbalah, Rav Nachman, Piyyut, and Eastern religion influenced meditation. Personal ecstasy is in and romantic anthologies are out. The other corpus that is “in” –is the reading of rabbinic texts for the insight it offers us as moderns. The “in” word for the discussion for Rabbinic texts is mashmaut.

Sheleg himself points out that this has little to do with American modern Orthodoxy and I will add that it it has little to do with most groups of American Olim whose religious life remains as expatriates of their American Orthodoxy. Also don’t limit your thinking to J-M, think of Beer Sheva, Arad, Modiin, Ashdod, Tel Aviv, Haifa. Sheleg concludes with the caveats that this trends of the last 20 years may create its own reaction against it (Israeli secular resurgence) and that some of this spirituality may lead some of the followers into Fundamentalist positions.

From the blurb online:

Over the last two decades, a renewal of interest in Judaism has be1come increasingly conspicuous in Israeli society. This trend is evident both within secular groups, who formerly took no interest in Judaism, and within religious groups, who were obviously engaged with Judaism in the past, but whose engagement is notably different today than in previous generations, having become far more cultural and spiritual than halakhic (i.e., related to Jewish law).

Indications of this renewed interest are visible everywhere – in dozens of Jewish study centers and study groups that have sprung up throughout the country; in many newly established prayer communities that serve as substitutes for synagogues identified with various religious streams (this is due to the desire of some secular people to distinguish themselves not only from Orthodoxy but also from liberal religious groups, such as the Conservative and Reform movements); and in the rising number of organizations and individuals seeking secular alternatives to traditional Jewish ceremonies – mainly weddings, but also bar and bat-mitzvah ceremonies and birth and mourning rituals.

Other notable signs include increased media discourse about Judaism in general and the weekly Torah portion in particular; greater attention to traditional liturgical poems (piyyut), especially by secular musicians who are composing and performing age-old Jewish liturgical texts; and the burgeoning artistic interest in Jewish source material and in dialogue with God and Jewish tradition, which is especially noticeable in popular music, but is found in other fields as well.

The book’s first section focuses on the cultural component, and describes its process of expansion. This process begins with broadening the fields of involvement – moving from the study of Judaism, which is strictly intellectual, through the adoption of personal alternatives to Jewish traditions and texts, and finally to traditional prayer services conducted by people who continue to define themselves as secular.

The second part of the book explores the spiritual component, first as part of the universal New Age phenomenon – a kind of individualistic, non-institutionalized spirituality that is based less on the fulfillment of obligations and more on techniques, as a means of connecting to a world that transcends reality. From this standpoint, the Jewish renaissance’s spiritual aspect is in fact a Jewish variation of the New Age. In this context, Israelis forge links with Jewish spirituality in three main ways:
by the study of Kabbalah, the renewed interest in Hasidism, and the influence of Far Eastern religions, with which many Israelis have come into contact in recent years
.
The book examines the factors that have given rise to the Jewish renaissance, especially in recent decades, postulating that there is a discernible difference between the impetus behind the cultural renaissance and that of the religious renaissance. In other words, the cultural renaissance has been influenced more strongly by the intra-Israeli quest for an orientation anchored in values and identity, inthe wake of the severe damage inflicted upon the society’s previous anchors – Zionism and socialism.

The book’s summation is concentrated in its two concluding chapters. The first chapter targets the obstacles and risks with which the Jewish renaissance must contend. The process is still striving to compete with the powerful attraction of mass consumer culture; thus, in effect, it largely remains the province of a cultural and social elite (particularly in the cultural realm). The economic crisis of 2008-2009 also had a strong impact, posing a serious problem of reduced funding for organizations that are involved in the renaissance process. On the other hand, the renaissance’s spiritual component is facing the very real danger of a slide into fundamentalism. The Jewish renaissance is turning Israeli Judaism into the heritage of both the religious and the secular.

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