Saturday, December 12, 2009

The generation of desperation

It's no secret that today's society is increasingly becoming more and more secular. The number of false idols in our valueless world is only growing. Which is why it is particularly interesting that within the Jewish tradition, there is a growing number of youth who are turning towards religion, away from this society. By this I am referring to the growing trend of Bal Tsuva's in Judaism- those "who return" to religion. Not only do I notice it within friends of friends and friends but I've also studied it in my Jewish history classes- where the upward trend of today's Jewish history is the return to religion. I suppose the answer to the question- why are people becoming more religious in a society that is becoming more secular- is obvious. Today's youth are grappling for meaning and depth in a society that is quickly losing any remnants of both. This brings me therefore to my main question or topic of this post, a question that I too was once faced with. To get to this question, let me tell a short story. While debating with someone, who claimed they were deeply atheist (at least to me- to counter my faith and belief) they revealed how they perceive the growing trend of religious people; as a form of desperation. These people are not able to face the truth or the reality of a meaningless world, and random world. They need a crutch; to use the tool of HaShem and religion in order to survive. The time-old question: Is it desperation for meaning instead of truth that is driving us towards religion? Is it what we want, not what is. And let's face it, this argument is nothing new. Was it not Marx who said that religion was the opium of the people- a line that resonates with popularity today? The idea that people are desperate for meaning, and can't face the actual realities of this world, and instead convice themselves of illusions. The world is what it is, what we can know, and religion is included in this knowledge. If this is so, than religion is simply a product of this world, and therefore a product of man. For man, the fear of facing a meaningless and random world (where especially in older times, where there was lack of proper government etc.. there was also needed a moral code and rules)was unreal, and so it became easier to believe in meaning. The idea that no path has been written for us, nothing is for any reason, and our existence is a mere coincidence of science, is difficult to accept. In essence- people are desperate for an answer, and are prepared to create illusions and crutches in order to understand. The world has no answers, but for those we create for ourselves. Now- I know it now sounds like I'm on the path to either put down religion or defend it, but I don't think it possible to do either in this blog.... or even ever. Religion today has become an incredible personal decision and a personal debate for each man. Rather, I want to argue against this idea that religion is a form of desperation, or that religion is the opium of the masses- although I do believe it has the potential to be both.

In the past, religion was a given, not a choice. People lived in a G-d drenched world, where G-d permeated every aspect of life. Today, our secularizing world offers most (lets stick to Western societies)the choice of how they want to live. Either world we embrace, we can easily find a community with open arms. So now the question becomes, how do we choose, where does the turn from one world to another come from? While it may be true that many people nowadays are perhaps initially turning towards religion because they are lost, or confused and can’t find their place or yadayadayada to whatever sappy story you hear, (and therefore can be considered desperate) I really wonder if this is what will keep them into religion once they return? I think that the key, at least for me here, is the aspect of spirituality and happiness. While we can use tools in order to get somewhere, we wouldn’t stay in this state for our entire lives, and also, we wouldn’t stay happy. I think that the answers given by a given religion also reflect how much spirituality and happiness they provide for each person. (reflected by how the truth resonates to each person) Therefore, sometimes the beginning of the path may be rocky and unclear, the journey and destination must have some authenticity. (to the person, not universally authentic or true) Are we continually desperate for answers, so much so that we are willing to accept anything that comes our way- or only that that rings true, both in our fufillment of happiness and our measure for truth. Further, the idea that faith can bring us an easy answer towards life is also completely unfounded. The concept of complete faith is much scarier and difficult to do than believing in nothing. Although it may seem that pure faith is easier, (because everything is in Gds hands and everything is done for the best- even the worst experiences in your life- because at the end of the day, Gd is only trying to improve you),as someone who is struggling to do this it's not as simple and easy to do. This is mostly because we have to put our instinctive intellect aside in order to believe. (When bad things happen we don't intuitively see the best in it, we get angry) So in this respect, does desperation lead us to give up all of our inhibitions and rationality in favor of something we can never really know. Perhaps this is the most difficult part of religion- to believe and to have faith. If we believe firmly that there is nothing out there, (or in an agnostic sense- that we can never know what is out there- but there is no way to ever know)then we allow ourselves to be the masters of our own life. 'If it feels good do it' type of ideology. Does life in this respect not become much simpler? We avoid sense of rules and fixed set of morals. Happiness is the next meal, the next lay, the next paycheck. Yet, if this is so, we can also allow our societies to be completely turned around, because we can never truely know what are the right values. Who says my values are better than yours?- no one. Therfore, the idea that the Nazis valued the life of animals, over the life of Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, and many Eastern European peoples (those not of Aryan decendancy) is fine. With no fixed set of values and mroals, I can't say that this is wrong (even to this day)- and many a peoples in this day, did just that. The value of life, comes only from the Judeo-Christian tradition of fixed morality. The idea that I cannot say what is right or wrong, but that the instruction and the communication (mainly through Torah)from a higher being- from someting infinite intead of finite, comes from religion. SO is this desperation too? I suppose it could be argued that the want of a fixed set of morals is desperation, but it can also be argued, that without this, we are not desperate for it, but that we decsend into a life of utter chaos. (Hobbes' state of nature type of thing)

I just want to take a minute here, to talk about the people turning to religion, whom I do see as desperate. (oh no! am I ruining my entire argument?) I think that parts of our society turning towards relgiion do so because they are desperate and need something to guide them. In this sense religion is good. Why are types of Judaism, like black hat Judaism so popular? becuse these are instructing you exactly how to live. Judaism has high potential to simply be a rulebook, or a book of riddles. (void of spirituality and connection to something loftier) People are living mechanical yet simple lives according to Torah. This is an escape for them, rather than a place for real answers. I once spoke to an incredibly wise person , who really inspired me, who told me that this was the easy answer to religion. Yes we question what we are learning in Yeshivas and seminaries but we are also just accepting what has been written in law without the means of questioning these old traditions. I think Judaism in particular has one of the most interesting histories, because of the way that Halachic law was cemented. Here I'm referring to the process of law and tradition. People will say; if you don't know which prayer to say over the wine?? Simply go out and see what your neighbors are saying,and this is the law. Tradition is therefore as strong as law. (Reference here to "tradition! tradition!" circa fiddler on the roof) tradition in Judaism is just as strong as law. Biblical Jews were not wearing the Hasidic garb, this sort of tradtitional dress was taken from Russian and Polish neighbors when Jews used to live in these areas for many years. Our ancestors were not wondernig the land of Israel wearing a fur hat, or the big black coat. The evolution of Judaism through influence of others, has been sealed into something just as strong as law. Which makes the older traditions of instituting halacha very interesting. Why did one city's law take precedence over another? because one shtetl had 100 more people, and therefore this law was put into the history book. Now our many learn these laws, but don't get the oppertunity to dig deeper into this process. This answer, to me, seems more layered and complicated and doesn't fit the reason why so many people are now becoming religious. So no, I cannot deny the aspect of desperation as reason for why some people become religious. However, the idea that the entire framework of religion is such, is definatly not true. If we are to really explore the depth and the framework of Judaism, in a way that doesn't just let us live our lives mechanically, then we are not desperate because this life only complicates our lives, and forces us to question, debate and challenge all of our prenotions and ideas. If religion is the desperate search for a definate answer then the true study and loyalty to Judaism will do just the opposite. So in my conversation with this wise friend, we discussed how the real potential in Judaism lays not within accepting the answer but rather to challenge the answer at every oppertunity. Religion in this way is not only a way of life, but a journey of exploration, and new discovery. The mere idea that Judaism offers this facet is important.

So maybe what I'm trying to say is that the answers offered in Judaism have potential(this I must concede to) to be a haven for the desperate, more than the truth of a meaningless world. But Judaism isn't all an easy street for the desperate. It would be naive to believe that it was simply this. Using Judaism as the exploration for truth, one will find the exact opposite. There are more quetsions and the path is deeper and longer- and it is in this way that 'nothing' can be a better haven for the desperate. However, the act of teshuva and returning to religion gives more meaning, spirtiuality and perhaps happiness than the endless pursuit of material goods- and living how we want. We gain a sense of vision impossible to understand in a secular world, and a set sense of truth with a brand of values that resonate. Maybe I'm wrong, or maybe I really am desperate, but if this is so, then this answer for my desperation is the wrong answer. Opium to hide the reality of the world is prhaps wrong, perhaps the opium of the people today is the idea that all we have is nothing. This allows us to live how and where we want without consquence, and this allows the blindness of the youth to continue grappeling with no answers. Is this the true condition of the human? Perhaps. Or perhaps this is what we've allowed ourselves to believe, because we can't really face the truth of the human condition within the framework of religion. How will we ever know?? Well, this million dollar question takes us right back to the beginning, and our personal decision about religion.

This was somewhat of a difficult topic for me to explore, so if I was unclear (which sometimes in my head I'm so completely clear but on paper... not so much) please ask and I'll attempt to explain what I meant. Also if you completely disagree or if I haven't fleshed out my argument well enough... go on and comment.

Sunday, December 6, 2009


I recently just finished reading Amos Oz's "A perfect Peace". The book was incredibly weird to say the least, however, when reading an Oz book- you can never really go wrong. Sure enough his incredible talent was once again revealed in this book- despite even the translation. The book is set in a Kibbutz (surprise, surprise for Oz;))and revolves around the lives of the Kibbutznicks. Set in 1966, the book focuses on the two generations of the Kibbutz; those who built the kibbutz; based on their ideological Zionist principles formed in Europe, and the younger generation that inherited the consequences and realities of these ideas and principles. The younger generation in Oz’s book represent the ultimate embodiment of the dreams and hopes of the early Zionists. The book therefore struggles with the realities of this embodiment. It shows how ‘the Sabra’ is burdened with the heavy ideals and expectations from the older generation. They, in some sense, come to resent the life that they are forced and expected to live. This gap in generation is further highlighted by the introduction of a newcomer to the Kibbutz, Azariah, a man described as “born in the wrong generation". He was born in Europe, survived the Holocaust, and ended up on this Kibbutz. Azariah acts and thinks similar to the original Zionists of the land of Israel did, as a result of his early childhood in Europe and his experience in the Shoah. In some sense, among his generation, he is the “Jew”, and is never fully able to assimilate amongst the Sabras.

The older generation of the Kibbutz, are seeing their ideas come into fruitation, yet are somewhat removed from its complete success. The older generation, despite their attempts to be part of the land, feel as though they can never become natives to the land of Israel, and therefore they want to insure those born in the land, embody what they could never be. Oz has one of the older leaders of the kibbutz write, “...what troubles me is perhaps a vague sense of not belonging. Of homesickness. Of a sorrow that has no address. In this odd place without rivers, without forests, without church bells. Without all those things I loved. Nevertheless, I’m perfectly capable of drawing up the most coldly objective historical, ideological and personal balance sheets, all three of which tell me that the same thing- that there is no mistake. Everyone of us here can take a modest measure of pride in what’s we’ve done, in our long, dogged struggle to create out of nothing this attractive village even if it looks as if it has been built out of blocks by an intelligent child... Detached as I am, I approve of this achievement. We haven’t done a bad job. And to some extend we have truly made better people of ourselves.”(Oz, 221) They’ve created a reality that they can’t necessarily 100% experience. Therefore it is no surprise that even the new generation doesn’t live up to their standards- much of this also has to do with the attitude that the younger generation has to the ideals. The younger generation is stuffed full of ideology they can never fully understand- mostly because they never faced antisemitism and persecution. Not only that but, because of the actions of the older generation they are born in a new conflict, and have the responsibility to protect the land. They therefore ask; : “what more O what more do you want our land that we haven’t given you yet”?? (from a popular patriotic song) I somewhat see this generation as a science experiment- now created to protect the dream of another generation, and told that this too is what they want, and what they need.

Before we continue, I think it is defiantly worth it to look a little closer at the concept of a new Jew or a Sabra, in case anyone is lost thus far. The founding Zionists intended to recreate Jews- basically they wanted to breed a new generation of Jews, a re-definition of the concept of the exilic Jew, in order to create a new type of Hebrew man that would live in Palestine. This redefinition described the Jew as a very manly identity; he was strong, proactive, healthy in body, and ready to labour the land. This new identity clashed with popular perceptions of Jews in Europe; the Jew had come to be seen as weak, pale, cowardly and diseased. Therefore, Zionists had internalized these accusations, and sought to reclaim Jewish masculinity as a reaction to antisemitism. However, the Zionists also rejected their own traditions as Jews, which blurred traditional gender roles. Jews within Ashkenazi culture were either Torah scholars, or smart enlightened men; either way, they were hunched over their books, and passive to the world that surrounded them. Zionism rejected this, and sought to masculinise the new Jew, in order to reject this weak perception and thus create something new in a new land. This reinvention fit into the large context of collective Jewish national revitalization, and came to define a new generation of Jews that would grow up in Palestine.

While there are many interesting themes in Oz's books, I really think that the most interesting theme is this one in particular. While this theme, embedded in Oz’s book, can be seen historically, the theme is definitely still present today in Israeli society. The newest generation of Israelis, although with added years of history, are also the inheritors and the embodiment of the Zionist dream. This thus explains the phenomenon of many Israelis no longer finding any connection to this land. They have no connection to the perils and the threat of exile; it is only something they learn about in class. They face no discrimination within Israel as Jews, obviously because they are the majority of the population. The hardship of Israeli life is reflected not through antisemitism or genocide, but instead through army service, terrorism and the constant threat (and practice) of war. While the older generations were able to justify the later because they valued the eventual goal of statehood, self-determination and acceptance; newer generations have always had this. Without the existential threat that the original Zionists had, the later only become meaningless, and therefore empty tasks. Perhaps the only meaning that has recently been infused in it, is the emergence of nationalism, which is different from Zionism. By this I mean that younger generations value this land because this is where their families for generations have grown, this is where they grew up and this is where a new Israeli (not Jewish) culture is burgeoning. The idea of it being exclusively Jewish, is connected to this new Israeli culture, but it may not always be essential. By this, I mean to say that someone not Jewish can partake in the Israeli culture. (Although the two now are connected, it is growing, so as to not include the Jewish aspect) Therefore, how strong is this nationalism??(Especially in comparison to Zionism) Is it stopping younger generations from the lure of immigration to America—which has its own brand of acceptance, and inclusiveness, that Jews always covet? For some, nationalism is enough to keep them here, but not for others. This would explain the growing number of people who move away to America or Canada. There they can live better economic lives, which are both safer; in all regards (since in many places of Canada and the US, antisemitism is nearly impossible to find) Perhaps, without the deep belief in original Zionism, younger generations are living in an empty shell. A country that they can’t fully connect to the way that original Zionists did. A country they are expected to bleed for, every day of their lives. What for me is especially interesting is the appearance of Oz’s weird character, Azariah, in modern day Israel. To me, he is every Jew that ideologically makes Aliyah- pledging their allegiance to Zionism. They know how it feels to live in Galut, amongst a Christian world, on a Christian calendar, with a Christian focus. They now want to live in the Jewish spotlight, on an exclusively Jewish land. They have no nationalism- only Zionism. This reminds me of a conversation I once had with a native Israeli. He argued that he wanted to live in Canada, away from the craziness, and the burden of Israel- an easy and simple life. I couldn’t understand it; all I see in Thornhill is some boring land, with houses in suburbia that all look the exact same. (some kind of wrinkle in time description) A land with no meaning, and where I have no connection to it’s history. Yet- this is exactly it, this is the lure. Here- the land demands so much from you- and each Israeli has to decide if it's enough in return. And what about all the Azariahs?? Born in the wrong generation, smelling of Zionist propaganda- giving up their families, economic easiness, and simple lives, just to live in Israel. Are we crazy?? Or are we are willing to adopt all this crazy in return for the satisfaction of living the Zionist dream- just as our Zionist elders who came from Europe did. Maybe born in the wrong generation, but re-defining this one too.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The riddle of the century: 'A Jewish Democracy'

A few nights ago in Jerusalem, there were about two thousand secular Israelis demonstrating against police weakness in the face of what they branded ultra-Orthodox religious coercion and violence. (Nir Hasson, Haaretz) Holding signs labeled "Israel is also ours" they reinforce the ever present divide between religious and secular in Israel.. They were protesting against the overwhelming amount of ultra-Orthodox demonstrations that have been happening in Jerusalem, especially since this summer. I'd like to repeat what has been happening in Jerusalem, in case any readers are unfamiliar. This summer, there were many riots held by ultra-orthodox Jews, protesting the opening of a parking lot in a Haradi area. They opposed the building claiming it "violated Shabbas, and interrupted the staus-quo". Violent interactions between police and Haradi Jews erupted in Jerusalem. There were more riots after the arrest of a Haradi mother, accused of starving her baby , and more recently, the opening of a Intel plant in a religious area (Intel is open on Shabba) The secular protest was not only against police inaction, but also a general stand against, what they believe, the statement or the idea that Israel is exclusively for the religious, and that Israel is a land of Judaism. In simpler terms- there is a clear friction between a Jewish state and a democratic state. (Interesting side note though: the ways in which the Haredi express their opinion is through a democratic means)

I think it's really interesting to talk to Jewish tourists about this balance. While Jewish visitors love the Jewish character of Israel, most secular Israelis don't. There is a certain novelty of restaurants and stores being closed, buses not running on Shabbat and other such things. For them, coming from countries that run on the Christian calender, the excitement of seeing how a country can be run in a "religious" manor makes them proud to be Jewish- regardless of how "Jewish" they are or not. Why wouldn't it be exciting to have a country of Jews who follow the rules. But how would these tourists feel if they had to practically live here?? This is the problem that secular Israelis face. They are told they are living in a democratic country, but yet they face injustices because of religion. The friction between "church and state" is never so clearly seen than here in Israel. If an Israeli Jew falls in love with a non-Jew- they don't have the right to get married in Israel. Democracy? Yet, what happens when we strip away these Jewish practices, how Jewish does our state become? What are we willing to sacrifice between the two in order to reach some sort of balance? This question of reconciliation between the two is incredibly tricky.

I think it's useful to think of the "Jewish-democracy scale", where we want to get as most democracy and Judaism into the state as possible. All Judaism and no democracy would be a religious autocratic state, similar to what the Taliban set up in Afghanistan.(with Islam) How would this look in Israel? A team of rabbis running the country. No Judaism, and all democracy would be similar to US, where there is a separation of church and state. In Israel, this would grant full national, (and all other rights) to Palestinian Arabs but also to Israeli Arabs. There would no long longer be any 'Jewish' state- although all the Jews in Israel could continue living here, with the same rights they hold today. With no Judaism and no democracy, we get something like Stalinst Communist Russia. I couldn't even begin to think how that would affect Israel though. Therefore, the goal is to get the most democracy and the most Judaism into this state. But I suppose this is also easier to say than to do or put into place. The status-quo of Jewish laws has been kept since the creation of the state of Israel itself. While Ben-Guirion's Zionism preached a secular re-invention of the Jew- he still made a coalition, and a deal, with the religious Zionists, who envisioned Israel to be eventually run in a purely religious manor. From this stemmed many religious laws in Israel. (one of the most popular, disputed and therefore controversial is the exemption of religious Jews from the army in order to study in Yeshiva, a status-quo that was created right at the beginning) I think that this idea is particularly interesting in the puzzle of a Jewish-democracy, because it was the secular that invited the religious into this state, in some ways. It is well known that the secular movement itself, although deeply secular in practice, had undertones of religious Judaism in their ideas. For example, the use of the Hebrew language- the ancient religious and sacred language of the Jewish people was chosen. (and don't think that this was obvious, because a bitter battle ensured between Yiddish and Hebrew- and German was even took a place in this fight) Further, the insistence of the land of Israel, rather than another type of land- say territorialism in Russian, or a piece of land in Uganda, was insisted by the WZO. The land of Israel is strongly connected to the Jewish religion. Therefore, I would like to argue that, despite the split of religious-secular in the beginning of the creation of the state of Israel, there was also some sort of unison: if at least as some sort of spiritual understanding. Unfortunately, I think that this split has not stayed in unison, but has only continued to part.

The friction that exists between the Jewish part of the state, and the democratic part of the state, runs deep. There are no right answers here. The balance between a Jewish democracy is continually tipping, and each question needs to be individualized. I personally believe that without the Jewish character of the state, we destroy the seams of which this country was sewn from, and destroy Zionism- despite it's deeply secular character. How much am I willing to concede and how much democracy am I willing to sacrifice? This is an unfortunate question that each Jew must struggle with. This struggle is represented in the two types of people in this country- the religious and the secular. Each has to live with the concessions that the other has forced the state to make. It is therefore no surprise that there is an incredible bitterness between them. The secular perceive the religious as non-nationalistic bums, who don't work, don't give anything to the country (a lot of this is related to the fact that the ultra-orthodox don't go to the army)- yet they take and take from the country- namely through welfare. The secular are perceived as hedonistic sinners,many of whom they don't even consider Jewish, who don't care at all about Judaism or Jews. Obviously many of these are hyperboles or based on mythology. So, is there any hope?? Or are we simply looking into a dark abyss?? Let's also remember that much of this divide is also fueled by ignorance and stereotypes. While talking to a religious teacher in a secular high school, she confided in me the ignorance she faces surrounded by secular students. She expressed that people right away assume that she didn't go to the army, or that she doesn't believe in the state of Israel, and that she too agrees with all the actions that many ultra-religious profess to. She feels as though they perceive her as a democracy-hating Jew, who wants to let only rabbis run this country. Astounded, she says she is happy she has the opportunity to educate these kids, and explain to them the differences in religious opinions; she too struggles with a Jewish democracy. Just as secular Jews may find themselves not in the same opinion about many things, so do religious Jews- they are far from a united front. She tells them that many religious people go to the army, including women- although many also choose to participate in the "national service" program, where they get the opportunity to service their country in different ways through volunteer work. I think it is through people like her, that we are hopefully beginning to bridge gaps and old bitterness. There is no right answer but to know that despite our beliefs we are all Jews; this land belongs to all of us- and therefore it is all of our struggle.