Modernity and Tradition: Our Struggle for a Modern Jewish Identity


By Tami Wolf
Director, EntryPointDC

It might seem crazy, but the daily struggle we have today over the balance between tradition and modernity and identity is not new to the Jewish people.

Torah is full of examples of Israelites trying to live in the bigger world while maintaining their ways, not always successfully. Even the story of Chanukkah, which starts on December 8 this year, is about how one group of people thought Jews should balance tradition and modernity. If it weren’t a struggle, if we didn’t have conflicting feelings about this, it wouldn’t still bother us today, and that is why it is still so important.

This afternoon, the DCJCC hosted Anat Hoffman for a lunchtime update on the current state of pluralism in Israel. Hoffman works with two organizations that are working for change, i.e. changing tradition, in Jewish life in Israel. One is the Israel Religious Action Center.

The IRAC, as it’s affectionately known, is the legal arm of the Union for Reform Judaism in Israel and addresses issues of religion and state in Israel, including social justice, equality, and religious pluralism. They are trying to find a way to balance traditional and modern values and make religion in Israel something all Jews can feel comfortable with.

Hoffman is also the head of an organization called Women of the Wall (WoW), whose mission is “to achieve the social and legal recognition of our right, as women, to wear prayer shawls, pray, and read from the Torah collectively and out loud at the Western Wall.”

Women of the Wall meet every rosh chodesh (new month) to pray at the kotel together. From my own experiences with them, the Women of the Wall are not looking to start a fight with local police officers or upset other worshipers; they merely want the right to pray in a way that is meaningful to them.

This afternoon, Hoffman talked about how Israelis are attempting to maintain traditions while living in a definitely modern state. She talked about the work IRAC and WoW are doing on things we think of as extremist – things we would never dream are happening in a place we see as so western and modern:

  • segregated busses, where women sit in the back and men in the front;
  • uncondemned racism from state-employed rabbis towards Arabs;
  • and, of course, the hold a small group of ultra-orthodox extremists have over all religious aspects of the country, including over the management of holy sites.

Hoffman’s struggles with the IRAC and Women of the Wall are two windows on the struggles we face between living our traditions and embracing the modern world we live in today.
Anat’s visit kicks off a slew of upcoming Israel programming at the DCJCC.

Theater J, the DCJCC’s professional theater company, will be staging two plays about life in Israel, and it is one of those that I want to talk about specifically.

Apples from the Desert, by Savyon Liebrecht, is a story of a search for balance. The protagonist is Rivka, a young Sephardic religious girl, whose life is turned upside down when she meets and falls in love with a secular kibbutznik from the south, Dooby.

Rivka has to do what all of us strive to do: find a way to maintain her religious identity in a way she feels is appropriate without dismissing the expectations of her family and community or turning away from what she really wants.
I don’t think there’s a “right” or a “wrong” solution to this problem, but I do think we can all arrive at answers we are comfortable with, at least for the moment. I have no doubt this is a daily struggle, something that as individuals we always have to come to terms with and re-evaluate as our lives move on.

Personally, I’m very much looking forward to exploring how DC’s young professionals see this issue and have made choices for themselves, on December 22 after a performance of Apples from the Desert, and especially how Israel has been a part of that process. (That means you’re invited, so come talk this out with me.)

And on that note, Happy Thanksgiving from EPDC!

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One Response

  1. Some corrections to your description of IRAC.

    re: “The IRAC, as it’s affectionately known, is the legal arm of the Union for Reform Judaism in Israel and addresses issues of religion and state in Israel, including social justice, equality, and religious pluralism.”

    IRAC is the public and legal advocacy arm of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism. (the Union for Reform Judaism is the Reform Movement in North America)

    re: “They are trying to find a way to balance traditional and modern values and make religion in Israel something all Jews can feel comfortable with.”

    IRAC’s mission statement: “advancing pluralism in Israeli society and defending the freedoms of conscience, faith, and religion … advocates on behalf of a broadly inclusive Israeli democracy, infusing social justice advocacy with the spiritual energy and humane worldview of Progressive Judaism.”

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