Among the many profound pleasures I enjoy living in Israel is that I no longer define myself as who I’m not.
To survive two millennia in foreign, often hostile (occasionally softly hostile but more frequently brutally hard) environments, we needed a system to preserve our unique identities without petrifying ourselves out of existence. Driven from place to place, we needed a way to practice and preserve our way of life wherever we might find ourselves. Chazal, our visionary sages, who, int the first centuries of the first millennium, devised what became known as Halacha (Jewish Practice) with Divine assistance but no longer enjoying Divine Guidance (The Age Of Prophecy ended with Destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and our subsequent Galut, or exile), but based on the revelations of Moshe Rabbenu (also known as Torah or Bible) and the other Nevi’im, Prophets (Nach) and with the insight that we were not interested in mere lifestyle, but with a holy mission to bring God’s Will into living reality, this system succeeded as long as it needed to. It wasn’t perfect, but largely achieved its goal. Am Yisrael, The Jewish People, in the 21st century, thrives.
Today, and for the last seventy years, that need for defensive halacha is, with thanks to The Creator, much much less. While not fully in the realm of Geula, Redemption, the current reality for those of us fortunate, blessed, lucky and courageous enough to live in the first sovereign Jewish state in these two millennia is day-and-night different from any Jewish existence in that long duration. This applies to both those born here and those who made the decision to re-home themselves here.
Of course, not everyone, probably not even a majority of Israel’s citizens are “religious”, at least not as defined by orthodoxy. But denominational divisions, so natural in Galut, so necessary so we can each define ourselves as not this or that, even though they still persist, are dissolving. Not only are these distinctions not needed, they’re counterproductive.
While we await, hopefully actively even if slowly, engaged in building Bayit Shlishi, that long-dreamt-of Third Beit HaMikdash, Holy Temple, whatever its ultimate form and expression will turn out to be, there is no reason to think that what had been accepted and deified as orthodox practice and halacha are identical, or even necessarily close to what Torah Judaism in Israel will be in the future. We need no longer mindlessly cling to every detail, every humrah (strictness) especially without even exploring and understanding how they developed historically in our long and varied history, in the many diverse locations and situations of The Exile we found ourselves in. When the conditions they were a necessary response to no longer exist, there is no need to deify our temporary reactions; even if they lasted a long time, they were still temporary.
So much halacha, as it’s come to us in the twenty-first century, is based on avoiding not just physical threats, but the more subtle annihilation of assimilation. How many laws of kashrut have nothing to do with the actual ingredients we eat, or our treatment of animals, but rather as obstacles to socializing over meals with the dominant non-Jewish culture we were surrounded by? So much of the religious practice we inherited was based on Al Telech, Don’t walk in the ways of our non-Jewish neighbors. So much of modern orthodox practice (as opposed to Modern Orthodox) revolves around obsessive non-conformity with the surrounding majority and obsessive conformity within our own group. Just look at the clothes worn in a frum community, so often out-of-phase with the local climates, based on two hundred and three hundred year-old and even older, often non-Jewish, fashions. The outlandish, but identical hats (within each sub-group, but the need to distinguish group from group repeats itself as a Gur Hasid will never appear in public in the clothing of a yeshivish Litvak (except maybe on Purim) any more than he would in revealing swim trunks. Never would a frum woman, in the hottest summer day, give up her wrist-to-ankle polyesters, full head-coverings. Kashrut supervision to guarantee that a non-Jew doesn’t participate in food preparation, pasteurizing wine (which ruins it, at least a little) to prevent a non-Jew’s handling an open wine bottle making it no longer fit (kosher) to drink.
It goes on and on.
This time of year, in most orthodox communities around the world, unfortunately even here in Eretz Yisrael, Israel, Jews will obsessively seek out Chinese food and meticulously avoid our one highest-value activity, learning Torah, all to avoid giving honor to Jesus. Christmas Eve becomes the one night of a year it’s permitted to go to a movie theater (at least pre-covid), of course, though, limiting the fare to a Disney-esque fairy tale. In a backhanded-insult to secular intellectual pursuits like chess (a game favored by many scholars of the past, including the late Lubavitcher Rebbe!) is allowed, if not encouraged, as a substitute for our supreme (all other nights (except for Tisha B’Av, when we refrain from the pleasure out of mourning the devastating destruction of ) intellectual/spiritual pursuit of Torah study.
Even here in Israel, in the year 2021, so many practicing Jews engage in the non-observance of the Christian holiday, even though our surrounding dominant culture is our own, the search for a Chinese restaurant that will deliver (it was, after all, Leyl Shabbat! It baffles my mind. Sure it can be light-hearted and even fun, but it’s for the past, not the future.
For here is the one place on earth, and the one time in millennia we finally can, and should be exactly who we are.