Yom Kippur: Losing My Religion – OpEd


No, I’m not abandoning Judaism or my Jewish identity.  But in the spirit of Michael Stipe’s seminal REM song of the same title, I thought a provocative statement would dramatize my ambivalent feelings about key aspects of contemporary Jewish identity.

I spent a few hours today in shul pondering the prayer liturgy and Torah reading.  There is always a tension there between the strict ritual aspects of Judaism embodied by the Holy Temple and the rites associated with it; and the spiritual-social justice aspects of Judaism embodied by the Prophets.  The tension is as old as the religion itself.  But since the last Temple was destroyed during the Roman era, the priestly cult was subsumed by a strongly decentralized rabbinic-synagogue model which emphasized spirituality and tikun olam.  Though the Temple rite remained deeply embedded in the liturgy, it was seen as an symbolic element of the distant past, rather than as a project that demanded urgent realization.

Since Israel’s victory in the 1967 War though, a new trend has emerged, which I call settler Judaism.  Frankly, I don’t consider it Judaism at all.  Sometimes I call it a Judean cult, sometimes idolatry, or the worship of false gods, a sin deeply excoriated in the Torah.  That’s because rabbinic Judaism has largely rejected territory or buildings as embodiments of the sacred.  This new settler cult has adopted a form of Jewish racial purity as a core tenet of its theology.  Jews only. Arabs-Raus!  It is a cult built on blood and suffering.  Hatred of the Other.  Remind you of something?

These cultists also worship saints.  Not a very Jewish thing to do.  We don’t have formal saints.  But they do: St. Kahane, St. Goldstein.  They make pilgrimages to their graves where they dance to honor their blessed memory.  And promise they will follow in their footsteps.  Kill more Arabs.  Spill more blood.

To me, it’s little different than those pre-Israelite cults of Astarte (Ishtar) and Ashera, which the Israelites were commanded to root out when they first conquered the land.

Returning to what defined the sacred in Judaism over the centuries–yes, Israel was always on the lips of praying Jews for millenia.  But Israel was a vision like William Blake’s New Jerusalem, as much as a real place.  And there was never any movement in post-Temple Judaism which defined the borders of Israel or demanded specific territory and named it as inviolably Jewish.  Until 1967, there never was the equivalent of a Jewish Crusade to liberate such lands from the heathen as there was during the Christian Middle Ages.

Rabbinic Judaism saw the sacred in ideas, values and performance of everyday mitzvot.  While it always valued what was unique in the Jewish contribution to civilization, it appreciated other religious traditions.  It embraced a universalist vision as espoused by the Prophets.

It is true that it always prayed for the rebuilding of the Temple.  But there was always the realization that this was a task for the distant future and that Jews had far more urgent tasks in the present.

Now settler Jews have turned all this on its head.  Every single inch of Israel is sacred ground.  And all those inches belong only to Jews, not to anyone else, no matter how long they lived there.  Besides the land, the Temple is real to them.  It must be rebuilt.  The smart ones among the idolaters don’t say when it must be rebuilt, and of course they aren’t personally going to rebuild it (wink-wink).  That way, they can absolve themselves of any personal responsibility for the religious war that will happen when the Temple is built.  They say it will be built when people are ready to do it.  It will not be built by a tiny minority of settlers, but by the entire Jewish people.

Of course this ignores the fact that only the “Judeans” are engaging in concrete action and activism to rebuild the Temple.  Only they have created a Temple Institute to train a new generation of priests who will perform the sacrificial rituals.  Only they have actually named a High Priest to run this show.  Only they are agitating and provoking violence by making pilgrimage to the Haram al Sharif to pray there for the destruction of the Muslim holy sites.

In today’s Yom Kippur ritual, we read of animal sacrifices in the Temple.  We read of goats assuming the sins of the Jewish people and being sent to die in the wilderness.  Everywhere you turned in the prayer book there were longing references to the ancient rites, those glorious days of yesteryear.  It left me not just cold, but frigid.

Another aspect of liturgy that I found maddening is the Prayer for Israel.  In it, most Diaspora Jews call it, “the beginning of our redemption.”  Really?  How is Israel going to redeem anyone or anything?  What sort of moral example is it?  Further, I’m not so sure I want the messiah to come if he’s going to lead us all to a tidy villa in Gush Etzion.  Now, if the messiah represented a moral triumph of good and justice over evil, that might be something else.

But settler Judeanism is not my Judaism.  I do not want a Temple run by these mafiosi dressed in priestly garb.  How can I continue to pray for these things when I know if they ever happened they will be dominated by those who preach Jewish racial purity and ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian Other?  Back in the day, when racial tensions flared, we talked of ‘race wars.’  Luckily, they never happened.  But the Israeli equivalent of the race war is not just possible, it’s already happening.  If the settlerists have their way, there will be a religious holy war between Jews and Muslims.  It will be bloody.  Many will die.

I want a religion shorn of sacred temples, smoky animal sacrifices, and powerful priests entrusted with a sacred rite.  I want a Judaism embracing love, justice, peace; performing acts of lovingkindness for Jews and non-Jews.  A Judaism that embraces debate rather than stifling it.  A religion open to the world rather than fenced off from it.

I would feel more hopeful if there was a strong, concerted effort by other Jews to push back against this appropriation of our traditions by the settler right.  But Jews in Israel and the Diaspora have completely misunderstood the power of this settler vision.  They didn’t appreciate how strong and well-organized it was.  They thought they could marginalize it by ignoring it.  They did such a good job that they ignored it as it grew into the uncontrollable Golem it has become.

Frankly, I have little hope in the future.  American Jewry has no strong leadership, no vision for the future.  It offers nothing exciting or appealing to the next generation.  Here in Seattle, we have a new Jewish federation president.  In an interview in Jewish in Seattle, when asked how she would realize the federation’s “new mission” of “creating Jewish connections for life,” she said:

“…I like the phrase ‘creating Jewish on-ramps,’ because wherever individuals are in the Jewish journeys, it begins with an on-ramp.  Our research tells us that Jews in our region want to connect to Jewish life, but have different ideas about the roads they want to take.  The Federation’s goal is to build on-ramps to those roads…”

When I read this I scratched my head incredulously.  Really, being a Jew is like a ride on the freeway?  And this is the best one of the leaders of a major American Jewish community has to offer?

At another High Holiday service at the same synagogue a few years ago, I was so annoyed by a rabbinic sermon that I wrote a blog post critiquing it.  Later, I spoke at a conference devoted to Islamophobia about the same rabbi’s retreat from her commitment to engage with a local mosque.  The response of the then-president was to call me and tell me that my public criticism was inappropriate, that rabbis should not be disrespected in public as I had done, and that if I disagreed so strongly with her I should consider whether this synagogue was the right one for me.  Frankly, I was astonished.  In this day and age when many synagogues face aging membership and declining numbers, to have a president invite someone to leave the synagogue seemed a breach of reason, if not civility.  I told her I didn’t think it was her responsibility to determine whether I should be a member of the synagogue.  Nor did I feel rabbis were above public critique.

A few years before this, a board member of this synagogue wrote me an email telling me he thought I should be publicly spanked for my views.  Former synagogue member, Rob Jacobs, the regional director of StandWithUs, said that I needed mental health treatment.  These are perfect examples of the closing of the wagons in American Jewish life.  The exclusion of ideas that threaten.  The shaming of dissenting voices.  They cannot engage with the ideas, so they attempt to put them beyond the Pale of serious discourse.  This only hurts them and the American Jewish life they claim to champion.

Back in my youth, when I developed a passion for Jewish thought and prayer, it came through the authentic joy of the campus Havurah movement.  That was a movement which offered a Judaism of song, dance, and passionate debate over ideas.  But that has been lost somewhere along the way.  Now Jewish communal life seems to exist on the fumes of any authentic Jewish experience.

We are offered substitutes for Judaism instead of the real thing.  Birthright offers an identity shorn of religion.  The cult of Zion replaces Judaism.  The cult is funded not by rabbis or those who want to preserve Judaism, but by Sheldon Adelson and Michael Steinhardt.  Ironically, the hundreds of millions for this project come from someone who earns it by preying on addicts and greedy fools.  For Adelson, nationalism has replaced religion.  Judaism has become hollowed out and the vacuum is filled by Masada, kosher sex, and tales of yesteryear.

What form of identity will we pass on to our children?  What will excite them?  What would draw out the passion in them for, and motivate them to live a Jewish life?  A Third Temple built over rivers of blood?  Jewish freeways?  Is this all we have to offer?

This article was published at Tikun Olam

Richard Silverstein

Richard Silverstein is an author, journalist and blogger, with articles appearing in Haaretz, the Jewish Forward, Los Angeles Times, the Guardian’s Comment Is Free, Al Jazeera English, and Alternet. His work has also been in the Seattle Times, American Conservative Magazine, Beliefnet and Tikkun Magazine, where he is on the advisory board. Check out Silverstein's blog at Tikun Olam, one of the earliest liberal Jewish blogs, which he has maintained since February, 2003.

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