Shabbat without religion


How do you talk about Judaism in a way that's not too “Jewish”? How do you convey Jewish ideas to Jews who might get turned off by religious ideas? Is it possible, in other words, to talk about the Jewish religion in a nonreligious way?

Those questions were on my mind last Friday night when I was asked to speak to a group of Jews who had gathered for a wedding weekend. Because many of them were disconnected from the Jewish religion, I thought: Why disconnect them even more? A “religious” talk on the parasha of the week would surely have risked doing that.

Still, I confess, I had an agenda. I wanted every nonobservant Jew in the room to come out of the evening thinking: “Wow, we ought to try this Shabbat thing ourselves once in a while. It was quite enjoyable and it made a lot of sense — religious or not.”

Knowing that their minds were already tainted by the idea of anything too “religious,” I had to find ideas that transcended religious language. 

So, I focused on two ideas: gratitude and peoplehood.

The gratitude part was easy. I spoke about the annual American ritual of Thanksgiving and how Shabbat took that great idea and made it a weekly ritual.

The weekly Shabbat meal, I said, was a time to gather with family and friends and thank our Creator for all our blessings. No matter how difficult or complicated our lives can be, Shabbat comes to remind us that there are always reasons to be grateful.

I could see many heads nodding. Gratitude is one of those great universal ideas. And a meal of gratitude works on so many levels: It brings families together, adds warmth to our homes and injects meaning into our lives. How can anyone be against that?

By the time I brought up specific Shabbat rituals — lighting the candles, welcoming the angels of peace, blessing the woman of valor, blessing the children, the blessing over wine, washing our hands, blessing the bread, etc. — each ritual glowed under the umbrella of a universal idea.

The rituals were not in the service of “religion,” but in the service of the human idea of gratitude.

The next part is where it got trickier, because I connected the rituals to Jewish peoplehood.

Why was this tricky? Well, because Jewish peoplehood can easily be interpreted as a religious idea. If Jews gather to do religious things like pray in synagogues and make blessings at a Shabbat table, doesn't that mean that being Jewish is, first and foremost, a religious idea?

And if I'm not crazy about the idea of “being religious,” why should I be crazy about belonging to a people that worships religion and religious rituals?

So, I decided to go Hollywood and speak about a mind-blowing miracle: How is it possible that the Jewish people could be scattered around the globe for about 1,900 years — since the destruction of the Second Temple — and then, when they finally meet up in a place like, say, Pico-Robertson, they discover that they're all still using the same holy words?

How could it be that after not seeing one another for 1,900 years, we're still reciting the same blessings at the Shabbat table and reading from the same Torah? How is that possible?

“We probably do more editing in one day at The Jewish Journal than the Jews have done to their holy texts in 2,000 years,” I told them, only half in jest.

Again, I saw many heads nodding. The idea that we were all there, gathered at a Shabbat table, doing what our ancestors have been doing for centuries, was not a sermon or a religious idea.

It was simply a moving historical fact.

I spoke about how, after the destruction of the Temple, Jews became a “people of software rather than hardware,” and how the Shabbat table became the weekly centerpiece of this idea, serving to honor “software” ideas like gratitude, holiness and family togetherness.

The rituals of the Temple evolved into the rituals of the Shabbat table, and without this Shabbat table, it's hard to imagine how the Jewish people could have survived.

Our gathering on that Friday night, then, was a continuation of this miraculous story of survival.

The two ideas had merged: We were gathered in a joyous atmosphere to express our gratitude for all our blessings, and one of those blessings was the very idea of Shabbat.

In the same way that the Shabbat ritual has helped to protect and nurture individual Jewish families, it has helped to protect and nurture the Jewish people for centuries.

And, as far as I could tell from all the head nods, you didn't have to be too religious to appreciate that miracle.


David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

‘Secular Yeshiva’ answers young Israelis’ questions


Ofri Bar-Am, 19, folds her legs underneath her on a library couch and peers closely at a photocopy of the biblical passage describing the oldest recorded case of sibling rivalry in history, Cain and Abel.

A student at the first secular yeshiva in Israel, Bar-Am underlines phrases, scribbles notations and promptly dives into a psychological and theological discussion with her study partners about the story’s layered meanings and relevance.

“Cain’s whole purpose seems to be trying to please God, and when that doesn’t happen he breaks down and kills his brother,” she said. Pointing out a puzzling phrase she asks, “What does it mean? How did this happen?”

Bar-Am is part of an incoming class of 30 young, nonreligious Israelis who, like her, are combining study at the secular yeshiva with army service. A total of 150 students are attending classes here.

The Secular Yeshiva of Tel Aviv, which receives funding from The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, has students divide their time between studying Jewish texts and volunteering in economically disadvantaged areas of south Tel Aviv, where the yeshiva is located. There they do informal education projects with local elementary school students and after-school programming for them.

The goal is to give young, secular Israelis an education that will show them that they too have a rich culture to tap into and explore. Like many Israelis, young and old, those that come to the yeshiva know little about Judaism and feel alienated from religion, which they view as the domain of the ultra-Orthodox.

There’s no expectation or even intention for religious observance to follow.

Instead, the yeshiva’s founders hope students will gain an appreciation for religious pluralism and a desire to fuse their newfound knowledge of Judaism with work for social justice and human rights.

The yeshiva is a project of BINA, the Center for Jewish Identity and Hebrew Culture, sponsored by the United Kibbutz Movement. The organization hopes to strengthen pluralism and democracy in Israel by focusing on the humanistic aspects of Judaism.

“One of the reasons for the secular yeshiva is to counter the mindset of the opposition to Judaism as only a religious concept. We are here to give a different answer,” said Tal Shaked, 33, a former lawyer who serves as yeshiva head.

“I want to see people who are more socially minded, so the study is based not just on analyzing texts but seeing how these ideas can be applied as individuals and as members of Israeli society,” she said.

About half of the 30 students currently studying ahead of their army service pay tuition and follow the yeshiva model of studying from early morning until late at night, studying in pairs known as chevrutas.

The other half combine their yeshiva studying and volunteering with odd jobs to support themselves.

Organizers hope to win official recognition from the government as a combined yeshiva-army program, a type that exists in the Modern Orthodox community and receives state funding.
Another group of post-army students also combines study with work and, like the others, lives in communal apartments in the Shapira and Kiryat Shalom neighborhoods of Tel Aviv.

Eventually the plan is to be able to accommodate some 500 students. There are teachers from the three main streams of Judaism: Orthodox, Conservative and Reform.

The yeshiva receives funding from the New Israel Fund, the Commission on Jewish Identity and Renewal, as well as from federations in Los Angeles and New York. It reflects a trend in recent years of secular Jewish Israelis seeking a stronger connection to a heritage muted by the founders of the state, who preferred to detach Judaism from Zionism.

Several centers have opened in Israel that have begun to introduce Jewish text study to a secular audience. This yeshiva, however, is the first seminary of its kind in Israel.

“I think Israeli society has paid a price for Zionism’s attempts to cut out religion. It has created an identity crisis,” said Ariel Nitzan, 18, from Kibbutz Lotan, who will be doing a half-year of work-study at the yeshiva before joining a combat unit in the army, then returning for a period to the yeshiva.

“I feel like I’m also doing something for national security, but from a different point of view,” Nitzan said. “I’m dealing with the question of Jewish identity and contributing to social justice on some level.”

Dana Ben-Asher, 19, said she was always interested in Jewish topics but on Kibbutz Dorot, where she grew up, the focus was on socialist Zionism, as it is at most secular kibbutzim.

“We would build a sukkah and would ask why, and all the answers would be about pioneers and the importance of being Israeli,” she said.

The yeshiva students complain that in high school they were taught the Bible as a dry, impersonal subject.

Avigail Graetz, 30, a playwright and teacher who gives a course at the yeshiva on sibling relationships in the Bible, grew up in Israel’s small Conservative movement.

“They don’t even notice how they peel the layers back,” she said of her students’ astute analyses in her course.

If you start discussing the Bible per se, you can turn them off, she said “but when you talk about siblings in general they bring themselves into the text, and it’s beautiful. Their interpretations, their broad conceptions are so enriching.”

Graetz said the approach to study is not about “right or wrong. We aren’t doing it for halachah, and we don’t come from a place of ‘God knows better.'”

Over Yom Kippur, dozens of yeshiva students and their friends gathered at the community center in Tel Aviv that is the yeshiva’s temporary home. There they listened to commentaries and did group study and personal reflection.

Ben-Asher said it was the first time she had marked Yom Kippur in any kind of meaningful way.

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