November 18, 2018

Elul and Jewish pluralism

A typical study session for Elul, a pluralistic Israel-based beit midrash (house of study), doesn’t confine itself to a discussion of Abraham’s journey in Genesis. It naturally segues into a rabbinical story about the patriarch breaking his father’s idols, followed by a poem by the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai and a couple of open-ended questions about drawings that illustrate the same topic. 

Perhaps most important, it does so while appealing to all Jews: religious and secular, men and women, young and old.  

On a recent Shabbat, about 30 Modern Orthodox men and women got a taste of this in the backyard of a West L.A. home. That’s where Shlomit Ravitsky Tur-Paz, Elul’s incoming executive director, helped lead one of several events at various L.A. Jewish venues, part of a U.S. tour aimed at making American Jews aware of what Elul does and to gain both vocal and financial support for it in the United States. 

The group was founded in 1989 by Ruth Calderon, an Israeli academic who recently became a member of the Knesset in the Yesh Atid Party. The name “Elul” is a contraction from a talmudic passage in which, during a dispute between two factions, a voice calls out and tells those who are arguing, Eilu v’eilu divrei Elohim chayim — both “these and those are the words of the living God.” Calderon’s point was that no particular version of being Jewish has cornered the market on truth; both “these” and “those” may be valid.

For nearly 25 years, the organization’s task has been to get “these” and “those” to listen to one another.

“There are two parallel Jewish nations in Israel, one secular and one religious,” Roni Yavin, departing executive director, told the Jewish Journal. “These two don’t meet, never intersect. Religious track. Secular track. 

“Yet both are Jews, both are Israelis, both have a common history, the same roots. We need to focus on what these two have in common. We need to study and discuss across this divide to find what values are shared, and develop those, develop a common language and culture.” 

She continued, “When people of different backgrounds study together, like at Elul, and really talk with one another, listen to one another, they find things in common. Each generation has to look at Judaism and make interpretations that are appropriate to the time. When people study together, like at Elul, they find new interpretations.”

Calderon, in her maiden speech given before the Knesset in February, spoke passionately about the importance of a new Jewish model, one that includes secular Zionism and the ultra-Orthodox, as well as everything in between.

In this speech, which has become something of a YouTube sensation and gotten tens of thousands of hits, Calderon stated one of Elul’s cornerstone principles: The Torah is a living document, not only because of its rich fount of wonderful stories, but also because it provides us with the tools for dealing with current issues. She said that secular Israelis bear responsibility for having ceded “ownership” of religious texts and thought to religious Israelis. 

“Nobody took the Talmud or the rabbinical writings from us,” Calderon said. “We gave it away at a time when it seemed there was a more urgent and important task at hand — to build a nation. … Now the time has come to reclaim what is ours.”

Elul’s headquarters are in Jerusalem, but there are chapters throughout Israel, with hundreds of Israelis using its resources on a regular basis. It reaches out to thousands, especially children, on special occasions throughout the year.

At the Jerusalem beit midrash, you might find a storyteller acting out a biblical story for children, an immigrant women’s group finding guidance in rabbinical wisdom or a Talmud study group that includes a secular leftist, a right-wing settler and an Orthodox rabbi. 

In Los Angeles during the recent gathering, there was a lively give-and-take that explored the story of Abraham and his father, Terah: what it means to turn away from the path of your parents and grandparents — what you gain and what you risk by smashing your father’s and grandfather’s idols. 

People talked about their own experiences as parents and children. Instead of giving answers, Ravitsky Tur-Paz asked questions and encouraged dialogue, respecting all comments. The most poignant moments may have been when Ravitsky Tur-Paz, 39, and Yavin, 54, talked about “breaking idols” in their own families, and how that has affected them and the choices they’ve made. 

Ravitsky Tur-Paz, an Orthodox and traditional Jew, spoke of how her mother encouraged her to join the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) because she had been forbidden the opportunity by her own parents. As a result, Ravitsky Tur-Paz became a paratrooper and officer, then later an attorney. She has remained observant while promoting feminist causes as well as religious and educational pluralism.

Then Yavin told her own family story. While traveling to Palestine in 1913 as part of the Second Aliya, her grandfather, epitomizing his new life as a chalutz, a pioneer, threw his religious texts into the sea. Yavin and her parents were brought up in Israel as fervent — and secular — Zionists.

Elul’s approach may be slightly unconventional — they employ dramatic presentations, art, music, even “pub crawls” — but it’s always Jewish texts they deal with, the same ones that Yavin’s grandfather threw over the side of a ship 100 years ago. So, by having led Elul for 10 years, Yavin has figuratively smashed the idols of her grandfather just as Ravitsky Tur-Paz did when she joined the IDF. 

The two women come from different points on the Israeli religious spectrum, yet they work and study together, and both are passionate advocates for Elul’s objectives: promoting pluralistic Judaism, strengthening Jewish identity, creating social change in Israel and ensuring a rich future for Judaism.

The time for this kind of work has finally come, Yavin said.

“The pioneers, like my grandfather, abandoned religion because they had so much else to do at the time,” she said. “In those early years of the 20th century, there were so many things involved in building the foundation of the state that they had no time for religion, and they gave away that aspect of Jewish life to the Orthodox. But we secular Jews also feel that we are spiritual, so we want our religion back, because it belongs as much to us as it belongs to them. 

“Our aim,” she concluded, “is to take back Judaism.”