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Galilee Diary: Definitions III

Galilee Diary: Definitions III

by Marc Rosenstein
(Originally published in Ten Minutes of Torah and Galilee Diary)

Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, "Surely the Lord is present in this place, and I did not know it!" Shaken, he said, "How awesome is this place! This is none other than the abode of God, and that is the gateway to heaven."
-Genesis 28:16-17

Recently I led a day trip for the Avshalom Institute, one of a number of organizations around the country providing adult education programming on "Israel studies," including lectures, courses, and field trips. The clientele are mostly active senior citizens, and many of the programs are quite rich, with prominent academic lecturers. Our topic was "the 'streams' of Judaism in the Galilee." After an introductory lecture on the development of the denominations, especially Reform, we went on to four encounters:

At the Conservative kibbutz, Hannaton, we met the new young rabbi, Yoav Ende, who explained both the philosophy of the movement and the story of the community - a kibbutz that failed (socially and economically) in the past, but is now going through a rebirth. The participants, who were pretty much all from the sector that defines itself as "secular," found it difficult to place the boundaries - between Reform and Conservative - and between Conservative and Orthodox: "So, if you follow halachah, how are you different from Orthodox? But if you apply your own reasoning to change the halachah, how are you different from Reform?"

And the questions continued on the bus all the way to the next stop, Kibbutz Lavi, one of the pillars of the Orthodox kibbutz movement. Our hostess, Sheila, from London, was one of the founders in the late 40s. Her self-deprecating, ironic British humor, her swashbuckling stories of the early days, and her love for the kibbutz, won the crowd over: "If all the Orthodox were like you, we'd all be Orthodox." There is of course an internal contradiction in the very term "Orthodox kibbutz," as was clear from Sheila's story of the time the kibbutz chairman and the rabbi went head-to-head: the chairman insisted that on a kibbutz, authority resides in the general assembly; the rabbi insisted that in an Orthodox community, authority resides in the rabbi. A fascinating and inescapable dilemma.

On to Khirbet Ammudim, a few miles away, where the ruin of a third century synagogue sits in the middle of a cow pasture. There we discussed the fact that in all the many early synagogues excavated in the Galilee and Golan, no one has ever found evidence of a women's section - yet the Talmud refers to women attending synagogue. Mixed seating? Women outside? A wooden partition that left no trace? Given the lack of evidence, everyone is free to conjecture according to what s/he wants to be the right answer...

We ended the day at Kibbutz Yagur, famous for leading the way in producing an elaborate Passover seder every year, with an original Haggadah and original music. Our guide, Michal, was a disciple of Yehudah Sharett, who was the driving force in creating these productions for decades. She spoke of his "religious" approach, reminiscent of the founder of cultural Zionism, Achad Ha'am: the ritual is an expression of our national identity and historical experience - no need to get involved in theology. She spoke nostalgically of those magical productions with their massive multi-generational choirs, elaborate choreography, months of rehearsal. Today, of course, there's no budget for a music teacher, and besides, many people prefer a private, family seder. The "secular religion" pioneered by the kibbutzim in the first half of the 20th century is struggling to redefine itself. Its rituals have lost their power for many people, and the result has been a slide in the direction of reconnecting to traditional texts and practices.

My "tourists" headed back to Tel Aviv with lots of questions - and with no awareness that they probably live down the block from a Reform or Conservative synagogue.

Published: 3/23/2010

Categories: Reform Judaism, Israel
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