Does Being Jewish Mean Going to Temple, or Going to Israel?

Last week I expounded upon why my husband and I have chosen not to join a synagogue. The backlash I received, oddly enough primarily from Christian readers, essentially boiled down to accusations of selfishness on my part and an unwillingness to contribute to a community. My question in response is simple: What exactly defines “community” in terms of being Jewish? A reader by the name of Larry in Tel Aviv wrote:

I agree wholeheartedly with every one of your points and you could add a few more! Such as one wouldn’t know the first thing about anti-Semitism in the world today, the nature of the threats Israel faces and related, from the rabbis and synagogue politicos. In fact you wouldn’t know anything important about anything that matters, not from synagogue, not much from Hebrew School neither (even Hebrew is largely poorly taught, with exceptions).

Which prompted me to ask myself: Do Jews in America know how to be Jewish without institutional backing?

Based on some of the comments I received from Christian readers, it would seem that religion in America requires some kind of institutional affiliation in order to be legitimized. Whether it’s a church, temple, or yoga studio religious folks of all stripes need a facility through which to connect to one another in order to establish and reinforce their religious identity. Historically speaking, Mordecai Kaplan emulated this concept when he reconstructed the idea of synagogue as community, the physical center of Jewish life in Diaspora America. Why don’t Jews necessarily need this institutional bond today? The answer is simple: We have Israel.

As I mentioned in my last article, one of the reasons why my husband and I have elected not to join a synagogue is that we’d rather spend the money going to Israel. Some of those reasons include the reality expounded on by Larry in Tel Aviv. If you want a solid geographical, cultural, historical connection to being Jewish, you find it in Israel. If you want to understand that being Jewish is both secular and religious at the same time, you learn that in Israel. If you want to know how to establish a lasting Jewish identity, you figure it out in Israel. We were not a group of popes and monks called upon to cordon ourselves off behind incensed walls in medieval monasteries. We were and are a nation and a national identity requires more than just a religious makeup in order to thrive.

Everything is more honest in Israel. The rabbinate openly functions as a political entity and the population treats it as such. As many Jewish Israelis that don’t attend synagogue do profess faith in God. When they talk about religious freedom it has nothing to do with the Almighty and everything to do with the almighty rabbinical overlords who abusively claim heavenly authority to determine who is and isn’t Jewish, who can and can’t marry and divorce, and who should and shouldn’t serve in the military.

Israelis don’t need rabbinical approval in order to fulfill their obligation to pass along their Jewish heritage. They have a teudat zehut for that. They fight wars for that. They establish and maintain a national infrastructure for that. They stroll the streets of Tel Aviv at midnight on Shabbat in complete peace for that. All with no religious permission sought or required because as one Israeli recently pointed out, “As far as Israeli society goes, the pre-modern kehilah has already been reconstituted and reconstructed as a nation-state. The whole country is, ostensibly, a community center.”

Israelis don’t seek permission to engage with spiritual texts, either. In a deeply insightful article highlighting why Reform and Conservative Judaism have failed to find a foothold in Israeli life, author Liam Hoare quotes Israeli Ram Baratz:

“We are attached to the sources,” says Baratz. “It’s a trivial thing for an Israeli to open the Bible. It doesn’t require anything—I can just read the Bible with my kids. I’m not religious, my kids are not religious, but we speak Hebrew—we just read the Bible. I don’t need to practice something or belong to a religious community to help me interpret my sources.”

Hoare refers to this as a “…national-cultural phenomenon, a secular reclamation of Jewish texts that at some point became the sole possession of the Orthodox” thanks in large part to the resurrection of the Hebrew language as a common tongue. American Jews need rabbinical interpretation, Hoare argues, because American Jews don’t know how to speak or read Hebrew, therefore they are literally unable to engage with the text that defines their identity. Because the rabbis speak the language, they control the culture that is then primarily perpetuated through the synagogue system. The synagogue then becomes a subculture of Judaism connected by a thread one body-thin to the rest of the Jewish world. How big can your vision of being Jewish possibly get if it must be housed within four walls in order to survive?

Contrary to the belief expressed in some of the comments I’ve received, turning away from the synagogue model does not necessitate a secularization of spirit. Quite the opposite, in fact, is happening in Israel as Yossi Klein Halevi points out:

Israel is a New Age superpower. Any New Age idea or technique simply takes root here; and there are good reasons why Israelis are spiritually hungry. We’ve lost our secular religion, which was Labor Zionism, and the substitute for it is an increasingly materialist society, and a society that’s under relentless existential pressure where we are constantly thinking about death. That’s the fertile ground for spiritual awakening, and many Israelis simply will not go to Orthodoxy for spiritual answers.

Could the concept of not seeking out a religious authority be what baffles American, even Diaspora Judaism (along with many Christians) at large the most? Have we been so acculturated into the shtetl’s rabbinic system and Kaplan’s pseudo-Christian synagogue/community center model that we cannot conceive of a Judaism that grants the individual the kind of freedom required to pick up a Bible and read it for ourselves? If so, when did we collectively forget that it wasn’t a minyan of esteemed men, but rather Jacob himself who wrestled with God?