As the people of Judah spread out across the world, they still claimed Judah and Jerusalem as home. Upon their return, they brought with them all their accumulated history and culture, creating a united community of very diverse beliefs and practices. Understanding what is a Jew and how they define themselves is part of the challenge of understanding Israel.
Religious Diversity: When is a Jew really a Jew?
In the book, “Culture Shock! Israel”, author Dick Winter explains the experience of getting your first taste as a visitor to Israel on the airplane coming over:
Sitting in the seat next to you is one of the stranger sights you have thus far managed to encounter in this life: a vision in black. Black felt hat (or maybe it’s mink), black long coat, some kind of black vest with all sorts of strange white filly things streaming out of it, and other assorted layers below that – all this despite it being summer and quite warm. The apparel looks to be something out of the 17th century, possibly even the 16th, but the countenance seems to come straight from Mars – odd gaps amid sideburns and a beard, and strangest of all, springing out from the area around the ears are extremely long, curly ‘sidelocks’. Twice during the flight, this apparition joins several other similar types at the back of the plane and engages in what looks like praying. And never have you seen it done with quite such intensity, with everybody fervently chanting, swaying, and rocking back and forth. What is this? Culture Shock! Israel? Well, not exactly, because most Israelis also join you in not knowing exactly what this is.”
Culture Shock! Israel by Dick Winter
Please meet the Hassidim, the ultra-orthodox or “Hassidic” Jews. They dress this way because when their particular Jewish sect gained religious power in Eastern Europe 200 years ago, this was the way their leaders dressed. As each group of Jews, often segregated geographically, then later through language and cultural differences, managed to hang on to their beliefs and practices, their leaders tried to interpret the ancient texts and oral history in their own way. While the foundation stayed the same, the interpretation varied all over the map, literally. When a particular interpretation gained favor, many of the Jews would “keep the faith” by continuing to dress in the clothing of that time or as their leaders did. When Israel opened its doors, they brought their distinctive religious methods and fashion choices with them. One of the first laws passed by Israel was the freedom of religion and worship. Israel maybe a Jewish state, but they are determined to permit all the different religions to live together in peace. And for the most part, they have succeeded.
Only about 20-30% of Israelis consider themselves “observant Jews”. While the majority of the population is not strictly religious, the practices of the Jewish traditions guide the country. Many men wear kipas, a very small skull cap, in keeping with the Old Testament’s comment about covering the head in the eyes of God. Coming in all shapes, sizes, and colors, these bright little coasters are clipped to the hair with a broad silver hair clip and are often found sagging off the back of the head or skewed cockeyed somewhere on their head. Some of these men are religious, but some have a more moderate faith.
While the country honors these age-old Jewish traditions by the wearing of the kipa and honoring the Kosher and Sabbath laws, from there the divide is wide between what and how the different Jewish sects believe. Messianic Jews accept Christ as a prophet and practice a combination of Christian and Jewish traditions. Many of the ultra-orthodox Jews do not support the State of Israel because they believe the Messiah will establish Israel when He comes, some going far enough as to believe that the Holocaust is payment for the sin of the Zionist movement to create a State of Israel in violation of the Old Testament. Some groups treat men and women equally, but some require women to shave their heads or at least keep them completely covered by a scarf or a wig in public as the hair is seen as too sexual and tempting to other men, inviting “coveting”. Others just tolerate a simple head scarf. Each group has its own opinion about how to live in keeping with their traditions, no different from Methodists, Catholics, and other variations of Christianity.
Among themselves, you will often hear arguing over which way is the right way for a Jew to be a Jew. Even among the government’s religious department, the Rabbinate, there is fighting over which way is the right way and who is the more religious of the groups. There are often conflicts at the Walling Wall where one group yells and throws things at another, ridiculing their particular way of worship. Many Israelis are frustrated with the ultra-orthodox as they tend to make it uncomfortable for their unorthodox neighbors, slowly pushing them out of the neighborhood and claiming it as their own. The city of Safed, once a famous international artists colony making the most of the beautiful city and its creative atmosphere, is now home to a majority of ultra-orthodox, pushing the artists out of the city, leaving only a few determined artists in residence. Most Israelis honor the ultra-orthodoxy’s right to live in freedom in Israel, and they give a serious chunk of their tax money to support and encourage them, but many don’t appreciate the isolationism in such a socially interactive society.
Israel has never forgotten that it is a Jewish state, determined to keep its people and religion alive. Even with a small ultra-religious population, the citizens of Israel honor all aspects of Judiasm from the holidays to the worshiping practices. Synagogues are found in every neighborhood. Attempts to change the shabbat and kosher laws are defeated everytime. Israelis firmly believe that a portion of their population must remain “religious” in order to keep the “faith alive”.
Sabbath and Kosher Laws
In a country run by Jewish laws, two things influence the tourist: The Sabbath and the kosher laws. Thursday afternoon through Friday, until about one in the afternoon, is a time of crowds and panicked shoppers as they rush around trying to get food and purchases stocked up before everything closes for the Sabbath (Shabbat or Shabbas). Everything remains closed, save for shops in the Arab areas and a few cafes and tiny grocery stores in Tel Aviv, until Saturday night. The whole country becomes quiet and peaceful.
Honoring Sabbath also means that no Jew shall work or cause another to work, unless it is a matter of life and death, allowing Jews to spend the time praying and with their families. This means that the “observant Jews” will not pick up the telephone or turn on a light as to do so would be “work” or making work for someone else. They do not use the radio or television, do no cleaning, and elevators are turned off, including elevators in conservative hotels. Some will even turn off the electricity to their home or building. All public transportation, save for a few cabs, are halted until late Saturday night. Driving a car through an ultra-orthodox neighborhood can get you harsh stares or rocks thrown at you. Modern technology has made some of this easier with light sensors turning on and off the lights at specific times or when sensing movement, and voice mail works great when the telephone is turned off inside the home. As dependence upon technology increases, the rabbis have had a challenge deciding what is acceptable and what is not.Kosher Laws“These are the creatures that you may eat from among all the animals that are upon the earth. Everything among the animals that has a split hoof, which is completely separated into double hooves, and that brings up its cud – that one you may eat…This you may eat from everything that is in the water: everything that has fins and scales in the water, in the seas, and in the streams, those may you eat…Every teeming creature that teems upon the ground – it is an abomination, it shall not be eaten. Everything that creeps on its belly, and everything that walks on four legs, up to those with numerous legs, among all the teeming things that teem upon the earth, you may not eat them, for they are an abomination. Do not make yourselves abominable by means of any teeming thing; do not contaminate yourselves through them lest you become contaminated through them…This is the law of the animal, the bird, every living creature that swarms in the water, and for every creature that teems on the ground; to distinguish between the contaminated and the pure, and between the creature that may be eaten and the creature that may not be eaten.
Leviticus 11, Tanach (Stone Edition)
A favorite story of ours is how the ultra-orthodox handled the scud bombs landing on Israel from Iraq during the Gulf War. Radio was essential for getting the news out for Israelis to get to safety and put on the gas mask when the 90-second warning came through. In the beginning, the rabbis announced a special ruling that said that turning on the radio for the religious would be allowed if it was turned on before the Shabbat began and to not turn it off until it was over. It was a matter of life and death, the exception to the rule. But the people complained it was noisy and disruptive to their sleep. So they recommended putting it in a closet to muffle the noise. That made it difficult to hear, so they finally announced that one of the radio stations would become a “silent” station on the Sabbath so the radio could be left on with no sound, until the warning announcement.
Kosher laws are no less complex to understand. Without getting into details, the kosher laws permit only the consumption of meat from the animal with cloven (split) hooves, eliminating pork and most seafood. There must be a three to four hour delay between the consumption of meat and dairy products, the two to never mix. This means that that ice cream after dinner is a no-no, cheese and sausage or Canadian bacon pizzas are totally out, and the idea of a seafood cocktail as an appetizer is not even on the menu. Dominos Pizza is very popular here, yet we can’t stand their version of a pizza with no meat. For serious pizza lovers, pizzas featuring vegetables like corn, peas, cooked carrots, tuna (fish is okay),and other strange veggies just aren’t high on our list. Subway Sandwich bars are everywhere, but they don’t put cheese on their sandwiches. Bread comes with every meal, but don’t expect to find butter on the table after breakfast is over. The kosher laws come from the book of Leviticus in the Old Testament and includes a long list of things which can be eaten and what cannot, some items which scientists are still trying to identify.
In a land of equal opportunity for all, no matter their race or religion, Israel is no different from other countries, melding and melting into a united society. As Israel learns to live with its Arab neighbors, it also has to learn to live with the diversity within its own borders.
Tel Aviv, Israel