Last week we (the seminar center at Shorashim) cosponsored a cultural evening with the local newpaper, in our dining room. The editor suggested the theme spiritual search, and invited people to write essays for a special edition of the paper. She is interested in the rich variety of spiritual communities, teachers, and healers that are to be found around the Galilee. I, on the other hand, am too much of a rationalist and a traditionalist to find these alternative paths of much value. In any case, the paper came out, and those who wrote for it were invited to speak on a panel at the evening program. In the end several backed out for various reasons (including not being happy about the way the paper presented their views).
Nevertheless, the show went on; 27 people showed up (not a bad turnout for a program like this around here) from all over the region. There were three speakers: Shlomo, a liberal orthodox teacher, educated at the Sorbonne; Dina, a healer who uses other-worldly beings in her healing process; and Ella, a member of a new, young, idealistic kibbutz nearby. What a perfect cross section of the spiritual life of Israel today!
Shlomo spoke of his experience of moving from a traditional village in Morocco to the challenging, secular environment of Paris in the 60s, and of his own realization that living an Orthodox life is not, as is commonly asserted, an easy path. Rather, the choices he made in his youth confront him again anew every day - Orthodoxy for him is not a routine, but a consciousness, a constant spiritual struggle, an ongoing effort to understand Gods will and live in harmony with it. His reflections, I thought, were a welcome antidote to the stereotype of Orthodoxy as rigid and mechanical.
Dinas description of her other-worldly partners was characteristic of what is often meant by spirituality in these parts. I kept quiet because I didnt know what to say; but someone else suggested that belief systems like Dinas do seem to give off a faint scent of idolatry. The phenomenon of Israelis seeking spiritual answers in other traditions is a major trend today, from Buddhism to TM to Iman to shamanism. Alternative healing is an important pillar of the tourism industry in the Galilee. And even those seekers who stay within Judaism, studying kabbalah, often seem to bypass the stage of knowledge and commitment to the tradition as a whole, doing Jewish mysticism out of context. Dinas presentation raises the question: is any spiritual path espoused by Jews ipso facto Jewish?
Ella spoke of her small kibbutz, the newest in the country, founded a few years ago by a group of young people who grew up together in a socialist youth movement (yes, there still are such things!). She spoke of their plan to create a community not only founded on relations of fairness and equality among the members, but dedicated to improving the surrounding society through education. They provide youth workers for the nearby Beduin camps; they have opened a residential school program for kids from non-functioning families, many of them Ethiopian immigrants. They live in rustic conditions on a minimal budget. They know that what they do, they do as human beings, Israelis, and Jews, but they dont necessarily see the direct connection between their lives and the Jewish tradition. They see themselves as living out the Zionist vision.
For me, the evening had surprising emotional impact. Each of the three presentations helped me see the Jewish choices I have made in a slightly different light. Taken together, they were a kind of microcosm of Jewish culture in Israel. And it was reassuring to note that no one raised his/her voice, no one walked out - and the last question of the evening was: when can we meet again?