The other day my domestic help, N, arrived extremely agitated.
“Tell me,” she said, “my mother is on her death bed, and one of my neighbors told me that after her death I must sit Shiva.”
N, who is Jewish, arrived from the former Soviet Union with her family some 20 years ago. In her city of origin she taught Russian literature, but upon arrival in Israel she started cleaning houses. She never went to ulpan, and her knowledge of Judaism is less than rudimentary.
“Tell me,” she continued, “is Shiva something religious or Jewish?” I explained to her that Zionism is based on the notion that Judaism is both a religion and a nationality. For historical reasons matters such as marriage and divorce, death and burial, kashrut in state public institutions and public transportation on Saturday, were left in the hands of the religious authorities, but grosso modo the law in Israel is legislated in the Knesset or elucidated by the secular courts.
With regard to Shiva, that is a religious practice, which is observed by most secular Jews as well, because it simply makes sense.
However, it is certainly not obligatory, and every person can make his own mind up whether or not to sit. Nevertheless, among the basic rights of employees in Israel, absence from work during the shiva – whether or not one sits – is paid absence, not counted as vacation days.
As to Judaism as a nationality, in Zionism what it means is that Israel is potentially the state of every Jew – whether religious or secular. The bottom line, I told N, is that it is up to her whether she decides to sit Shiva for her mother. Though her neighbor has a perfect right to believe that a Jew ought to sit Shiva, she must understand that pluralism means that there are many ways of being a Jew, and that observing the religious commands is not the only one.
What disturbs me about this whole story is that N’s neighbor was apparently never taught this basic fact at school.
A week or two ago there was a documentary on one of the TV channels that inter alia touched upon the issue of public transport on Saturday, making the point that it is primarily the poor, who do not own cars, who suffer from this historical distortion, which originated in the historical “religious status quo” letter sent by David Ben-Gurion to Agudat Yisrael in 1947.
One of the persons interviewed, a man in his 40s, who did not seem to be wearing a skullcap, said the following: “Israel is a Jewish state. In the beginning no one spoke of democracy. That was brought in much later by the lefties. In the Jewish state Shabbat should be observed.”
I do not know what this man was taught at school about Zionism or the establishment of the state. Apparently it was not that Zionism, from the very start, was a predominantly secular movement, based on liberal democratic principles that in the spirit of pluralism also embraced religious parties which wanted to be part of it. Let us not forget that in the early days the haredim, many non-haredi Orthodox Jews as well as the Reform and Conservative movements did not support political Zionism, despite the traditional yearning for Zion.
The rise of the Nazis in Germany and the Holocaust that followed changed the attitude of most of the Jewish religious denominations to Zionism and “the state on the way.” These events also strengthened that part of the Zionist ethos that viewed the Jewish state primarily as a haven for Jews – all Jews, of whatever ethnic origin, and religious or political persuasion.
The fact that there are many Jews who cannot get married in Israel, cannot be buried (for free) in an official cemetery, cannot visit relatives or go to the beach on Saturday and cannot pray at the Western Wall in a non-Orthodox manner, is contrary to the whole Zionist ethos. However, most Jewish Israelis today are not taught as much in school, a fact reflected by the non-religious anonymous interviewee, and Likud MK Miki Zohar uninhibitedly speaking out against anyone who rejects the imposition of religious content on the lives of non-religious Jews in the name of “Zionism.”
It is perhaps high time that someone started teaching the children of Israel (and its adult population) the difference between the religiously based yearning for Zion, and modern political Zionism, which marked Zion as the only viable location for establishing a Jewish state, and rather than just pray, yearn and on rare occasions even move physically to Zion, acted politically, diplomatically, economically, militarily and organizationally to turn the notion of the Jewish state into a realty.
That is the difference between Rabbi Yehuda Alkelai – whom some are seeking, for the sake of a more “balanced” historical narrative as between Ashkenazim and Mizrahim, to designate as one of the founding fathers of modern Zionism – and Binyamin Ze’ev Herzl. All about that next week.
The writer is a political scientist and former Knesset employee