Crossing the Divide

As Israel celebrates its 75th anniversary next week, the country finds itself in political turmoil in the wake of massive protests against the planned overhaul of the judiciary by the government. The sweeping reforms were paused due to the unprecedented negative reaction and the upcoming Passover and national holidays. Once the calendar returns to normal will reform advocates push for a reintroduction of the measures?

While the immediate political future in Israel is unknown, the judicial overhaul and the protests against it have exposed some of the fault lines in Israeli society. This is a country where the division between the religious and the secular has always been acute, but the way these tensions play out has evolved.

Israel is becoming a more conservative and more religious country at the same time that people who identify with those sectors of society embrace values from the liberal and secular camp. While in the past the secular and religious didn’t mix much, today you see a religious singer songwriter like Ishay Ribo, the subject of a recent profile in the New York Times, become popular in both worlds.

After reading the profile I looked up Ribo’s music on YouTube and realized that I was familiar with his hit “Lashuv Habaita”, but I never paid much attention to the lyrics. I had assumed that it was a typical pop song about love or some such. It is in fact about love, the compassion and mercy that God has for individuals even if they have sinned.

What makes Ribo unique is his ability to combine the pop form with religious themes. This type of combination is common in America with Christian pop and rock but had never really been seen in Israel. The result is that he can draw audiences from both the secular and religious and the increasing number of people who might find themselves in between.

Israelis have never been great at seeing shades of gray in religious identity. In America you can belong to a church or synagogue and have a deep personal religious connection while living a mostly secular life. In Israel, you either belong the secular or religious camp, but this attitude might be changing.

A humorous clip from Bardak, an Orthodox Israel sketch comedy program, cited in the article highlights this change. In the video, an ultra-Orthodox man protests that he should not be labeled as such. In fact, he says, he is actually secular. While it may not appear that way, he is secular in his heart. The video satirizes the statement of many secular people who claim that they are truly religious, but in their own way. The fact that this is an attitude that can be made fun of means it is becoming more prevalent.

At the same time, the Orthodox world is changing too. A religious comedy program with a YouTube channel is already a concession to the secular world in and of itself. I enjoyed perusing the clips, including the one with an Ashkenazi man who finds that his mezuzot are actually written in the tradition of Middle Eastern Jews. Rather than pay the large sum to change the mezuzot, he considers “converting” to the Sephardic tradition. He and the scribe debate which tradition is more expensive. The man might save money on his mezuzot, but he would have to pay for the zeved habat celebration, a welcome ceremony for infant girls that doesn’t exist in the Orthodox Ashkenazi tradition.

Most of the videos are in Hebrew without English subtitles, but one that is translated pokes fun at (and also promotes) a website that allows you to observe mitzvah of shmitta, the seventh sabbatical year when the land must lie fallow. You buy a tiny piece of land which then is declared ownerless during the seventh year. It also happens to be a nice money-making operation for the people who own the site, kind of like the ultra-Orthodox version of the companies that help you become a Scottish lord or lady by buying a tiny plot.

The relationship between the Orthodox and the secular in Israel continues to evolve. Tensions will remain, but perhaps there are ways that the two groups can come together. Music and comedy are universal languages. If you can sing and laugh together, maybe you can see the other side as neighbors and friends.


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