(October 16, 2018 / JNS)
“I believe things will be good, because I am a believer, and this gives me strength, things will be good, and soon means very soon.” This is a verse from a recent poem a wrote. To paraphrase another poet, my good friend Ronny Someck, I ask, “What kind of believer am I? A Jewish believer. What kind of Jew am I? A contemporary Israeli Jew.”
Let me begin with an anecdote. Several years ago, I met a wise rabbi for whom I have great deference. I told him that I am an observant Jew who does everything he is supposed to do, from keeping Shabbat and putting on tefillin to giving charity to the needy. He was very impressed and, before we parted ways, he told me, “At least think about putting on tefillin as a start.”
It turns out all these definitions are confusing and even the smartest among us are flustered at times. People see things according to the definitions they have in mind. But I am undefined. I am a modern Jewish Israeli with four earrings in one ear. I go clubbing, but I don’t drive on Shabbat; I use electric razors that do not violate the halachic prohibition on damaging one’s body; I study Jewish thought with great delight.
I believe that being observant does not necessarily mean I have to change my way of life or change the social and cultural circles and collective identity. I grew up in Jerusalem and lived in the north, but I consider myself a Tel Avivian, and I love the artistic and human richness the city has to offer.
When I became observant, I couldn’t quite figure out why some religious Jews feel compelled to wear black clothing and grow a beard (though facial hair has since become fashionable in Tel Aviv). I didn’t quite get why religious people were expected to sing various ancient Jewish poems or pepper their speech with Yiddish or attend religious youth-group events. While all these activities are nice, I don’t feel connected to them on an emotional or cultural level.
I perform the mitzvot without being considered religious, and I don’t feel any urge to join a certain religious community or identify with any group to validate my identity. I have stayed in the original cultural surroundings in which I grew up, which are generally considered secular.
I also don’t think I should categorize myself as someone whose religious faith has been “strengthened,” which automatically implies that I am moving towards a polar end of the religious-secular spectrum.
I am the same person I have always been, except I perform mitzvot. Why do we have to conform to all the categories that are imposed on us? In fact, it is sometimes nice to be a little different. Uniformity means stagnation.
Unity, on the other hand, is great: we are united behind an idea, but this doesn’t mean we all have to be the same. We are a diverse mosaic and together we are whole.
And don’t call my kipah “transparent.” Perhaps we can just call this Judaism 3.0. Why? Because one can be a contemporary Jew in modern Israel and still be connected to one’s roots, just like Israel is connected to its heritage.
And by the way, I do not consider this to be a version of Reform Judaism. Rather, I am carrying out the mitzvot as is and with the view that Judaism is an ever-evolving religion that constantly gets system updates, as required by our life and times and without discarding its main tenets.
For example, Judaism used to be about self-seclusion in the Diaspora for 2,000 years, but now we have become an independent nation that has reclaimed its sovereignty in its homeland. A growing number of people are like me and don’t feel compelled to change their overall persona or way of life and personal preferences in cultural and social matters only because they have become more religious.
We are fully content with who we are. We are not in some twilight zone, but rather have a fixed identity. That’s why, rather than telling people that I have been strengthened, I prefer to say that I have strengthened religion.
Nimrod Lev is a musician.