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Atheists? No, ignoramuses

Hadata” “hadata” “hadata.” It seems this is the hot topic in Israel these past couple of weeks. It means “religionization.” It doesn’t refer to anything as serious as religious coercion — forcing Jewish observance upon anyone. No, it refers more to “impacting culture.” “Hadata” refers to “the objection to the presence of any Jewish content anywhere in Israeli public life.”

So if you are secular Israeli and your child learned Shma Yisrael in school — “hadata”; about Shabbat — “hadata”; about prayer (tefillah) — “hadata.” I believe the controversy began when the ancient Holy Temple, the Beit Hamikdash, was referenced in a preschool graduation ceremony. What can you do? Historically, there was once a Beit Hamikdash that stood in Jerusalem. It is part of the integrity, the reality and the history of this city.

This year, being the jubilee celebration of modern day reunited Jerusalem, the subject of Jerusalem was deemed the educational theme by Israel’s Ministry of Education. Two years ago the theme was studying “the other as myself.”

I think the word “hadata” has a horrible connotation. It resonates very negatively, as if passing down our heritage of Jewish content, identity and traditions are a “religionization,” an infiltration of sorts.

After all, we are talking about Israel, right? Last I checked, it is a Jewish state.

Why is studying about our heritage, about what makes us who we are, viewed with such animosity and suspicion? Learning about Shma Yisrael, the Jewish holidays and prayers and other topics does not make one a fanatic. It is not indoctrination or brainwashing.

It makes me sad to think of the gap that will exist for youngsters who develop their intellectual world to a sophisticated capacity, yet remain ignoramuses about their own identity, history and culture.

Studying Judaism does not need to be viewed as religious commitment. Judaism is also our culture, the source of who we are.

I agree that different paths ought to be respected. In a secular school, admonishing children about eating non-kosher is crossing a boundary and inappropriate. Role modeling positive behavior and respecting others is the way we ought to live. But why the jump from learning about Judaism to fear of proselytizing Jewish observance?

In a secular school, studying Jewish history and texts ought to be a neutral endeavor. If students decide to take their study to the next level, more power to them. Teaching texts through a prism of observance in a secular school, however, ought not be the method.

And it’s not. People behind this “hadata” criticism are painting a picture of aggressive fanatical religious coercion in schools. As if we have leapt from a democracy to a theocracy. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Schools have principals. They have curricula. Each school decides on its methods for itself. No one is forcing anything on anyone.

G-d forbid, though, that Jewish children should know how to navigate Jewish texts, see their wisdom and beauty, and gain from them.

As the quote goes: “We wanted a generation of atheists, instead we received a generation of ignoramuses.”

While the priesthood is limited to Jews who are the descendants of Aaron, Maimonides famously emphasized that Torah study is open to every single Jew. There are no prerequisites. It is equally the legacy of us all.

It is the common ground that unites us.

Every Jew was born to a text, to a parasha. It is yours to take for yourself and delve into and connect with.

Why alienate us from who we are? Why is knowing who we are and where we come from deemed to be so negative, “religionization”?

The truth is, I don’t see collective evidence of religionization. If anything, Israeli society has become so much more secular since the years I was growing up there. To the extent that I think alienation from our culture, from our religion — whatever it is to you — is sad. There is loss in that.

When I moved to Israel in my 20s, I worked in an office of all secular Israelis. I was the only observant one. One day, one of my colleagues came into work very upset about a family member who wasn’t well. I said I would pray for her and asked my colleague for her relative’s name.

Appreciatively, she gave the name, upon which I responded with a question . . . bat? the daughter of. Traditionally, we Jews pray for an ill person his his or her name and mother’s name.

Her reply came fast with a digital number, since bat also signifies one’s age. I explained to her that I was referring to her relative’s mother. Not only did my colleague have no clue, but she was so touched, and thought it a beautiful tradition. She wanted to know more.

This one incident generated a lot of discussion and study among us. At the time, one of the other colleagues shared how she had recently learned of a poll that had been taken in her child’s school, where Israeli children had a hard time matching graphics to the appropriate names of holidays.

We all agreed that was sad. If anything, those secular colleagues of mine felt a sense of missed opportunity and regret in their children’s ignorance and disconnect from Judaism. That is when I became exposed to the saying: ratzinu dor shel koferim, kibbalnu dor shel borim, we wanted a generator atheists, we received a generation of ignoramuses (in Hebrew it rhymes).

In recent years I have noticed precisely the opposite in secular Israeli circles. Many in the secular Israeli community are becoming more confident as Jews, more interested in Judaism and Jewish texts. Many of them are fed up with Stockholm syndrome leftists who are so negative and self-hating. With the help of leadership from people like Amichai Chikli and organizations such as Leeba and Tavor, I think Jewish pride and balance are slowly being restored to young Israeli Jewish identity.

Agree or disagree, even those campaigning for ascension to the Temple Mount and equal prayer rights there are no longer represented only by religious settlers. I wonder then, whether this whole “hadata” campaign is not a last gasp from the staunch liberal secular elite that feels threatened by this spirit of Jewish renewal among Israeli youth.

I hope this discussion will lead to a more defined Jewish identity, religious or not, but a strong Jewish one. This “hadata” discussion could be an opportunity for secular Israelis to take responsibility for the Judaism they decide to pass onto their next generation.

I do not look to Israeli secular schools as an opportunity for what is known as “kiruv levavot,” encouraging observance. I respect where people come from. But neither should teaching about our resilient, creative and long Jewish heritage have to turn into a milchemet achim, a civil war.

After all, we are the Jewish people, we are a Jewish State.

Copyright © 2017 by the Intermountain Jewish News

Tehilla R. Goldberg

IJN columnist | View from Central Park

One thought on “Atheists? No, ignoramuses

  1. ianbrettcooper

    “It makes me sad to think of the gap that will exist for youngsters who develop their intellectual world to a sophisticated capacity, yet remain ignoramuses about their own identity, history and culture.”

    Why would they remain ignorant about their identity, history and culture? I see no reason why kids shouldn’t learn about all sorts of silly myths in a secular learning environment. After all, they might get a good laugh out of the idea that adults were stupid enough to believe them for thousands of years. Also, learning about religion is the best path to atheism. That’s how I became an atheist.


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