Probably the one text with which most of our students are likely to have continued and maybe even frequent contact is the siddur. The siddur provides opportunities for teaching about our connection to Israel on a number of different levels, each of which might be appropriate for different age levels and different ideologies. This lesson seeks to chart several different Israel connections in the standard weekday and Shabbat liturgy. Note that for purposes of illustrating these connections we use the traditional prayerbook; some of the passages may not be present, or may have been edited, in Reform and Conservative and Reconstructionist liturgy; these changes themselves can serve as teaching opportunities.
Israelis who define themselves as “chiloni” (non-religious) nevertheless choose to undergo traditional Jewish lifecycle events, circumcising their sons, celebrating bar/bar mitzvah ceremonies and weddings, and burying their dead according to traditional practice. Some of this participation is enforced by Israeli law (more on that in the lessons on marriage and death), but the rituals of childhood are entered into voluntarily (at least by the parents…). While the circumcision ceremony has remained largely identical to the traditional one, the bar/bat mitzvah ceremony has evolved and changed – perhaps because it is a relative newcomer on the scene. Other ceremonies contain different mixes of tradition and new invention.
In terms of the Israel connection in life cycle observances in the Diaspora, the liturgy of the brit, and of bar/bat mitzvah, does not contain explicit references to Israel or the hope of return. However, pidyon haben is wholly bound up with preserving the role of the kohanim and thus serves as a reminder of the Temple and its centrality.
Many of the “founding fathers (and mothers)” of modern Israel came to the country as twenty-somethings (or younger), in the Second Aliyah (1904-1914) and the Third Aliyah (1919-1923). While they were small in number, their cultural influence was far-reaching and long-lasting, and it is perhaps largely due to their experience that Israel’s self-image is that of a “young” society, a society whose youth are its heroes and its leaders. There is an ironic reversal here of the traditional respect accorded to age and wisdom. And needless to say, this self-image affects many aspects of cultural life, from child-rearing to education to politics – not always in constructive ways. Another factor contributing to this youth-centeredness is the central place of defense in the collective consciousness – the near-universal conscription of both genders means that the army is a major rite of passage and a huge cultural influence.
This unit will examine the perception of – and the experience of – youth in Israeli society in several important contexts. The materials and background are presented straightforwardly – not as a comparative examination with the North American Jewish experience; however, exploring the comparison is recommended as a useful and effective educational method for using this material.
Marriage and family life are central values in Judaism. Jewish law and custom is family oriented and transmitting eternal truths to one’s children is the mainstay of Jewish thought. Israel, as we have seen, is also a central value in Judaism. It is therefore interesting to see how these two important principles reflect and reinforce each other. References to the land of Israel are intentionally included in the wedding ceremony itself. On the other hand, what happens when these two principles come into direct conflict with each other? The centrality of marriage in Judaism also makes it a lightning rod for issues in Israel today dealing with religion and state, Jewish identity and nationhood. If marriage is the Jewish framework for families and families are the bricks out of which the Jewish nation is built then the question of what constitutes a marriage is not just a personal one but a national one as well and one which the state today is struggling answer.
The formation of the modern State of Israel occurred in parallel to the evolution of women’s movements. While its roots are traced to the French and American Revolution, feminism emerged as a social and political force at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th . This is the period in which Zionism developed and Jews began to settle the land of Israel hoping to create a Jewish State. Since both Zionism and feminism “grew up” together, the early Zionist experience and the State of Israel provide an interesting case study of the changing roles and rights of women. Unique aspects of Israeli society, such as the central role of the defense forces and the mosaic of different populations highlight the complexity of the issues surrounding women’s rights. As a Jewish State, Israel has had to address the disparity between the traditional role of women in Judaism and Jewish law and contemporary concepts of equality. Conversely, the issue and development of women’s rights in Israel can illustrate the social, economic, cultural and military issues that characterize the Jewish State. In this lesson we try to give a survey of women’s roles and status from the early Zionists until today.
One of the first symbolic acts in the Torah connecting the Jewish people to the land of Israel is Abraham’s purchase of a burial cave in Hebron for Sarah (Genesis 23). Since burial represents a deeply emotional and long-term connection to a particular piece of land, it stands to reason that in studying the beliefs and customs centered around burial, we will discover various dimensions of our connection to the land of Israel. Beyond the historical and halachic questions, thinking about burial practices and places leads to a discussion of the nature of “holy ground:” what makes a place holy?
Jews in the middle ages lived a balancing act, juggling loyalty to the Jewish faith and survival both personal and as autonomous communities within the Christian or Moslem world. It was a time of strong communal institutions and philosophical debate as Jews tried to comprehend and articulate (primarily to themselves) their continued exile and persecution as well as the basic tenets of their faith which set it apart from the surrounding religions that saw it at best as ”primitive” or forsaken by G-D if not downright corrupt and evil. Always at the mercy of Christian or Moslem rulers who intermittently sought forcibly to convert them, Jews suffered discrimination, persecution, and exile after exile. Despite these hardships in Diaspora, or perhaps because of them, there was no mass movement to “return” to the land of Israel. That land too was under foreign rule (alternatively Moslem/Christian/Moslem as the Crusaders came and went) and there too Jews suffered. Although there was a continued, tiny and impoverished Jewish presence in the land of Israel, for the majority of Jews the land of Israel was always present in the liturgy (piyutim, kinot) as a cornerstone of faith but not as a physical alternative. The Holy Land acquired an almost mythical nature in Jewish consciousness as an unattainable paradise. Even the numerous false messiahs that surfaced in different countries throughout the middle ages remained localized phenomena never succeeding in enflaming the masses to actually consider moving to Israel (until Shabbetai Zevi). Paradoxically though, throughout the era there was a continuous flow of individuals including scholars and leaders making the difficult journey at least to die if not to live in the Holy Land.
This lesson will study some of those individuals, their stories and their writings, examining their varied motivations to “go up” to Israel. Are these individual responses to each one’s specific circumstances or a reflection of the ongoing relationship between the Jew and the land of Israel? How do their responses compare to the feelings of Diaspora Jews who “make aliyah” today.