Secular Israelis in Liberal Synagogues in Berlin

A few weeks ago, I read an article, published in an Israeli newspaper that described the author’s great joy about joining one of Berlin’s synagogues and witnessing the opening of the Torah Ark. The synagogue to which the author referred happens to be the synagogue in my own neighborhood, which made me wonder: the Ark’s opening is performed in front of more or less the same 15 people each and every Saturday morning. So the author either visited a different synagogue (and mistakenly thought it to be “my” synagogue), or he indeed visited “my” synagogue and witnessed there some sort of metaphorical Torah Ark being opened. I opted for the latter possibility: a metaphorical Torah Ark opening.

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As is well known, Berlin is much loved by young and hip Israelis. This love is mutual: German media and society admires its Israeli immigrants, because they are, by virtue of history and theology, the most apt witnesses of Germany’s “transformation”: If a Jew is saying, that he is fine here, then Germany is doing fine. Yet there is tension between Germany’s desire for Jews on the one hand, and the secular identity of most of Berlin’s Israeli Jews, on the other: How, exactly, does one speak as a Jew, when one’s only guarantor of Judaism is one’s national Israeli identity? Without the Jewish nation-state, what kind of “diasporic” Judaism can a secular Jew represent? Please note, that I am not concerned here with halakhic (i.e., legal) definition of Jewishness: Of course, I do not mean to redefine the boundaries of the Jewish collective. My concern is with the claim of representation: Is Judaism whatever Jews do, or is Judaism whatever Jews do with reference to Judaism’s discursive tradition?[1]

The first option (“Judaism is whatever Jews do”) seems futile: If Judaism is whatever Jews do, then Einstein’s theory of relativity is a Jewish theory, simply because it was Einstein who came up with it. The second option seems better, but difficult: If Einstein had articulated his theory with reference to the Jewish tradition, would his theory represent a “Jewish invention”? Historically speaking, there actually has been a group of Jews, who explicitly framed their interpretation and practice within the framework of the Jewish discursive tradition, yet, this group eventually developed into a different religion – Christianity. The second option (“Judaism is whatever Jews do with reference to Judaism’s discursive tradition”) is thus difficult, in as much as one apparently cannot claim whatever interpretation and practice to lie within the Jewish tradition. There seem to exist key-concepts, the abandonment of which catapult both interpretation and practice beyond the border.

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It seems to me, that Judaism’s key-concept is the establishment of a law: a binding, authoritative practice.[2] And paradoxically, it may be precisely the centrality of practice, which generated also the metaphorical Torah-Ark opening: In recent years, secular Jews seem more and more interested in “feeding” their identity with Jewish sources, which once were despised. Today, for example, a liberal rabbi can speak of a “liberal halakha,” as if that was the most “natural” thing in the world: The founders of Reform Judaism would have turned in their graves upon encountering something like a “liberal halakha,” as “halakha” stood precisely for what they were fighting against! Likewise, there are today secular batei-midrash, or secular Seder Nights…such heightened interest in “things Jewish” meets liberal synagogues’ crisis: As the latter increasingly struggle with diminishing prayer-quorums, they try to establish an alternative, more culturally oriented event-program to attract new people. These programs are, of course, much more commensurate with secular Jews than traditional prayer-services, as they do not demand any change of lifestyle, privilege or ideological and political positioning: One can join a synagogue’s activities such as lecture-series, or a children’s play group, also without engaging in prayer service, to take just one example.

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An emphatic observer will interpret this trend in positive terms: Jews, who previously had no, or close to no, relation to their heritage are now drawing close. Yet, even though this interpretation is tempting, I am not fully convinced of it. In as much as representational legitimacy is tied to a set of codified practices, one cannot just place any practice into the framework of spaces such as synagogues, and times such as Shabbatot. The conceptual and linguistic merging of holy spaces and times with Jewish cultural events does not turn the Jewish cultural event into a Jewish practice: A participant of an event does not equal a practitioner. It is not that whatever happens in a synagogue on a Shabbat is a Jewish practice, simply because it happens in a synagogue on a Shabbat.

Moreover, I think that there is not so much “drawing close,” as there is appropriation at work here: When secular Jews claim cultural Judaism to be a religious practice and situate it in a religious space, then they do not draw close to their Jewish heritage – but rather appropriate it: The alliance between secular Judaism and Jewish spaces, times and languages allows the secular Jew to stay exactly the same, while infusing him or her at the mean time with the legitimatory effects of Judaism: Inside a synagogue, one can claim Judaism’s language and space, so as to transfer its authority and legitimacy upon oneself. One can re-define a synagogue as a gathering-place unrelated to the obligation of prayer, re-define the Shabbat as a “time of rest” unrelated to a set of prohibitions, or re-define the mikwe as an “act of spiritual renewal” without, actually, immersing in a mikwe. One can, in other words, metaphorize the Torah Ark’s opening: claim the language, the time and space of practice and simultaneously undermine it.

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I am, as someone who did an orthodox conversion, not the one who is supposed to speak about Jewish representation, as I do not have any choice but to define myself in terms of practice, and not in terms of national belonging, genealogy, or historical memory etc. Yet, I am asking the question of representation and legitimacy, because as a matter of fact, most Jews today do not “practice” in the halakhic sense. Even if one claims that Jewish communities in their entire history did not follow a unified standard of codified practices, modernity nonetheless implies a paradigm-shift, as now (in contrast to pre-modern times) the relation between practice, identity and communal integrity is no longer a self-evident matter of fact at all. Does this paradigm-shift influence representational legitimacy?

Selective focus on the word

[1] This question is not only of academic or theoretical nature: In contemporary Germany, the one, who can legitimately claim to speak as a Jew, possesses immense cultural capital and has access to material resources. In dire need to rebuild its image, Germany invests in its most credible witnesses. Whatever is successfully achieving a “Jewish tag” will acquire, with some probability, financial and political support. To hold the position of “Germany’s Jew” is thus a valuable asset, which guarantees access to resources and representation.
[2] When Rashi begins his commentary on the Torah, he therefore asks: Why in hell does the Torah not begin with “These are your months…” (Exodus 12:2), which is the Torah’s first commandment? Why do we need all these stories? The Torah is understood to be, first and fore mostly, a book of law, and the oral Torah (the Babylonian Talmud) attempts to understand and analyze the entire world, fundamentally, through a legal idiom.

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