The Eternal Question: "How to be a Jew?" Tuesday, June 26, 2012
Illustrious panel of authors and scholars discuss the past, present, and future of Judaism as a culture
Prof. Emerita Shulamit Volkov
Modern Judaism is moving beyond religion and becoming a "culture," providing a pluralistic approach to attract secular youth to Judaism, said Prof. Emerita Shulamit Volkov of Tel Aviv University's Department of History, speaking at a thought-provoking event on June 11 during the 2012 Board of Governors Meeting.
Entitled "Judaism as a Culture," the fascinating discussion on the state of Judaism today in Israel and the Diaspora included Dov Elbaum, author, television host, and director of the BINA Forum for Jewish Thought and Culture; award-winning author Meir Shalev; and Israel Prize Laureate Prof. Emerita Anita Shapira of TAU's Department of Jewish History.
Prof. Emerita Anita Shapira
Beginning the panel discussion, Prof. Volkov discussed the evolution of Judaism as a national identity and culture, suggesting it can be best seen through those who are raised in a Jewish lifestyle such as Orthodox, then decide to leave that way of life. Suddenly, "they struggle to define HOW they are Jewish, and are left with a sense of incompletion," she said. This gives rise to one of the most important questions in Judaism — what makes someone Jewish?
The panel members sought to illuminate the idea of being Jewish culturally rather than, as is traditional, religiously. Citing examples of well-known figures, Prof. Shapira talked about David Ben-Gurion, the first Prime Minister of Israel, and his desire to be a political leader and cultural mentor rather than a religious figure.
Discussing a theme that runs through his works, including the novel The Blue Mountain, Shalev shared the story of his grandfather, one of Israel's pioneers, and the adoption of Zionism as an "almost" religious belief. The pioneers "converted from Judaism to Zionism and Socialism, with the same height of ideology and belief," he said, calling this conversion a method to renew the Jewish connection to the physical earth of Israel.
Furthering the connection between the soil and Jewish culture, Elbaum spoke about his personal experience leaving the Orthodox fold, saying that he now identifies more strongly with the Jewish culture of the Kibbutz. Putting this concept in a broader perspective, he discussed the holiday of Shavuot, which in modern Israel has evolved to be a celebration of the renewal of the soil, prioritizing the connection to the land in Israel. The Orthodox, he said, continue to celebrate the giving of the Torah on this holiday, which he called "one of the most divided festivals in Judaism."
All panelists called for a broader definition of Judaism, and discussed the increasing desire of individuals to re-define their own place in the Jewish world. There is a sincere need to reshape views and identities, concluded Prof. Volkov.