Nahum Gutman Museum of Art - English מוזיאון נחום גוטמן לאמנות Image Map

Secular Judaism


The exhibition displays works of art that clearly demonstrate the influence of the spirit of Jewish renewal and Jewish studies in pluralist organizations and Batei Midrash around the country. In most of these the prevailing concept is that one can be a Jew in the modern world, without believing in God, without adhering to the constraints of the Torah and all of its commandments and without adhering strictly to a halachic lifestyle.

 

Notions such as 'The Jewish bookshelf', 'Hebrew culture', 'life rituals', 'Secular prayer'  have become part of our lives, and what in the past was considered by secular society to be objectionable, Diaspora-like and 'un-Israeli', has become legitimate - a symbol of social status among those looking for a different country without having to leave this one. Many Israelis wanting to belong to a Jewish secular-Israeli community have adopted the principle of Judaism as a culture, and have chosen to study at secular Batei Midrash. The changes in the definition of self-identity among the secular public have directly and indirectly permeated the realm of the arts, which then processed and translated in its own way the profound changes taking place in Israeli society.  

 

 

Since the old elites of the Labour Settlements Movement lost their political power, their cultural assets now lie in the hands of the new power groups that have replaced them. Their key symbols such as settling the land, the anthem, the Bible and the flag were detached from their previous context and took on a new one. The Bible, from which Zionist leaders and the early waves of immigration drew their inspiration for a national awakening and return to Zion and in which they saw an ancient version of a socialist life of justice, changed its emphasis and became the written proof of our sacred ownership of the land promised to us by God. The connection between the love of the Bible and the knowledge of the land,  which were inseparable in the days of Mapai Zionism, took on new interpretations and became problematic for all groups and parties believing in traditional social views. The book they read as a historical, mythological, archeological and geographical text, began to burn their fingers with its extreme sanctity.

 

In a country divided into so many groups, pertinent fundamental questions began to arise concerning the relative weight of the components of national and personal definition: is one more Jewish, more Zionist or more Israeli? In 1989 the first secular Batei Midrash opened: Elul in Jerusalem and Hamidrasha at Oranim. They both recognized the increasing thirst of the secular audience for some connection with Jewish sources and with the Jewish bookshelf, and they offered a study experience based on interpretative, pluralist, humanist reading of the sources together with Hebrew and Israeli texts. The great innovation they offered was the study of the Talmud, the text written in Hebrew and Aramaic that was so inaccessible to the secular public, and perceived till then as the sole purview of the yeshivas.

 

In the background one can sense the spirit of post-modernism and the Talmudic interpretations of the French Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas which was disseminated in the west with the help of star philosopher Jacques Derrida.  In his readings of the Talmud, Lévinas proposed a challenging way of thinking for the post-modern western world with its deep identity crisis, and contributed to the permeation of the concept of "other" into both philosophy and language.

 

The significant 'outbreak' of pluralist Batei Midrash into Israeli secularity took place after the assassination of Itzhak Rabin. In this new emerging reality, the question of "the other" in a controversial Israel with so many "others" became more pertinent and urgent. Religious and secular groups alike tried to heal the traumatic rift that now separated them and to create an infrastructure for a new trust on the basis of dialogue and a shared culture.

The sense within the secular camp that Rabin's death signaled the end of the old Israel and of the now orphaned, leaderless peace camp,  led it to seek a new kind of 'hevruta' –Jewish, but not necessarily relating to the Bible, something local but with a twist of retro nostalgia,  reminiscent of the familiar yeshiva, but also something foreign and exotic.

 

The fact that many of the seekers of a new path were "graduates" of India and the Far East, active in various New Age movements, only served to emphasize the growing sense that the Jewish grass is just as green, and that Jewish customs with their familiar rituals, can answer the need for high-quality group belonging. Another aspect of this wave of interest in Jewish studies that should not be underestimated was the secular public's desire to arm itself with knowledge from the Jewish bookshelf in order to rehabilitate its lost cultural capital, based on the old adage that knowledge is power, alongside a cautious and gradual shedding of the fear of the Diaspora which had overhung Zionism since its inception.

Texts emphasizing the universal and intellectual aspects of the Jewish sources were chosen to educate the learners and introduce them into the Jewish world, while removing their fear of being cajoled into returning to a religious lifestyle. The use of Jewish contents as a source of renewal and inspiration and as a basis for accepting "the other" has affected artists, musicians, poets and film-makers, some of whom attend the regular study groups while others attend groups opened especially for them.

 

 

The phenomenon of the return to the Talmud is not new to our time. In 1917, during World War I and its threat to the future of the Zionist movement, in his article "Halacha and Legend" Chaim Nachman Bialik suggested that the Zionist plan for the rebuilding of the country take on the Talmudic legacy and adopt the halachic law upon which Judaism has been based for 2000 years.

In a very strongly worded response, Chaim Yosef Brenner, who had lived for a while in the Writers' House which now houses the Nahum Gutman Museum, attacked Bialik, claiming that his proposal would cause the Zionist endeavor to return to mental dullness, spiritual decay and to the characteristic pettiness of Diaspora Jewry.

 

 

Israeli society is constantly fluctuating within the huge expanse between these two positions in a way that affects how the traditional identity groups perceive  themselves. The question of individual and public identity runs through their veins. This Secular Judaism exhibition presents a discourse aspiring to dialogue albeit controversial, between the different parts of Israeli society. It presents works of art that connect to the spirit of Jewish renewal in ways that are not always direct and not necessarily interpretative. It draws its inspiration from the new presence of Judaism in the secular space. On display are paintings, photographs, video pieces, clips, public speeches, poems, and Talmudic, Hebrew and Israeli texts. The exhibition is polyphonic, thought provoking and active, including study sessions in the style of the secular Beit Midrash, poetry evenings, seminars, guided sessions and gallery discussions. The reference reading room has been set up for the use of visitors to the exhibition.

 

Monica Lavi

 

Picture: Assaf Lev

 

 

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