This weekend, I travelled to Philadelphia for my grandmother’s unveiling. What is an unveiling? One of the most pleasantly outdated religious traditions I’ve ever encountered.
According to Jewish law, when a person dies they must be buried as soon as possible – generally no more than a week after passing. However, during the early Diaspora it took longer than that to carve headstones or erect small monuments, around which multiple members of the family would be buried. This being the case, the funeral would be held sans-headstone and the family would reconvene at the cemetery some time later – usually a month – to “unveil” the headstone or monument and revisit the memory of their loved one.
In the present day, it doesn’t take that long to carve headstones. However, Jews still observe the practice of “unveiling” the headstone at a time when everyone in the immediate family is available. Because, really, why not?
Despite the tradition’s secular roots, the Jewish equivalent of bureaucracy has retroactively assigned religious justification to the fundamentally secular practice. Depending on which rabbi you ask, and I’ve asked a few, there are different scriptural and/or Talmudic injunctions mandating unveilings, along with mutually exclusive “correct” ways to carry them out. Sometimes a minyan (ten bar mitzvahed men) is required, sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes a rabbi needs to be there, sometimes they don’t. Et cetera, et cetera.
Every community and family seems to have a slightly different way of going about unveiling the headstones of their loved ones (I invite commenters to add their own experiences). If you assume secular origins, the tradition makes a great deal of sense; if you assume a religious mandate, this comes off as arcane and pedantic – why bother pretending that a practice borne out of necessity is a religious mandate? Either way, my family likes seeing each other, so we ironically don our yarmulkes and listen to the rabbi say Kaddish – or we skip the yarmulkes and say a few words in English without a rabbi – and then we go get lunch.
My experience with unveilings is, I think, indicative of the orientation that a lot of Millennial Jews such as myself have towards their Jewish heritage. And I use the word heritage instead of religion because a third of Millennial Jews, myself included, have no religion (noodle on that stat for a second) — for us, being Jewish is an ethnicity, not a religion. Sure, we observe the holidays (well, the ones we find it convenient to observe), we idolize Sandy Koufax and we go through the motions at our Bar Mitzvahs — partly at the behest of our families, and partly as a way to establish our identity in contrast to our goyish counterparts in middle school. We appreciate the excuses to get together with our loved ones, such as at unveilings, and we tense up when rabbis claim divine instruction for things that God is clearly agnostic about, like exactly when and how I look at my grandmother’s headstone.
Is it really so hard to believe that American Jews are keeping their culture and losing their religion? Of American adherents to the three monotheistic religions, we have the most educated population and the oldest/least evolved holy book. We debate, we criticize, we laugh off that part in Deuteronomy where it says that bastards and men “whose testicles are crushed” aren’t allowed to take part in religious services (the one part of my Bar Mitzvah Torah portion I remember). And, in the end, we acknowledge that Genesis simply doesn’t square with scientific consensus concerning how the world came to be. And why should it matter? We’ve got a culture that works for us, even if our religious texts are absurd.
The problem here is that, given our experience of Judaism in America, many of us have no idea what if feels like to be involved in a holy struggle, and we don’t understand why the Israel/Palestine conflict is treated as one. To us, the conflict comes off as a straightforward land dispute, and it doesn’t make any sense to us that the best minds in international relations haven’t been able to figure it out for over two thousand years – have we learned nothing from the Crusades? If it will save countless lives in the long-term, why can’t we give the Palestinians some land, especially if a majority of both Israelis and Palestinians support the idea?
I was, along with my peers, brought up sheltered from the idea of Jewish fundamentalism. For instance, it was conveniently omitted from our Hebrew School lessons that there are people in Israel who consider it a perfectly valid question as to whether or not the divine mandate to slaughter (or “smite” or “utterly destroy,” depending on your translation) the Amalekites applies to present-day Palestinians, or really anyone who lives in the area and deviates from a particular flavor of Jewish orthodoxy.
Furthermore, we can’t make sense of the fact that people who hold those opinions have to be taken at least somewhat seriously in Israeli politics. But if you want to understand what’s going on over there, you had better be able to make sense of them, because Israel’s religious right is both part of the Likud Party’s ruling coalition and one of the biggest roadblocks to peace in the region.
Growing up as an American Jew, none of my community leaders or family members had the understanding, or perhaps intestinal fortitude, to explain settlements and their religious justification to me, let alone how central they are to the Israel-Palestine conflict. Part of the reason for this omission, I think, is that American Jews don’t want to teach their children that people who share our heritage can be just as irrationally adherent to ancient, absurd texts, with similarly problematic consequences, as people of other faiths whose irrational adherence to ancient, absurd texts have been the cause of our continued persecution and near annihilation. On the one hand, who could blame them? It’s an uncomfortable subject. On the other hand, one of the measuring sticks of an enlightened culture is its ability to look inward and criticize itself.
In articles like this, the author is supposed to qualify their argument by acknowledging that, yes, there are a ton of people out there whose mission in life is to destroy Israel. However, I don’t think I need to tell an American audience how violent and evil Hamas is, and if anything Hamas’ religious dogmatism proves my point: This is a political problem that is being fought on religious lines. In any case, I think TalkingPointsMemo editor, and fellow cultural Jew, Josh Marshall got it right when he said, “Fight the occupation like there’s no Israel-haters, fight the Israel-haters like there’s no occupation.”
And while ardently religious Israeli settlers aren’t the only reason for the occupation, they’re a big one. As I referenced above, a majority of both Israeli and Palestinian citizens support a two-state solution, and the two sides have been close to an agreement on one before. One of the major sticking points? Settlers would have to move. Instead, they’re building residential infrastructure. As Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni said recently, “The settlement enterprise is a security, economic and moral burden that is aimed at preventing us from ever coming to an arrangement.” The settlers know that they are standing between the body politic and a peace agreement, and they don’t care. And why should they? They have God – and, for the time being, Israeli law – on their side.
Settlements didn’t provide the introduction to this particular chapter in the Israel-Palestine conflict, but they are central to the backstory. In the short-term, this news cycle is about petty – and perhaps criminally negligent – politics. But in the long-term, extreme religion – and not just the kind we’re used to – is getting in the way of peace. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may have been alluding to Islamic fundamentalism when he hinted that a two-state solution is untenable from a security standpoint, and he may even be correct in thinking that’s the case, but it is Jewish fundamentalism that is preventing the two sides from reaching that bridge, let alone burning it. Until Israel and its citizens begin behaving as if the West Bank may not be theirs forever, Palestinians have no reason to take them seriously when they talk about two-state solutions.
And therein lies the rub: As long as blind religious adherence for adherence’s sake is a respected point of view – more specifically, as long as Israeli citizens can build neighborhoods on other people’s land because they think God told them to – a rational, let alone agreeable, solution in the Middle East will be impossible. Religious zealots will always be able to point to their respective holy books and say, “No, look here, it says that…” to justify their actions on divine grounds. There isn’t any way to argue with that except to reject the premise that a religious text should be the basis for diplomatic arrangements. We have no problem rejecting this premise when the book in question is the Koran; we shouldn’t have a problem doing it when it’s the Torah, either.
Jews have always been strangers in strange lands, plucky underdogs with a dry sense of humor (As the old Jewish joke goes, Shlomo is walking down the streets of Kiev when he looks up at the heavens and goes, “Lord, I know that we Jews are the chosen people…but couldn’t you choose someone else, for a change?”). It is perhaps for this reason that the values and culture we have adopted neatly fit within Western liberal democracy: we value skepticism, inquiry, free expression and multiculturalism because we’re usually on the short end of the stick when it comes to repression and discrimination. On the other hand, when a cultural Jew/religious atheist like me looks to the Middle East and sees what our nominal counterparts are doing in the name of Zionism, they see the values of a people looking to assert divinely mandated dominance and strength. In short, they see religious bullies.
The Jewish experience in America is one where religion is more or less distinct from values and culture. We go to unveilings, but not to temple. We have 30-minute (okay, five minute) Passover seders and perk up when we recognize Yiddish – even if we don’t understand it. So when we are told to (or tell ourselves to) defend the behavior of the Israeli government and the particular segment of the Jewish community it can’t afford to upset, it’s a tough sell. Our values don’t match up with their actions. And when we are told to take God’s side in a foreign policy dispute, we find ourselves asking whether or not God really has taken a side, and whether he should be asked to take one in the first place.
In articles like these – where Jewish atheists such as myself lament Israel’s lost way during its occupation of Palestinian territories – it’s become traditional to invoke “the promise of Israel.” But I’m not entirely sure what people mean when they say “promise of Israel.” Does the promise vindicate Jewish values and culture, or is first and foremost religious? Was the country founded to be a homeland for the Jewish people, or the Jewish faith? The difference is small, but in it lies the difference between the secular, multicultural ideals of inclusivity and free expression embodied in my Jewish upbringing and the reactionary, increasingly violent impulses of Judaism’s worst representatives.
In Israel, as with the unveiling, what began as a secular idea seems to have been co-opted by religious dogmatism. As with my grandmother’s headstone, God apparently wants Israel to exist this way, not that, depending on who you ask. We can accept this dogmatism, or we can laugh it off and go get lunch together. I’ll have a bagel with lox.