I spent a few weeks in Israel this summer and couldn’t help but notice a fascinating trend developing, one that might help those of us back here to overcome our uneasiness about Jerusalem, with its fundamentalist leanings and shady politics.
It occurred to me that maybe we’ve been mistaken in looking exclusively toward Jerusalem for moral guidance and spiritual inspiration. Granted, our Eternal Capital is as beautiful as ever, despite the blight caused by uncontrolled growth — in particular the corruption-plagued Holyland project, an urban stain that has turned a majestic hillside into the Tower of Babel.
So when I had a few extra days to spend in the country, I opted for Tel Aviv, a city with zero holy sites and that a century ago was just a bunch of sand dunes. For all its grime and flatness, though, this quintessentially secular city has some sacred lessons to share. Holiness can happen even in a place where Habima is a theater and not a pulpit. While the Torah may still come from Zion, a woman holding one in parts of Jerusalem will be subject to arrest. Not so in Tel Aviv.
It seems that even the ultra-Orthodox agree that Israel’s commercial mecca is gaining some serious spiritual street cred. Recently the highway between Israel’s two central cities was plastered with signs featuring a photo of a black bearded man declaring that the messiah is from, of all places, Tel Aviv. According to the “Mystical Paths” blog, the photo portrays the 5th Lubavitcher Rebbe, Shalom Dov Bear of Lubavitch, who died around 1920, and the sign’s purpose is to draw attention to the apocalyptic expectations that have become rampant in Israel. According to this theory, Tel Aviv is mentioned to heighten curiosity even more.
While some are awaiting apocalypse, others are simply looking for a quiet evening by the seashore, and that’s where I found the Torah that emanates from Tel Aviv. For the past few years, the reconfigured Tel Aviv port has become a cool hotspot for young couples and families, and now, each Friday in the summer, an outdoor Kabbalat Shabbat service, of all things, has become a huge hit in this bastion of secularism. Along with many hundreds of others, I attended one of the services, which are coordinated by Beit Tefila Israeli, a pluralistic, non-denominational group that seeks to meld Tel Aviv’s creative spirit with ancient Jewish traditions. Its prayer book does just that, interspersing the traditional prayers with selections by Bialik, Heschel, Naomi Shemer and a number of other Jewish and particularly Israeli sources. The congregation wants its service to be considered an indigenous expression of modern Israeli culture, not an import from elsewhere, and it is most definitely succeeding.
North American visitors will recognize the influence of non-Orthodox centers of Jewish spirituality in the U.S., but it is reassuring to see such recognition happening in Israel, far from the back rooms of the Knesset, where politicians appear determined to ban all expressions of Judaism save one. Almost everything about this Kabbalat service would have been prohibited near the Kotel: the mixed seating, the female prayer leaders, the many men in the congregation not wearing kippot (and the women who were), the exotic musical instruments, and the hints of Eastern spirituality combined with ballads of great Zionist poets.
As we turned to greet the Shabbat bride, with the setting sun splashing into the blue sea before us, I realized that we had been praying the entire service facing the water — in other words facing west, with our backs to Jerusalem. I smiled. Outdoors, it really was a no-brainer to face the soothing Mediterranean rather than the fast food restaurants across the way, or the juggler a few hundred yards down the pier. But this is also the best possible response to the Rotem Bill on conversion — not to shun all of Israel, but turn away from the sickness of Jerusalem’s corrupted, forbidding, vindictive brand of Judaism and seek better models elsewhere. The view from Tel Aviv that Shabbat was simply delightful.
The congregation’s siddur states: “My God — here we have no Wall, only the sea. But since you seem to be everywhere, you must be here, too. … And maybe I was created so that from within me you can see the world you created with new eyes.”
Jerusalemites are beginning to take their cultural cues from their neighbor to the west. The most popular spot in town is now the upscale, very Tel Avivian outdoor mall in the Mamila quarter, right outside Jaffa Gate. Who could have imagined that Jerusalemites would flock to Hilfiger, Prada and the Gap? And in the hit Israeli TV series “S’rugim,” which portrays the lives of single modern Orthodox 30-somethings in Jerusalem, one of the most poignant scenes of the first season involved one character’s experience of an exhilarating Shabbat, not at the Kotel but on the beach in Tel Aviv.
Non-Orthodox forms of Jewish expression are thriving in Israel and places like Beit Tefilah Israeli are not going to fade away. It reminds us that throughout Jewish history, great religious innovation could take place only at a safe distance from the watchful eyes of the Jerusalem elites. Places like Yavne, Tiberias and Safed gave rise to the Judaism we know today, while Jerusalem corroded and crumbled under the weight of its own ossified hubris.
As we stand facing east over the coming days, toward all of Israel, recall that Torah is being renewed, with new eyes, in Tel Aviv.
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman is spiritual leader of Temple Beth-El in Stamford, Conn.