More on Yair Sheleg’s New Book

Back in Sept, I announced with a long blog post the new book from Yair Sheleg, From Ancient Hebrew to New Jew: The Jewish Renaissance in Israeli Society. Haaretz has a thoughtful review of the book by
Hagai Dagan is the head of the department of Jewish thought at Sapir Academic College. Dagan finds himself stuck between the masses who prefer TV to spirituality and this elite that is highly individual. Dagan also notes the fundamentalism and delusions of changing the world resting not far below the surface. And to his credit Dagan also noted how similar this Sheleg is to Schweid’s vision of what would happen.

although in some ways I am part of the Jewish renaissance described by Yair Sheleg in “From Ancient Hebrew to New Jew,” his book did not make me happy. The question is, why?

Sheleg divides this trend into two sub-trends: the cultural one, which is expressed principally through study of texts in different learning communities; and the spiritual one, which is expressed in various Jewish “New Age” dynamics, including neo-kabbala, neo-Hasidism and the coming-of-age route that leads from India to the Samarian hilltops. Both trends are distinguished from the familiar denominational frameworks existing here (Orthodoxy and the Reform and Masorti movements ),

Secular Jews, for their part, continue to maintain a secular lifestyle, but in their consciousness they are now more religious, Sheleg finds. These are not only people who are avowedly secular who are enriching their world with study of Jewish texts, but also secular “praying communities” that exist outside synagogues, and so on. In that sense, Eliezer Schweid’s diagnosis in his book “Judaism and Secular Culture” (published in Hebrew by Hakibbutz Hameuchad in 1981, but absent from Sheleg’s bibiliography ) is unfortunately coming true.

In Israeli society, and in the division it offers between cultural and spiritual people, the cultural group is more elitist, smaller in number and older, while the spiritual group represents a mass phenomenon.

The main weakness of the cultural-elitist trend stems from the fact that it remains limited to a small number of people, and is unable to offer a sufficiently attractive alternative to the entertainment offered on Channel 2 and Channel 10. The masses, in the final analysis, prefer the “Big Brother” reality TV show to the primeval Big Brother who emerges from the ancient pages of the Talmud.

The spiritual trend actually manages to attract masses of people, but just outside the door crouches the danger of religious-political fundamentalism, which develops out of a yearning for simplicity and a return to the mythical-primeval.

When he describes the neo-Bratslavers, for some reason it’s important to him to mention various jokes that have become connected to their mantra, “Na-Nah-Nahm-Nahman.”

It turns out, then, that Yair Sheleg sees our little Jewish renaissance as the starting point for a message for all of humanity. No less. By doing so he returns to the vision of Ahad Ha’am (Asher Ginsberg, a pre-state essayist and Zionist visionary ), who saw Israel as a spiritual center from which the Torah would go out to the entire world.

And now to return to the question with which I began. If the trend described by Sheleg is so good, why doesn’t it make me happy? The fact is that the processes discussed by Sheleg are taking place alongside a constant decline in the number of students of Jewish studies in academic institutions. Apparently people want Judaism for themselves, but are less interested in Torah or Jewish studies.
Full version here.

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