Varieties of Post-Religious Experience

By Yehudah Mirsky
Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Israel is, on top of everything else, a gigantic open-air laboratory for experiments in Judaism and Jewish identity, mixing and matching old and new forms, deliberately and on the fly, with vision and no little improvisation.  One of the more interesting recent specimens is Religiozionisticus Postreligious.  Everyone, including the species itself, calls them datiyim l'she'avar, Religious Zionists (datiyim) who have left—or, more conveniently, Datlashim.  Their numbers are growing.

Datlashim differ markedly from their counterparts leaving Orthodox Judaism, the ex-Haredim.  The experiences of generations of these ex-Haredim have been described in a 2004 book by Sharit Barzilai titled Lifrotz Meah Shearim ("to break through a hundred gates"), a pun on Meah Shearim, the Haredi stronghold in Jerusalem. In the early decades of Israel's statehood, those who left Orthodoxy readily embraced new identities in a secular world that seemed politically and culturally triumphant.  But in the 1960s and 1970s, Haredi society grew in numbers and self-confidence.  By the 1980s and 1990s, Haredi ideology, institutions, and society became contenders, if not quite for cultural hegemony, then certainly for socio-cultural presence and institutional heft.

As a result, leaving the Haredi community became more complicated and fraught.  People left not so much because they lost faith in God but because they lost faith in, and their willingness to submit to, an increasingly all-encompassing and disciplinarian rabbinic authority.  Their estrangements from family and community are yet more painful because they have difficulty adjusting to a secular milieu whose freedoms they cherish but in which they may never feel at home. 

In contrast, while Datlashim are no longer halakhically observant or formally religious, they have not merged into the secular majority.  Rather, they maintain a complex relationship with Jewish texts and spirituality, bringing much of their past into their new, present lives.  As the popular quip has it, the difference between Datlashim and ordinary religious defectors is that Datlashim want their children to be Datlashim, too. 

Journalist Poriya Gal-Getz, a Datlashit from a prominent rabbinic family and author of the new volume HaDatlashim, consisting largely of some dozen extended interviews (out of hundreds she conducted) explains that leaving Orthodox observance "isn't a one-time passage between two opposite extremes, entailing absorption, absolute assimilation, and transformation from religious to secular, but a complex process, full of shades and nuances, that likely continues for a lifetime."  Gal-Getz's interviewees agree that the process is a reaction to religious smugness, pious certainty, and dogmatism.  Shraga Fisherman, a religious psychologist who has interviewed hundreds of Datlashim, says what emerges clearly from the interviews is that "faith identity is built by way of uncertainty, questioning, and doubt"; when questioning is not allowed, religious identity becomes unstable.

But the story of the Datlashim also tracks larger developments in Israeli society.  For decades, Religious Zionism's National Religious Party was a willing junior partner to the Mapai establishment. But in the 1970s a new generation—responding to the profound crisis in Israeli society after the Yom Kippur War, empowered by the stirring theology of Rav Kook, and unwilling to keep playing second fiddle—projected itself as the new vanguard of Israeli society, in the new  settlements and elsewhere.

This generation would come to its own spiritual and political disappointments.  Indeed, the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin by right-wing extremist Yigal Amir runs like a red thread through the narrative.  For some, Amir murdered not just Rabin but Religious Zionism's heroic self-image.  They went politically left; a number of Datlashim are now leaders of Israel's new left-wing movement.  For others, the collective finger pointed at Religious Zionists only reinforced their self-image as an elect now persecuted by a faithless secular majority.  For them, the tribe was harder to leave than God, or at least His ostensible spokespersons. 

Some of Gal-Getz's strongest interviews are with Sephardim who were marginalized by Religious Zionism in the 1970s and 1980s—when the newly-energized movement became more ideological and dismissive of the non-ideological tenor of Sephardi life.  The ethnically-based social exclusivity of many of the new settlements reinforced the Sephardis' sense of being outsiders; it was especially galling when coming from a Religious Zionism that marched under the banner of inclusive nationalism.  The beneficiaries were neo-Haredi movements—Chabad, Bratslav, and, above all, Shas—that knew how to how to appeal to the excluded.

Rav Kook, in his day, faced his own proto-Datlashim—people like Bialik, Brenner, and his yeshiva classmate Berdiczewsky—whom he called "souls of the world of tohu," the chaos that precedes creation.  In their critique of traditional religion's spiritual doldrums mixed with their continued commitment to Judaism and the Jewish people, he saw the need for a new faith that would transcend the confining divides of religious and secular, ethics and peoplehood.  Today, many Datlashim—many Israelis—see themselves as descendants of those earlier figures, moving beyond familiar categories or engaging with the classic texts to create a new Jewish culture.

One of Gal-Getz's interviewees, screenwriter and producer Udi Leon, a former Datlash who now refuses classification, says, "The Datlash is a more advanced creature than the dati and hiloni (secularist) put together. He's left the religious world, hasn't reached the secular, and so is more critical and reflective than both."  Reading Datlashiyut as a quasi-religious phenomenon may be a balm, a stirring and provocative form of cultural criticism, and even an inspiration, as it was for Rav Kook.  But viewing it this way is also a temptation: It may end by distorting the experiences and self-understanding of Datlashim themselves. Whatever the roles that sympathetic or disapproving observers may assign to them, their lives, choices, and relationships to God and the societies in which they were raised are theirs to make and live, outside conventional religion, on their own terms.

In the words of one of Gal-Getz's interviewees, literary critic Arik Glasner, "Anyone who has seriously tasted religious experience once will long for it always.  It's like eating from the tree of knowledge," and "he will have a hard time finding rest in entirely secular life and ideology."  So, says Glasner, "when I read of the experiences of hozrim b't'shuvah," those who return to religion, "I will understand their longing.  But I can no longer go backward."

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