A man fishes at a sunset on a beach south of Ashkelon, near the Israel's border with Gaza Strip, Saturday, Dec. 7, 2013. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)

How I caused an earthquake in Israel

JERUSALEM (RNS) — You probably read about it. There were several earthquakes in northern Israel last week, and an Orthodox member of the Knesset accused Reform and Conservative Jews of causing them. In particular, it was our pressing for egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall that did the trick.

That was me and my colleagues. And, we will keep doing it.

Let me tell you about the earthquake. It didn’t happen the way most earthquakes happen. It has been quieter, and subtler, than your standard earthquake. But it's an earthquake nevertheless.

I am now in Israel, studying at the Shalom Hartman Institute, also known as Rabbi Summer Camp. It is an intellectual and spiritual festival of ideas and texts, and it is always simultaneously transformative and restorative.

This past Shabbat eve, three of us traveled from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv for Beit Tefilah Israeli, the Shabbat experience on the Tel Aviv Port.

Imagine greeting Shabbat with an amazing band, a passionate rabbi (Esteban Gottfried), prayerfulness, community — and the added feature of watching the sun go down over the Mediterranean. Hundreds of people gather at the port from all corners of the Jewish world. The singing is powerful, and the prayer is compelling.

And, it is part of a significant wave of non-Orthodox Jews in Israel who are encountering the Jewish tradition and saying to the Orthodox establishment: “These are our texts, too. These are our prayers, too. These are our songs, too. You do not own them. We are claiming them as well.”

The message is spreading. I spotted several tzitzit-clad, side curl-sporting, bonafide traditional Orthodox Jews in the crowd. They were loving it.

The earthquake is growing in magnitude. But, if you want a powerful illustration of the diversity of Israeli Judaism, then listen to what happened to us on our way back into Jerusalem.

One of our number was staying in central Jerusalem. We followed Google Maps to drop her off at her lodgings. Everything was going smoothly until Google quite innocently routed us through the Jerusalem neighborhood of Geula. As in, Mea Shearim’s cousin. As in, strictly ultra-Orthodox.

We found ourselves in Geula's narrow lanes, surrounded by black-clad ultra-Orthodox Jews, all of whom were screaming, “Shabbos! Shabbos!”

In that neighborhood, driving on Shabbat is simply not done.

The shouts and fist-shaking were getting intense. I made a mental note to contact Google Maps and suggest a setting that avoids ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods. Or, perhaps a new app altogether: Oy Vey.

It was like a video game of a maze, and everywhere we turned, there was a gate — and we couldn't get out.

One guy looked like he was about to physically attack our car. I suppressed the urge to roll down my window and say, “You know that earthquake in the Galilee? That was me. Don’t mess with me.”

Finally, we saw the redemptive lights of Jaffa Road in front of us. We were safe.

In truth, I felt bad. I do not have contempt for the ultra-Orthodox — although some of their ideas, such as blaming their theological and sociological enemies for natural disasters, are irritating. I felt bad because I know that our inadvertent vehicular entry into their neighborhood had stained their Shabbat experience — an experience that I find precious as well.

In the course of one Shabbat evening, we traversed centuries. There can be no more powerful illustration of the messiness of Judaism in Israel — the joyful messiness — than that experience.

But, back to the port. It is an earthquake of Jews who want a diverse, pluralistic and aesthetically enriching Shabbat experience.

Maybe this earthquake is not registering anywhere near 9.0 on the theological Richter scale. But it is there. And it makes Israel the joyous, exhausting, even frustrating experience that it is.

I would not have it any other way.

(The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.)


  1. The conservative mindset needs rigid, narrow, excluding boundaries. The more conservative the mindset, the more rigid, the more narrow, and the more excluding the boundaries have to be. No matter how pluralistic a society might be, the variety in human nature means that there will always be conservatives within that society who cannot share in – who feel threatened by – the pluralism.

  2. The liberal mindset touts pluralism all the while condemning others for their beliefs. Leave them alone, they were living their lives as they see fit, and as the author mentioned, they took a wrong turn and disrupted their holy day. I am SOOOO sick of the liberal condescension as if they know what is good or not. Your comment does not seem to reflect your own sense of “pluralism”.

  3. And therein lies an argument against the modest, nice, fluffy, genuinely-caring, ignorant, forgetful, apologetic practitioners of religion – they are not the hard-edged problem; but they serve to give the hard-edge a cause to exaggerate, a creed to extremittise(?), and a validated, if selectively used. source for their inhumanity.

  4. The progressive mindset needs to feel in control, superior to what it perceives as the rigid narrow excluding boundaries of lesser people.

    The more progressive the mindset, the more control is required, and the more the distance between it and lesser people needs to be emphasized.

    The allegedly enlightened progressive walks down the street in sandals, munching a bean sprout and alfalfa on organic spelt, noting the hoi polloi with their two sexes and their 1=1=2 mindset, smiling inwardly knowing that 1+1=3.

  5. He might not but I have contempt for all of the fundamentalist Abrahamic religions due to their beliefs and how they are acted on. I’ll always respect their right to hold and legally practice these beliefs, though.

  6. The Hasidic movement was radical and revolutionary when it started. but it has ossified over the centuries. They have closed off their walls, but there is a lot wise takes on human nature in the original movement that should not be dismissed.

  7. I repeat the Hasidic movement was revolutionary when it started. There is a lot of wisdom in it that shouldn’t be overlooked. It has ossified over the years party due to persecution of Jews in Russia and Eastern Europe and the Holocaust.

  8. See my response to Jim Johnson and my comment.

  9. “they were living their lives as they see fit, and as the author mentioned, they took a wrong turn and disrupted their holy day”
    Actually, the ultra-Orthodox were the ones who disrupted their own holy day. They were the ones out on the street yelling and shaking their fists. And they did this because, instead of observing their own holy day, they let themselves become outraged that someone else did not abide by their cultural and psychological boundaries.

  10. Fundamentalists of any stripe seem to have the same problem. Other people simply don’t agree with them, and they find the lack of validation for their beliefs so threatening, that violence is all they can muster.

    It bespeaks a certain lack of confidence that their god-given gods actually love them as much as they claim.

  11. I think you’re missing the point here. The rabbi took a turn, and He ended up in their neighborhood. He didn’t tell them that they must drive, that they must break the Shabbos, or anything like it. He simply took a turn and ended up in their neighborhood. They could have simply shaken their heads, said “those goys”, and continued on in their observances.

    it’s fascinating how the conservative religious right’s stances on these issues seem always to be pushing to restrict freedoms of other people, when whatever those people are doing has absolutely no impact on the lives of those conservative religionists, EXCEPT TO OFFEND THEM, 9or claim it has offended their god.

    Someone else’s legal abortion, or their same-sex marriage, or their legal pot, or their legal prostitution don’t affect right wingers except to offend them, but they still demand that others be blocked from having these things.

    Your imaginary “liberal mindset” isn’t telling strictly Orthodox Jews they shouldn’t observe shabbos, any more than it is telling hyper conservative Christians they should get gay married. But the fundamentalists in this story are telling others they shouldn’t drive through their neighborhood, even if (im assuming) their streets are paid for in tax dollars. Its the polar opposite of ‘live and let live’.

  12. That kind of mentality would place its nose in the air and post something like:

    “The conservative mindset needs rigid, narrow, excluding boundaries. The more conservative the mindset, the more rigid, the more narrow, and the more excluding the boundaries have to be. No matter how pluralistic a society might be, the variety in human nature means that there will always be conservatives within that society who cannot share in – who feel threatened by – the pluralism.”

    Aren’t you glad you’re not that kind of person?

  13. Either you ARE Jewish (Orthodox) OR your NOT! Despite common belief being a Jew doesn’t work like Chinese takeout where you get to pick these 5 commandments from column ‘A’ and these 4 from column “B’! Those that do are NOT JEWS they are trying to masquerade as Jews!
    Stop being a mishegas Shegetz and return to HaShem!


  14. So like the fundelibangelist True Christians (TM) who post on these very pages denouncing other Christians for not being True Christians (TM), we now have a True Jew (TM) denouncing other Jews for not being Too Jew (TM).

    What is it about hyper conservative religionism that turns hyper conservative religionists into flaming aholes?

  15. Halachah says you are Jewish if you’re mother is Jewish. You’re picking and choosing yourself.

  16. The very definition of irony: the same Reform Movement that wants an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall also want to give all of East Jerusalem (including the Western Wall) to the Arabs under the two state solution. Consequently, Jews will no longer be allowed to pray there. Brilliant!

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