Cultural Judaism in Habonim Dror – A Discussion document

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					      Cultural Judaism in Habonim Dror – A
              Discussion document
             Why do we need something different?
For too long Habonim Dror South Africa has floundered in sense of generality,
without the capacity of self-definition, due to the fact that we simply did not have
the educational tools and movement motivation, to define ourselves in a specific
direction. Hence, we decided to try and create a pluralistic atmosphere where all
Jews (Reform, Secular, Orthodox and Traditional etc) could come in order to
connect, a space where we would try and accommodate everyone. And yet, the
main result of this approach has been an increasing sense that we, as the
movement, are indeed wondering in the ideological desert.

More than that, we have, for many years, found ourselves to be very frustrated
with the current direction of the South African Jewish community in terms of its
increased insularity, its inability to create spaces where all denominations of
Jews can gather as equal partners, and indeed the hegemonic control over
certain Jewish institutions that is being exerted by certain fundamentalist
components of the Jewish community. The result of this has just been an
increased sense of frustration, alienation and dislocation. We see it in our
channichim‟s faces, we see it in our apathy and we see it in so many of our
contemporary‟s desire to completely disregard themselves as Jews. We,
ourselves, have been caught in this trap, and it has only manifested itself in an
attempt to try and understand why our community is heading in the direction that
it is. We have criticized the community and we have seen how it is driving away
the majority of the Jewish community through its conservativism. But, we have
yet failed to come up with a positive alternative, an identity that gives us
meaning, something to strive for, and something that will help us to make sense
of the world around us.

And that is where Cultural Judaism steps in. Here is an opportunity to define
ourselves in a positive manner, not just as „not-X‟, or „anti-Y‟ and not even as
merely „liberal Jews‟. Here is a possibility that offers us a chance to create a new
sense of self-expression.

It must be categorically stated that this is NOT an attempt to become „anti-
Orthodox‟ in any way whatsoever. Habonim Dror will always welcome every
member of the Jewish community into our movement (provided that they are not
racist/sexist/homophobic etc). If Habonim Dror were to ever become a space that
did not make space for Orthodox or any other kind of Jew, we would be failing in
our mission to educate and enrich young Jewish life. However, this must be
qualified by our drive to provide a space for secular-traditional Jews no longer
provided by our Jewish institutions. The current exploration of Cultural Judaism is
merely a reorientation of our own Jewish self-expression.
“A complete national life involves two things: first, full play for the creative
faculties of the nation in a specific national culture of its own, and, second, a
system of education whereby the individual members of the nation will be
thoroughly imbued with that culture, and so moulded by it that its imprint will be
recognizable in all their way of life and thought, individual and social. These two
aspects of a national life may not always be realized in the same degree, but
broadly speaking they are interdependent. If the individuals are not imbued with
national culture, the development of the nation will be arrested, and its creative
faculties will suffer atrophy or dissipation. On the other hand, if those faculties are
not sufficiently employed in the service of the development of the national
culture, the education of children and adults alike will become narrow, its
influence will progressively decline, and many individuals will turn elsewhere
for the satisfaction of their cultural needs, with the results that gradually their
minds and characters will cease to bear the nation‟s imprint.”

-Ahad Ha’am ‘The Negation of the Diaspora’ 1909

                    Who are South African Jews?
So, if we look at the general South African Jew (especially those that come to
Habonim Dror), we could find the following:

      That they are traditional in outlook, yet relatively strongly secular in
      May keep kosher, or not drive on Friday night
      Has membership to an Orthodox Shul
      Will only go to synagogue for special events (e.g. Bar/Bat-
       Mitzvah, Yom Kippur)
      May or may not believe in G-d
      May or may not believe that the Torah comes from G-d

Perhaps most strangely, many South African Jews who fit into this mould still call
themselves „Orthodox‟ despite the fact that they do not practice Halacha, which,
if Orthodoxy is a lived ideology, and ideology is „an action-orientated set of
beliefs‟ is a very strange combination. It is not congruent at all to say on the one
hand that the Torah comes from G-d (and hence that all of the Mitzvot are divine
commandment which one would dare not contradict), and then on the other
hand, not keep Shabbat fully etc etc. Often, many South African Jews decide to
call themselves „Orthodox‟ because they feel the need to be „rubber-stamped‟ by
Orthodoxy (feel that they fit into the mainstream), rather than because they
practice an Orthodox lifestyle. Hence, the strange definition given to our
community here (by academics studying our community, like Giddy Shimoni) is
called „non-practicing Orthodox‟, a complete contradiction in terms.
What Habonim Dror South Africa needs is a self-definition that is going to give
the Jewish expression that each of us performs meaning. If the thought process
behind these practises does not imbue your life with sufficient Jewish meaning or
learning, these practises will not continue to satisfy Jews. With such a beautiful
and rich cultural legacy, Jews who find Judaism a burden is not only a sad state
of affairs to be in, it is unsustainable.

“Learning, Learning, Learning: That is the secret of Jewish survival.”
                           -Ahad Ha‟am „On Nationalism and Religion‟ 1910

The maggid of Zlotchov was asked by a hasid: „We are told: “Everyone in Israel
is in duty bound to say: When will my work approach the works of my fathers,
Abraham, Isaac and Jacob?” How are we to understand this? How could we ever
venture to think that we would do what our fathers did?‟ The Rabbi expounded:
„Just as our fathers founded new ways of serving, each a new service according
to his character: one the service of love, the other that of stern justice, the third
that of beauty, so each one of us in his own way shall devise something new in
the light of teachings and of service, and do what has not yet been done.‟
                            -Martin Buber – The Way of Man

                      What is Cultural Judaism?

“The Cultural Jew sees in the rich Jewish religious tradition a source of
inspiration, not of authority, in her/his life and life-style.”

 “The national school in all its forms – the heder, the yeshivah, the bet-midrash –
these have been our securest strongholds throughout our long, hard struggle for
existence, and for the right to exist, in the world as a separate and distinct people
among the peoples. In times of tempest and wrath we took refuge within the
walls of these fortresses, where we polished the only weapon we had left – the
Jewish mind – lest it become rusty.”
                             -Hayyim Nahman Bialik „Inauguration of Hebrew
                             University‟, January 4, 1925

“Cultural Jews understand Judaism as the history, culture, civilization, ethical
values and shared experiences of the Jewish people. Their connection to their
heritage is found in the languages, literature, art, dance, music, food and
celebrations of the Jewish people. It is not religious beliefs that connect them to
each other, but the entire civilization of their extended Jewish family.

The Jewish community needs to reach out to cultural, secular and non-religious
Jews. We need to welcome cultural Jews with more programs and services, and
offer celebrations and education consistent with their beliefs. We need to train
and ordain more rabbis and leaders to help secular, cultural and Humanistic
Jews celebrate their Jewish identity with honesty and integrity. We need to
accept that the broader Jewish community has largely failed to meet the needs of
non-religious, cultural, secular and Humanistic Jews. We need your help to bring
about this renaissance in Jewish life.”

We will look to take up our Judaism through the studying of Jewish text,
celebration of chaggim, re-interpretting the meaning of rituals (like our third seder
or a Cultural Tikkun Leil), by encouraging educated Jewish debate amongst our
chaverim and ensuring that we run peulot on Cultural Judaism itself.

         How does a Cultural Jew approach an issue:
(1) Choose something you do in Judaism such as keeping

(2) Go back to the source(s) and find out why it is done

(3) If you agree with what the source(s) are saying and therefore find meaning in
the practise, then kashrut has just become not only a meaningful Jewish practise
in your life, but has also caused you to look deeper into Judaism and probably
helped strengthen your Jewish identity.

(4) If the source doesn‟t appeal to you, can you find an alternative Jewish source
to help you out with another way to practise some form of kashrut?

(5) Is there a non-Jewish source that could help you out with your dilemma?

(6) If the whole practise is devoid of meaning, or you are against the practise for
any reason – then don‟t do it any more. But at least you will have enriched your
Jewish knowledge and hopefully your Jewish identity.
           Is this merely a chutzpahdik thing to do?

It is our right to own the Jewish sources that belong to every Jew in the world, not
just to the religious Jews out there. We, as secular Jews who want to be able to
understand and own our heritage need to get of our bums and go out there and
learn, understand the Jewish sources and find our own meaning in them.

Remember, there is an international movement of people throughout the
world who are creating a diverse and full cultural Judaism, and hence we
are not alone in our journey.

For a real eye-opener and an in depth analysis of cultural Judaism, please take a
look at the above website, as well as Habonim Dror UK‟s website (given as
reference at the back – they have a fantastic choveret)

Here are some more perspectives that defend the idea that Judaism is a multi-
layered animal that cannot be owned by any one group.


Amos Oz

Beliefs and opinions, not belief and opinion. Democracy and tolerance are
related to humanism, and humanism is related to pluralism, the recognition of the
equal rights of people to be different from one another. These differences are not
a temporary affliction, but rather, a source of blessing. We are different for a
reason - not because some of us have not yet seen the light, but because there
are many lights in the world: beliefs and opinions, not one belief and opinion.


A. B. Yehoshua

We discover an astonishing fact in the classic halachic definition. According to
the halacha, nothing is said about the Jew's conduct, his thoughts, or basic
principles of behavior. There is nothing indicating his homeland or language, or
even the nature of his affiliation to a specific collective (such as maintaining
solidarity with the Jewish people). A Jew is nothing more than the child of a
Jewish mother, not even a Jewish father. Is this biological fact really so
compelling and binding? Not at all! Jews are not a race and never viewed
themselves as such. They viewed themselves only as a people. According to the
halachic definition, a Jew, the son of a Jewish mother, who converts to
Christianity ceases to be a Jew. That the halacha enables someone not born of a
Jewish mother to become a Jew also indicates that the Jews do not constitute a

Some Sources
A significant amount of this document was taken from the HDUK Choveret, found
online below

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