Monday, October 12, 2009

Datlashim – An Expanding Universe

When I was a graduate student at Hebrew University in the 1980’s I spent most of my waking hours in the National Library (Sifriya Leumit) on the Givat Ram campus. It was a fascinating place to spend time because I never knew whom I would see at the library on any given day. Sometimes it was Nechama Leibovitz other times it was Yakov Katz or Joseph Babad one of my favorite people. What I never saw at the Sifriya Leumit in those days was a Haredi: the Sifriya Leumit was one of the national symbols of the “ziyonim” and apikorsim. So when I entered the library on one sunny day I took notice of a haredi studying a text with the concentration and posturing as though he was in the beis medrash pouring over a blatt gemorah. It fascinated me and after a few hours when he took a break in the lobby where the Ardon Windows are prominently housed I approached him and asked him what he was doing in the library. That was the beginning of a friendship based upon mutual respect and understanding of the struggle that this brave young man was undergoing.

Shlomo was a seeker. He was one of seven children, born to a haredi Yerushalmi family, who was a haredi in appearance but not in spirit. Until my encounter with him I had never considered the possibility that there were haredim who didn’t wish to live that life style, but because of social and economic circumstances had little choice and so by default remained within that community. Shlomo who was of strong courage with the disciplined introspection of a kotzker hasid wasn’t prepared to remain within his community by default. By the time I met Shlomo he had already prepared himself emotionally for the heavy price he would have to pay by becoming a seeker. He had made the quantum leap from Sanhedria to the Givat Ram campus of the Hebrew University, basking in the warmth of the intellectual energy generated there while trying to make sense out of his life.

Shlomo began visiting me at my home and it was there that he was introduced to the world of music and television. It was on those evenings that we had long conversations into the early hours of the morning about religion and spirituality. As it turned out, Shlomo was a deeply spiritual man but had little interest in religious practice. It was the detailed attention to the minutiae of religious practice demanded by his haredi community without reaping the spiritual benefit that caused him stress and frustration. Shlomo was able to articulate that while spirituality was important to him, religious practice didn’t enhance his life or contribute to his spiritual quest. Ultimately he broke with his community, studied for the bagrut and later attended university. It was a very difficult journey, for he suffered social alienation and harsh economic deprivation.

Over the years I have met many such people, men and women who no longer found relevance and personal meaning in religious practice but were conflicted nevertheless with the consequences of breaking away from their communities. For many it meant ostracism from their nuclear and extended families, economic dislocation, and ironically, tepid acceptance from the very communities that they wished to become part of. These early “chozrim b’sheelah” were in a sense pioneers for a very unique situation that they found themselves in through no fault of their own. The old idiom “you can’t force a round peg in a square hole” is true and applicable to this community of people; men and women who no longer find their place within the haredi community, but fear leaving because of the dire consequences.

Over the years and because the numbers of the disenchanted have grown there is a new phenomenon: seekers who have formed a loose support system and refer to themselves as “datlashim”. The interesting thing about these seekers is that they aren’t necessarily interested in cashiering in their history and tradition as much as they are concerned about finding the means by which to express their Judaism in meaningful ways. For many it is the continued practice of halachic Judaism but in a way that is spiritually meaningful, without the rigidity demanded of them hitherto. Others seek a more secular approach in defining their Judaism by exchanging the traditional beit midrash for a secularly formatted beit midrash. In many cases the datlashim aren’t capable of embracing the secular community because they find them too superficial. Secular Jews are less apt to examine with a fine toothcomb their spiritual soul print and operate on a basis of convenience that is too facile for a haredi.

What is emerging is a community of datlashim: Jews who haven’t yet been able to define what and who they are. For the most part they are sitting on the fence: hovering between two worlds. They are undecided and procrastinating whether to remain orthodox or to transition into the secular world. Some are trying to formulate an approach that merges the two worlds: the secular and the religious. For others there is the inclination to move into the secular world but they are being held back from a total break because of their emotional connection to a rich textured and complex tradition. Clearly there is much pain in the process of transitioning. But the beauty of it all is that these are thinking, feeling, sensitive and deeply spiritual people seeking a way to express their Judaism in the 21st century.

Ironically, while baalei teshuva and datlashim are on opposite ends of the spectrum they share a common denominator: God’s commandment to Abraham’s: to leave his fathers house and to go forth to a land that he will be shown. While each of these groups interprets the commandment differently each of them understands that the quest for spiritual fulfillment is integral to the Jewish psyche and comes at a very high price.