A New Israeli Judaism

In a country where religion and politics are often mixed together, it would seem ironic that a new solution to the on-going conflicts in Israel, both the internal one between the religious and the secular and the external one between the Israelis and Palestinians, would involve a conversation about God.

But that is exactly what Micah Goodman is trying to do.

A rising star in Israel's media and spiritual renewal movement, Dr. Goodman, 39, had probably never imagined himself a candidate to bring different, polarized elements of Israel's society together to talk about loaded ideas like chosenness, Jewish power, identity, and its implications for the dead-locked peace process.

But with his easy laugh, keen ability to distill philosophical concepts, and his embracing of his varied background (Israeli, Jew, American, and strong spirituality -- his mom was once a religious Roman Catholic), Goodman is talking and Israeli Jews are listening.

"Now that we have real power," Goodman said in a phone interview from Israel, "it is time to strip Judaism of a theology of compensation-theologies that we articulated when we were powerless. Especially when we speak about being metaphysically different," he added.

He explained that since today Jews do have power, as Zionism has succeeded in establishing a Jewish state, the question is more about what to do with that power, how to mold the national character, and to dispense of this historic, compensational power.

"In the diaspora gentiles abused their power, and we needed to put ourselves on top. Zionism gave us power, and now we need to reduce ourselves," he said.

Today chosenness should no longer be about Jewish genes or blood, but rather about the practice of Torah. "This is what can be elevating, or exceptional," he said.

Goodman started thinking about these ideas when he set out on his own search for God. Raised in Jerusalem in an Orthodox family, he had spent most of his childhood trying to fit in and be "Israeli," which to him meant hiding his mother's non-Jewish past and his parents' American roots.

But when he was in his early twenties and started studying at the Hartman Institute and Hebrew University -- where he remains a scholar at both -- he discovered that many famous Jewish thinkers had gone through the same questions he had about God and Judaism like, 'are we alone in this world, or are we, in some way, guided or guarded? And other questions like "does the unique story of the Jewish people mean that we have a unique purpose in this world?"

In trying to get answers to his questions, Goodman initially spent years studying Maimonides' Guide to the Perplexed, a staple of Jewish philosophy.

"I always felt that within Judaism you can be very intelligent in all fields, but when you go into the synagogue you have to dumb yourself down. Maimonides never asks his readers to do that. In fact, this (religion) is where you are meant to use your intelligence."

Goodman's interpretation of Maimonides, published in a book called, Secrets of the Guide of the Perplexed, offered Israelis a rational Judaism that doesn't strip them of their intellect. For a culture that prizes rationalism, but is Jewishly starved, Goodman had found a spiritual antidote.

"Many people when they grow up, grow out of God. They feel they are faced with a choice: Either I have a God that's not mature or I mature out of God. Maimonides enabled our idea of God to mature, not keeping God in the second grade."

Although he witnessed his bestselling book tap into this Israeli dichotomy, Goodman felt he hadn't given Israelis the full scope of the Jewish idea of God. So Goodman set out to show what the argument for irrational Judaism would look like, one filled with the power of imagination so that it could trigger religious excitement. (Though, he warned, in Jewish theology an image always remains false.) It is also in this book that he reinterprets the idea of chosenness.

While his second book further catapulted him into the limelight, it also earned him criticism from Orthodox scholars. Some critics felt that with his reinterpretation of chosenness he sold out one of Judaism's foundational ideals to Western values such as racism.

Despite the criticism, Goodman's rise as a scholar and spiritual voice remain a force to be reckoned with -- he just co-won a national $40,000 prize for religious tolerance. And not just because he is able to think and teach in both depth and scale outside the Orthodox box, but more than that, he has captured the soul of the young, Israeli generation that is searching for spirituality and for a new Zionist, Israeli identity.

"Micah understands that the renewal of Judaism can happen most deeply in Israel, where everyone can gain access to the Jewish book shelf and where life-and -death experiences lead to an elemental spiritual hunger," Yossi Klein Halevi, an Israeli author and journalist, wrote in an email.

Goodman has created a place for this new movement at his leadership academy, Ein Prat. Starting in 2006 with a handful of young religious and secular Israelis, today Ein Prat has over 300 graduates annually. But the most compelling argument of Goodman's success and insight into the future of Israeli society lies in the creation of three communities that the alumni have started as an outgrowth of their Ein Prat experience.

"Micah is, in his very being, a bridge between Israel's cultural camps," Klein Halevy added.
"He offers non-Orthodox Israelis admittance into a traditional Jewish conversation while respecting the Jewish integrity of their non-Orthodox identity. At the same time, his insights into Judaism are so original and profound that he's earned the respect of the more open parts of the Orthodox community, which cannot dismiss him as a mere popularizer," Klein Halevy said.