Modiin Journal #4 – Religious Life

This piece also dates from my mini-sabbatical in 2007, and… I wouldn’t change a word ! 

     The most noticeable change in the daily davening routine is the Birkat Kohanim that occurs every morning (twice on Shabbat) in Israel, except in a few isolated places. As a Levi charged with hand-washing duty, I step outside during every Chazarat Hashatz to take care of business, and, aside from the occasional bout of Carpal-tunnel syndrome (one shul had 18 kohanim !), I enjoy it immensely. The daily blessing is a feature of life that we do not have in the exile, and for reasons that are entirely unclear.

      While there are scattered Sefaradic congregations in the exile that duchan every day, the prevailing custom follows the opinion of the Rema (Shulchan Orach,  Orach Chaim 128:44): “It is customary in these countries that the kohanim do not lift their hands except on festivals, because then people are immersed in the jubilation of the festivals, and [only] the good-hearted person can bless. On the other days of the year – even on Shabbat – people are overwrought with concerns about sustenance and losing time from work …” And in Israel they are always cheerful, and not running off to work ?!

     This inference, needless to say, has been the source of enormous controversy – especially since Birkat Kohanim is incumbent on kohanim, one of the 613 commandments, and essentially not at all related to happiness or joy. The Gemara, for example, never mentions that the fulfillment of this mitzva is dependent on a joyous state, any more than any other Mitzva, or that an absence of joy precludes its observance. There have been several attempts among Ashkenazim to restore the daily practice even in the exile – and all have failed. Most famously, the Gaon of Vilna endeavored to do it, finding the traditional custom unsubstantiated, but the night before the practice was to have been reinstituted in Vilna, the Gaon was arrested on unrelated charges. He interpreted this as a sign from Heaven to desist.

      The Aruch Hashulchan (128:64) says there is no good reason why we do not duchan, calling it a “minhag garua” (terrible custom) – but says that it is as if it has been decreed from Heaven that in the exile we refrain from this daily blessing. The question is why, and what does all this have to do with happiness ?

       Jewish life here has a natural rhythm to it – part similar and part dissimilar to our experiences. We all have shuls, the davening is the same (except for the above), the noise during davening is about the same, and the forms of mitzvot are identical. There is an ease to the observance of kashrut here – restaurants and marketplaces – but, truth be told, it is easy in Teaneck too. But there is a welcome change in Israel that has happened so gradually that it has taken some people by surprise, and left others in denial. Here is a headline from last Friday’s Jerusalem Post: “Drastic Decline in Israelis who define themselves as Secular.” The Israel Democracy Institute reported that whereas in 1974, 41% of Israelis saw themselves as secular, that figure has decreased to 20% – with the religious population at 33% (but 39% under the age of 40 !) and the traditional at 47%. That is a sea change, and, of course, completely unreflected in the public persona of the state. That 20% secular population controls – with a stranglehold through manipulation of the law and the political system – the government, the army, the media, the police and the judiciary – and partly explains their current desperation to surrender to the Arabs at any cost and in defiance of all logic. But the effect of the demographic shift has a ripple effect on the rest of society. The ubiquity of religious Jews here is a sharp contrast to what we are used to – even in New Jersey.

       Modiin is a mixed city, and we live on an especially heterogeneous street – with religious and not(-yet?) religious Jews, Israelis and Anglos, Ashkenazim and Sefaradim. Of the many reasons we chose to live in Modiin, one was my desire not to live in an exclusively religious neighborhood as one finds in most parts of Israel. The cloistering of religious life is not a healthy development, and pleasant interactions in a mixed neighborhood can only bode well for co-existence and harmony among all Jews. “Live and let live” sounds reasonable to us, but, trust me, it is a revolutionary concept in the Middle East. On Israel Radio’s Reshet Aleph, the evening’s all-religious programming is termed Reshet Moreshet (literally, Heritage Network), with the catchphrase: “L’kal Yisrael yesh moreshet achat – All Israel has one heritage”. Indeed.

     That is not to say that there aren’t tensions that arise from two divergent world views. But the local disputes, such as there are, are understandable even in an American context: competition for slices of the municipal pie. Should vacant land be used to build a library or a shul, should another plot be a Chareidi elementary school or a religious-Zionist high school, should a temporary shul housed in a school be dislodged so the school can have a computer room ? The reality is that Modiin began 12 years ago with a tiny religious population that has grown exponentially in the last few years (including a disproportionate number of Teanecker’s !), and the current religious population is woefully underserved in terms of its religious needs. But that will surely change in the years ahead, as the politics and the politicians adjust to the new realities – and this is true not only in Modiin but elsewhere in Israel as well.


      What Israel lacks most is the sense of religious community that we have, for example, in Teaneck. Whereas our lives can revolve around the shul, and there is a community rabbi to whom we turn, that institution is mostly lacking in Israel, and American expatriates always tell me that is what they miss most. There is a nearby shul located on Shabbat in a school (known to the Israelis as the “American shul”), where they are trying to replicate that American-Jewish experience, with a fine young Rabbi, social and youth activities, shiurim, ruach, etc. – and they are in the early stages of what will surely be a successful endeavor and hopefully a template that other communities can emulate.


      But without a central Rabbinic figure, most shuls remain lay-driven (with all the positives and negatives that portends). They exist as a place to daven, period. (A Yemenite Jew, who had duchened – I had washed his hands – was called up for revi’i. When I inquired, the gabbai said he had wondered the same thing, and perhaps the Yemenites have a custom that the kohen can get any aliya. I responded that perhaps the Yemenites have a custom that a Yisrael can duchan too !) Without a central authority, strange things can happen.


      The bright side is that people become more involved because the success of each minyan depends on every person. While the local shul here remains to be built, there are minyanim on the street, and an especially beautiful Maariv minyan every night at 9:30 P.M. under the stars in the park on our corner. Literally out of the darkness within a minute from 9:29 P.M., approximately 25-30 people materialize, face Yerushalayim, and daven in the crisp evening air. In addition to a Monday night shiur in English, I have been asked to speak in several shuls (in Hebrew) on a number of occasions – and I have, surely coining a few heretofore unknown Hebrew words in the process.


      Religious life, then, is suffused with normalcy, except for the realization – by most people but especially olim – that to build Jewish life in the land of Israel is historic, momentous, and – there is no other way to say it – the way it is supposed to be. And perhaps that is what the Rema meant. Simcha is a sense of contentment and completeness about life, in which an aura of purposefulness and meaning prevails. The Birkat Kohanim reflect that state of being, and when we abstain from Birkat Kohanim in the exile – except when immersed in the joy and sanctity of Yom Tov – we recognize that we either can not or should not have that sense of completeness – the full blessings of Jewish life – on a regular basis.


       That feeling is limited to when the Jewish people live in Israel, fulfill the Torah and serve G-d in all aspects of life – as will be the destiny of all Jews, we pray, in the near future.                   

                                         Shabbat Shalom from Modiin !

4 responses to “Modiin Journal #4 – Religious Life

  1. You mention some “scattered” Sephardic communities in the Diaspora that practice Birkat Kohanim every day. In fact, I don’t know of any Sephardic congregations anywhere that omit Birkat Kohanim. It is a part of the daily service in all Sephardic congregations with which I am familiar.

  2. Also, the minhag of Sephardim, based upon the Mehaber in the Shulhan Arukh, is that a Kohen or Levi can receive any aliyah after Shelishi, we call him up as “revi’i af al pi shehu kohen”.

  3. Hazaq U’Barukh for the blog post and also to the one replying.