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Conversation with… Dov Elbaum Israeli journalist talks about his transition from the Ultra-Orthodox community to secular life

Dov Elbaum

Dov Elbaum

By Abigail Adams
Dov Elbaum has lived many different lives. He was born and raised in Jerusalem’s Haredi community. However, he left a promising future as a Torah scholar to fully integrate into Israel’s secular society. He emerged as an award-winning journalist, writer, TV host and leader in efforts to reinvigorate secular Judaism in Israel.
On March 19, Elbaum traveled to Northampton to share his work and his journey in a salon-style event hosted by members of Congregation B’nai Israel’s Israel Committee. During the event, entitled “Secular Jewish Renewal in Israel: Inspiration for American Jewry”, Dov Elbaum talked about religion and state in Israel and presented his newly translated book “Into the Fullness of the Void: A Spiritual Autobiography”, which records his transition from the Ultra-Orthodox community to secular life.
Elbaum’s Northampton visit was part of a North American tour organized, in part, by the New Israel Fund and its grantee, the BINA Center for Jewish Identity and Hebrew Culture, whose educational, cultural and social programs combine the promotion of Jewish pluralism with social action.
In addition to hosting the weekly TV show “Mekablim Shabbat”, Elbaum serves as the director of BINA’s Center for Jewish Thought and is one of the founders of the Secular Yeshiva, the only institution of its kind in Israel. The Secular Yeshiva instructs students in Jewish biblical and literary texts, Zionist history and community organizing. Dov Elbaum spoke with the Jewish Ledger about his personal and professional journey that has solidified him as a celebrated cultural figure in Israel.

Q: “Into the Fullness of the Void: A Spiritual Autobiography” reveals painful and intimate details about your transition from the Haredi community to secular Israeli life. What inspired you to write this autobiography? What do you hope your readers draw from it?

A: What pushed me to write the book was my deep need as a writer to share my journey, a journey that I am still on. In essence I am a writer of journeys – spiritual journeys. My previous books are also about journeys in their own way. It’s what I write about and it’s no coincidence. I have come to understand that the deep heart of Judaism is to be always on a journey, always on an Exodus from Egypt. This is the main thrust of Jewish literature throughout all generations.
With this book I hope to reach out to many different people, each on their own journeys, from wherever they may be. The Hebrew edition of the book was published six years ago and I have already heard from many different readers. For many the book has guided them on their own journeys – spiritual journeys, religious journeys, personal and emotional journeys – some very difficult journeys. Most are on journeys very different from my own but they connect to the essence of the journey nonetheless.

Q: Your work has been described as an effort to create a secular Jewish renaissance. How do you define secular Judaism? What is involved in a secular renewal or renaissance?

A: For me the secular Jewish renaissance is the attempt to form deep-rooted Jewish experience without the halachic systems that have been developed over the last two thousand years. This generally involves a deep connection of the secular Jew to the Tanakh and to the world of the Tanakh – a connection to the sources without the religious garments than have been dressed onto it over the generations. A secular Jewish renaissance doesn’t need to be secular in the traditional sense of the word; that is to say, a person who doesn’t want anything to do with religion, an atheist. The Jewish secular renaissance isn’t necessarily opposed to belief or tradition but stands in opposition to the traditional institutions that speak in the name of Jewish culture.
This doesn’t mean that I’m negating the Diaspora or that I don’t want anything that has developed over the last two thousand years. I’m saying I don’t want the halacha that developed in the Diaspora. But I love the agada – the literature. I’m not shutting out the world of Talmud and Midrash. But I focus on the literary and spiritual elements and less on the halacha.

Q: What role does religion have in the secular Jewish revival?

A: For me religion and halacha have great significance. I respect them greatly. But for me these are not instructions for action but rather signal lights that say, “There is something important here, pay attention.” For example, there is nothing more extensive in Halacha than Halacha of Shabbat. Because I am not a Halachic Jew I don’t study these Halachot in order to practice them, but I do say, “Hmm… Interesting.” The rabbis spent so much time and energy addressing Shabbat that there must be something important here. I look at halacha and religion as helpful signaling lights to direct my focus and attention, as pinpoints along my study and journey.

Q: You have been described by your peers as above all else a Torah scholar. How has your understanding of the Torah and Hasidic texts changed since your immersion in secular life?

A: The way I study Torah today is completely different from the way I studied it in the Haredi world. The main difference is that the way I study Torah today is dynamic rather than static. When I learned in a Haredi environment, I asked in my studies how I need to live, what I need to do, what does God say about every step of my life. Today I don’t deal with those questions, at least not in a significant way. Today I ask different questions. How can Torah help me grow, change, and understand the world and myself better? These are dynamic questions. My approach today is a dynamic approach, an approach of ongoing development. This is one thing that I learned from my American teachers and guides, like Mordechai Kaplan and Arthur Green – how to read Torah as a process, part of an ongoing development.

Q: BINA emphasizes the cultural aspects of Judaism in an effort to promote pluralism in Israeli society. How does the cultural definition of Judaism strengthen pluralism and democracy in Israel?

A: The starting point of the cultural approach states that the culture of a nation, or any group for that matter, develops as a result of many different traditions and voices that interact together. Out of this tossed salad comes the culture of the nation. With that understanding, our cultural approach, in a very basic and inherent way, supports the democracy and pluralism of Israeli society.

Q: The BINA Secular Yeshiva is currently engaged in a struggle to obtain the same status as Israel’s Orthodox Yeshivas from the Defense and Education ministries. What is your role in this initiative?

A: I, of course, have invested a great deal of effort in this matter and have tried to work so that the Secular Yeshiva receives the same conditions as recognized Orthodox Yeshivot. Unfortunately, despite a promising start, certain Orthodox institutions have thwarted the process but we are not giving up. We believe there is a deep need for this in Israeli society, this model of a Secular Yeshiva. And because there is such a deep need, it doesn’t matter how much certain groups try to hold us back, because we will succeed. No group can stop something if there is a true need for it in society.

Q: How would you describe current relations between Israel’s secular and religious communities? What is your current relationship with and attitude towards the Haredi community?

A: I think that the struggle today is not between secular and Haredi but between secular and the religious-Zionist stream. The religious-Zionists feel threatened by the seculars who want to create deep and meaningful new forms of Judaism. They are worried that this new movement will take their place and their power in defining the Jewish character of the State of Israel. The people who have stood in our way have not been Haredim, but religious-Zionists who felt threatened. I believe that the more different voices of Judaism there are, the more we will all benefit. The fact that there are Haredim, and modern Orthodox, and seculars, and anti-Zionists, and so many different approaches, is a good thing. My relationship to Haredi society is one of love and sympathy and I respect their voice, but I am also fighting for our voice to be heard loud and clear in Israeli society. Basically, I am not against anyone, I am only for.

Q: Has your relationship with your family changed since the release of your autobiography and your mother’s death?

A: When my book came out in Hebrew six years ago, I gave a dedicated copy to my mother of blessed memory. My mother took the book and didn’t say anything. After a few weeks I asked her if she had read it. She said, “Dov, you know, these heavy things are hard for me. But I saw that you wrote about God a lot. And if someone writes a lot about God, what can be bad about it?” This journey, through all these different worlds, is an internal journey but also a familial journey. The essence of this journey – how to have a dialogue between different ideas and approaches to Judaism – is something that I learned and that took place in my family.

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