‘American Judaism’ takes root in the Judean Desert

Micah Goodman’s Ein Prat Midrasha fosters religious-secular tolerance by helping young Israelis conquer their fear of each other

Deputy Editor Amanda Borschel-Dan is the host of The Times of Israel's Daily Briefing and What Matters Now podcasts and heads up The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology coverage.

Philosopher Dr. Micah Goodman (screenshot)
Philosopher Dr. Micah Goodman (screenshot)

In the pristine Judean Desert a mere half hour from Jerusalem, a revolutionary thinker is planning a takeover. Preaching a philosophy of scholarship and religious tolerance to a student army 1,500 strong and growing, Ein Prat Midrasha‘s head ideologue Micah Goodman is finding his message strikingly effective.

Like Goodman himself, the son of American immigrants who was raised in Israel, his upstart idea is a hybrid of sabra chutzpah and American ideals. In an increasingly extremist and stratified Israel, says Goodman, it is time to end the antiquated isolationist fear cycle left over from the pre-Jewish state Diaspora, developed in defense of a Judaism under attack.

“In the great shtetl we have built here, assimilation is not an option,” Goodman wryly said during his June acceptance speech for the Schechter Institute’s 2014 Marc and Henia Liebhaber Prize for Religious Tolerance, a $40,000 purse he shared with musician Ehud Banai.

Perhaps, wonders Goodman, Zionism no longer needs to be about bringing Jews to Israel, but rather bringing Judaism to the people of Israel.

Dr. Micah Goodman (far right) accepts the Schechter Institute's 2014 Marc and Henia Liebhaber Prize for Religious Tolerance from MK Colette Avital and Prof. David Golinkin. (courtesy)
Dr. Micah Goodman (far right) accepts the Schechter Institute’s 2014 Marc and Henia Liebhaber Prize for Religious Tolerance from former MK Colette Avital and Prof. David Golinkin. (courtesy)

In person, Goodman is modest and enthusiastic, dreading his 40th and lamenting a lack of free time to read good books. A PhD in Jewish Thought, the Modern Orthodox Jew is also a passionate student of American history and philosophy. With a unique blend of his two citizenships and backgrounds, enhanced by his convert mother’s Catholic clergy family, he disseminates his insider-outsider perspectives to receptive audiences throughout the world.

In Israel, Goodman lectures at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and is a scholar at the Hartman Institute. But the base of his operations is the Ein Prat Midrasha, which he founded in Alon, a mixed secular-religious community located in the West Bank near the Dead Sea.

‘Graduates of Ein Prat break the classic boxes of Israeli society’

The learning center, which began with six students in 2006, has this year seen some 350 mixed religious and secular students pass through its main center in Alon for its four-month program or for a short 40-day programs at one of its adjunct locations throughout the country.

Students are in a “liminal” period: post-Army, questioning life, their identities and futures, taking a timeout to ponder and think. The institute’s isolated beauty is a factor in its popularity, but Goodman himself is its biggest draw.

He is a bestselling author of two Hebrew-language books on medieval philosophy, “The Dream of the Kuzari” in 2012 and “The Secrets of the Guide for the Perplexed” in 2011. True to his vision, some 50 percent of books sold were purchased by secular readers. He is also a longtime television personality on Israel’s main network channels.

“Graduates of Ein Prat break the classic boxes of Israeli society,” Goodman tells The Times of Israel in his blessedly air-conditioned office. Looking at the shared desks and decor, one gets the sense he doesn’t sit here often. In fact, he instead devotes his time to formal or informal lectures.

At Ein Prat, religious and secular students live in simple trailers adjacent to classrooms and learn together, reading and discussing texts — both canonical and cultural.

However, outside this blissful bubble, remnants of a prevailing existential fear — stemming both from the Jewish community’s ongoing concern over assimilation and centuries of anti-Semitic pogroms — are still in the psyche of most religious and secular Israelis, leading to an ever-growing schism.

In the centuries before the founding of Israel, Jewish communities used halacha as a means to negotiate Jewish particularism within the non-Jewish world, often living in small enclaves and shutting out “the goyim,” or non-Jews. Transplanted to Israel, this continues in many religious sectors, with the “goyim” now being the secular Jews whose ancestors rebelled against the rabbis’ authority.

‘In the last 100 years, halacha has stopped being a bridge between the world and Judaism and has become a separation barrier’

“In the last 100 years, halacha has stopped being a bridge between the world and Judaism and has become a separation barrier,” says Goodman.

Conversely, many secular Jews fear their children will be “converted” and fall prey to brainwashing if they are given religious instruction. The secular mainstream State of Israel Ministry of Education curriculum offers the bare minimum of religious textual studies, resulting in a swath of the Jewish population growing up largely ignorant of its traditions.

In the context of the success story of the State of Israel, says Goodman, both religious and secular Jews should be educated and exposed to the wealth of Jewish culture and texts, which he feels will only result in a more open, understanding society.

He cites the example of Ein Prat graduates who celebrate the beginning of the Sabbath together in a mixed religious/secular Kabbalat Shabbat ceremony in communities in Beersheba or Tel Aviv. To accommodate all Jews, portions of the room use a mechitza, or barrier between men and women. Other parts have mixed seating, creating a “tri-chitza” of sorts and opening up the ritual to those who have a “shared curiosity and are trying to figure out Judaism together.”

“The ‘original sin’ of Orthodoxy is dogmatism,” says Goodman. “If you are trapped in your own worldview, which happens to be God’s worldview, others are not only wrong, but sinners. The ‘original sin’ of secularism is ignorance.”

He envisions a future in which “dogmatism will be cracked and a healthy dose of doubt injected” and “ignorance will be eroded.”

However, parents of Ein Prat students are often worried about their children’s delving into the “other.” The secular, he says, are often like “rebellious teenagers” afraid of losing their liberty, while the religious are concerned about “contamination.”

The view from the Ein Prat Midrasha (courtesy)
The view from the Ein Prat Midrasha (courtesy)

But what Goodman hears most from religious grads is “I opened up”; from the secular ones, “I connected.”

“Both have to stop being scared,” says Goodman, who adds that tolerance is a result of shaking off these fears.

Goodman is optimistic and says young adults are “fearless identity-wise” and more able to see the past as inspiration, not authority. He cites Amos Oz’s philosophy of inheriting the tradition, much like one receives family treasures. Too often, he says, Orthodoxy puts everything in a display case in the living room, whereas secular Israelis chuck it all out the door.

Acknowledging that many secular Israelis are repulsed by religion because they often encounter it in uncomfortable situations such as marriage registration or burials, Goodman says although unlike in the United States it is not possible to separate Church and State in Israel, “it would be very helpful if there was much less religious legislation.”

Goodman appreciates his US ancestry — “Here’s a group of immigrants, that within a century are not only accepted, but part of the American elite!” — and says Israel has a lot to learn from American Judaism.

“The Judaism created in America is passionately Jewish, without being religious. This is a great American idea,” says Goodman.

Modern Zionism creates a space for Judaism stripped of fear of the assimilation that haunts American Jews. “The paradox is the only place it could work [Israel], it doesn’t exist. We have the right idea in the wrong place [the US].”

Ein Prat, it seems, is attempting to create “American Judaism” in Israel, one cohort at a time.

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