An Atheist in the Yeshiva: The education of Yossi Zvi Gurvitz

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It’s Yom Kippur, and I guess I have to explain why a former yeshiva boy will soon prepare his usual Friday dinner and may, if laziness permits, take out his camera into the streets and attempt to capture the ferocious burst of freedom which can be experienced only in Israel on this day: the roads all devoid of cars and given, for one day, to bicycles and hikers.

I’ve been born to a national-religious family in Petah Tikva, a sleepy town of exceptional ugliness, and was raised there during the period when the town stopped pretending to be a moshava (a small, collective township) and took on the inflated pretensions of being a city. I did the usual course for children of my migzar (class, section): an elementary school only for religious-national children, segregated by sex since the third grade. Then, when my peers of the secular schools would simply go to middle high school and then high school, I was sent, at age 12, to a yeshiva middle high school in Nechalim, a nearby village.

Looking back, it is almost incomprehensible to me that I didn’t notice how much ideology was pumped into us even at that stage. We learned long hours, longer than our secular peers, and about a third of them was dedicated to what was purely ideology. At the age of 14, this was ratcheted up to 11 when I started yeshiva high school, which was also a boarding school.

How bad was it? Bad enough that I saw going into the army as a sort of liberation. We spent up to three weeks in there without going home. We lived a strictly regimented life:

  • Wakeup at 06:15
  • Morning prayer 07:10 to 08:10
  • Breakfast and cleanup until 08:45
  • Four and a half hours of talmud study (broken up with three breaks of 10 minutes)
  • Lunch at 13:15
  • 30 minute break
  • Secular studies at 14:15. Secular studies also included bible study and mahshevet yisrael (a diluted, stunted, and apologetic form of Jewish studies). This lasted until 18:15.
  • Then we had dinner
  • At 19:10 seder erev: learning, in teams of two, the talmudic lesson of the next day. This lasted until 20:10, then we prayed the evening prayers and had some time for ourselves.
  • Lights-out was at 22:00 or 23:00, depending on age.

Saturdays were pretty much the same, though with much fewer classes.

Looking back, it’s pretty obvious the system – which was very common in the national-religious sector – was meant to make certain no one was ever hardly alone. Privacy was not part of the program. There was always someone with you. Rebels were quickly weeded out and expelled. My parents made it clear rebellion was not an option.

The system did not fit me. It did not fit many: about a third of the graduates, as a rule, left the religious life. This was never discussed. We were raised up to be elite which will take the country by storm and put the religious-nationals as leaders of society, a position the migzar desperately sought. I was a graduate of the first mass media class in Nechalim: the point of the class was to make certain some national-religious people would make it into media outlets, which were then seen as controlled by the “left.”

I’m the only one in my class who’s still in the profession. I guess it didn’t work out quite as planned.

Me and the system had our minor clashes early. In 1984, a cinema in Petah Tikva – Heichal Cinema – began operating on Friday night. That caused a collision with the religious status quo in Petah Tikva, but the town now had a large secular population who wanted something to do on Friday nights. The ultra-religious began holding demonstrations outside Heichal, seculars began their own counter-demonstrations, and then the yeshiva decided all the students would march on Friday nights to Petah Tikva – a few kilometers away – and participate in the demonstrations.

For the life of me, I couldn’t see why. What business was it of mine, what some other person did on Friday night? He wasn’t forcing me to see a movie. Why should I force him to not watch one? So I decided to stay behind. This had two side effects: one, I discovered I had a few hours to myself while my class marched to Petah Tikva in the hope of gaining some street cred by being beaten up by a cop; and second, people started treating me as a sort of dissident. And, to quote the Dixie Chicks, I kinda liked it.

On October 28th, 1984, I had my first crisis of faith. That evening, David Ben Shimol – an IDF soldier – fired a stolen LAW anti-tank rocket into a Palestinian bus as vengeance for an earlier Palestinian terror attack. He killed Jamal al Matour and wounded 10 more Palestinians. As I mentioned earlier, every evening we had a seder erev, which began punctually and without fail at 19:10. That evening, for the first and only time I was in Nechalim, it was postponed.

So that people could have time enough to dance.

I stood aside, trying not to comprehend what I was seeing. My seder companion – dear, dear Asher, who’s now in New York and openly gay – asked me later what was wrong. I told him that several months earlier my grandfather confided in me for the first (and only) time how the Nazis murdered his parents. He was in tears as he related how the SS men were so in awe of his mother that they didn’t dare to shoot her facing her: they told her she could go and then fired at her back. Today, I wonder how much of that story was true; at the time I was shocked by it. And I told Asher seeing people dancing in joy at the murder of an innocent man was inconceivable to me. On what were we on?

I wasn’t alone in feeling this. My rabbi, Menashe R., came from an ultra-Orthodox yeshiva. One Saturday night, they brought some settler preacher, who spoke about din rodef – the right to kill a person if he puts you in mortal danger – and said that Palestinians who attack Israelis should, therefore, be killed on the spot. Extremely unusually, Rabbi Menashe summoned up the class after the sermon – we didn’t have classes on Friday night – and told us sternly everything we heard was bullshit. He began speaking softly and coldly, and quickly heated up into shouting: din rodef, he said, permits you to kill someone who puts you at risk – but only for as long as he does so. As soon as he puts his weapon down, or even begins escaping, he is no longer a rodef (the literal meaning of the word is “pursuer”); you are no longer permitted to harm him, since immediate danger has passed. What we’ve heard that night, he ended shouting at our uncomprehending faces, was an incitement to murder.

Dissent didn’t make you popular at school. I always had a stubborn, some would say ornery, streak in me (possibly an inheritance from my grandfather, who once had to be flown from New York under police escort after he insisted the Satmer slaughter house was not kosher – he wrote a book on some obscure part of the schita ritual and was considered an expert on this particular aspect). I have also had a passion for history.

Thus I came upon a thorny issue. I read Josehphus Flavius’s history of the Jewish rebellion in 66 AD. There’s a pivotal scene where Josephus, turning himself over to the Roman general Vespasian after losing a major battle in Galilee, tells the skeptical pagan that as Jewish priest, he can prophecy that Vespasian would become an emperor, which he soon enough did (and we have reason to suspect he used Josephus’s ‘prophecy’ as a propaganda device).

All fair and good; but then we began studying Gittin, an unusually stupefying book of the Talmud dealing with the precise way of divorcing a wife. Smack in the middle of it, we found four pages of Talmudic legends dealing with destruction of the Jewish Temple. The main story dealt with Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai escaping from the besieged Jerusalem, getting to the tent of General Vespasian, and prophesying he would become emperor.

Stop the presses!

We have two different stories, from two different sources, detailing the same scene. There simply can’t have been two Jewish priests or holy men promising Vespasian the purple. One (Josephus’s) was written in the first century, the other in either the third to fifth century. And then, there was the inconvenient fact that Vespasian never besieged Jerusalem, while he did defeat Josephus in Galilee. Somewhat naively, I took the issue up with Rabbi Menashe – an open and caring man, who borrowed one of my books on Greek warfare and was fascinated by it – and witnessed a collapse of reason. Rabbi Menashe would debate anything, but he had his limits. You couldn’t imply the Talmud was not inspired by the Holy Spirit.

So I was already having my doubts when 1986 rolled in. A good friend, Eyal, was sent to a high yeshiva – we all were – and he came back transformed. Apparently the yeshiva he was sent to was run by some firebrand preachers, who put the fears of hell into him good and well. He started holding midnight rituals and prayers, which – as he, Asher and I were roommates – was highly disruptive. Remember, we went to sleep at 23:00 and had to wake up at 06:15. And he would get back and tell us in minute detail what sort of tortures we would go in the afterlife. Which, aside from being disruptive, was annoying as hell.

I am, as mentioned, ornery. He was quoting at me cabbalistic texts I was not familiar with, and I had no intention to waste my precious reading time on what I even then considered to be spiritual garbage, so I had to shift my line of attack. Hold on, before you speak to me about hell and its torture, kindly prove to me It exists. I can’t seem to find it in my Bible.

I was reading a lot of humanistic and philosophic books that year, and it showed. By this time, we had another rabbi, not nearly as tolerant as Rabbi Menashe. Suddenly I was spied on and reported on. He tried to send me to a yeshiva in Jerusalem, Machon Meir, but that backfired badly. I was suddenly under no supervision. I showed up for morning prayer and evening prayer, and spent the rest of the day roaming Jerusalem, attending the Demjanjuk trial and visiting churches. Participated in a mass in The Dormition Church with the monks (I was high on Name of the Rose at the time), and spent Sundays with the Anglicans of Christ Church, near the Jaffa Gate. I read the New Testament and kept a copy. While I never took it too seriously – once you’ve seen through the Talmud, seeing through the New Testament was child’s play – it was a window into a forbidden world.

So, after two wonderful weeks in Jerusalem, I came back and was immediately summoned by the rabbi. We know where you were on Sundays, he said sternly, don’t do it again. I think if anything could have made me a Christian, that was it (ornery!). I snuck back to Jerusalem on a Tuesday, met in secret with the Anglicans, and they prayed for me.

Apparently no one was listening, because I was sent within weeks to another high yeshiva. I remember almost nothing of the two weeks there; just that it was in some settlement (can’t remember which, but it was hilly and cold). I do know I came back converted, spewing some Orthodox garbage. Asher listened to me raving for a few hours, and the next day told me to sneak with him from a lesson. We went to our room, and he slapped me. “Snap out of it,” he said. “That’s not you! I don’t know what they did to you, but it’s not you. Snap out of it.”

I did. And I still don’t know what happened there. (Asher, if you’re reading this, thanks). I was much more wary, though.

This was the time Kahane was a Knesset member, and he was wildly popular in the yeshiva. They used to sing instead of “yibaneh ha’mikdash”, “may the Temple be built”, “yitpo-yitpo-yitpotzetz ha’misgad” – “May the Mosque be Blown Up.” So I read Kahane’s book, and looked up the footnotes. Everything he said, every racist and genocidal utterance, was backed up by the Talmud and Halachia ruling. I learned a lot from that book, and it made it clear to me first, that there is a deep genocidal side to Orthodox Judaism, and secondly that I couldn’t be part to it.

And then came Shavuot, 1987. Plutarch’s classic Lives was recently translated into Hebrew. For unknown reasons, they broke the original format – which matched a Greek notable’s life with that of a Roman counterpart – and published it in two books: the first one dealt with the Romans, and the second the Greeks. I read the Roman part a year before, and while it greatly expanded my historic horizons, it wasn’t earth-shattering – it was covering stuff that was in the basic history books.

The Greek book was different. The edition began with the biography of the Spartan lawgiver Lycurgus, a likely mythic figure. And it detailed Spartan life. Now the earth did move. That was a window into another, totally alien, captivating, dangerous world. That was Shavuot Night: We were supposed to stay in the Beit Midrash and study Talmud all night. I snuck to my room every fifteen minutes, to gobble up a few more paragraphs of Plutarch, and then went back. Asher covered for me. And by the time the holiday was over, I shed what remained of my Jewish belief.

Compared to that, Christianity was a mere shadow. This was paganism at its brightest, most splendid side; the most alien values to those of the Judeo-Christian world; and I would have one day to be cured of my Spartan obsession. But when it comes to that hoary clash, the one we celebrate on Hanukkah, between Judaism and Hellenic culture, I am firmly in the Grecian camp. And years later, when I began to write, I titled my first essay, “I’m a Proud Hellenic.”

My Judaism was extinguished. What about Zionism? That will take another post, I’m afraid.

An earlier version of this story appeared in +972 in 2010. 

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“I learned a lot from that book, and it made it clear to me first, that there is a deep genocidal side to Orthodox Judaism, and secondly that I couldn’t be part to it”

I don’t like those odds either.

YOSSI GURVITZ- “Everything he said, every racist and genocidal utterance, was backed up by the Talmud and Halachia ruling. I learned a lot from that book, and it made it clear to me first, that there is a deep genocidal side to Orthodox Judaism….” It is my understanding that Orthodox Judaism is the modern version of what Israel Shahak calls Classical Judaism. And that this Judaism is the religion of Diaspora Jews in pre-modern (medieval?)… Read more »

Hello Yossi,
My uncle, though younger than me, attended Nechalim in the early 70’s. You translate Yeshiva gedola, as a high yeshiva, I assume. I would translate it as a “post high school yeshiva”.
i find the phenomenon of the modern orthodoxy and their embrace of settler nationalism to be interesting, in comparison to the ultra orthodox who have reacted to modernity with a type of rejection that does not appeal to the modern orthodox.

@Yossi Compared to that, Christianity was a mere shadow. This was paganism at its brightest, most splendid side; the most alien values to those of the Judeo-Christian world; and I would have one day to be cured of my Spartan obsession. But when it comes to that hoary clash, the one we celebrate on Hanukkah, between Judaism and Hellenic culture, I am firmly in the Grecian camp. And years later, when I began to write,… Read more »

A brocheh tzu Columbus!!!