One weekend a month, I go to Jerusalem for the Reconstructionist Shabbat morning service. One Friday afternoon a month, I race to leave Tel Aviv in time to catch a bus to Jerusalem before Shabbat. Looking for a quick lunch a few Fridays ago, I went to a small hole in the wall sandwich place. The owner was putting on tefillin (Jewish ritual item) and signaled to me that he would be with me in a minute. The traveling Orthodox man who provided the opportunity to don tefillin stood in the doorway with a popsicle in one hand and his cell phone in the other. At the sandwich bar was a tall man with a large scar on the back of his shaved head and a motorcycle helmet in hand.
The secular tall man asked the black hatted man, “Why can’t I turn on a light during Shabbat?” The Orthodox man replied, “Because that’s the law!” “Why is that the law?” “Because it says in Torah that you can’t do work on Shabbat.” “But turning on a light isn’t work.” “It is according to the Rabbis.” “But it isn’t according to me!” Then the Orthodox man said, “Who knows better, you or the Rabbis?” The tall man with the leather jacket and the giant scar on his head said, “I know what’s better for me, and they know what’s better for them. Why do you all tell me what I should do?” The Orthodox man asked him if he believed in God. The biker replied that it didn’t matter. The Orthodox man asked him again, and again, and again. The biker kept saying, maybe yes, maybe no, it didn’t matter. The Orthodox man asked him if God wrote the Torah. The biker said it didn’t matter. The Orthodox man threw up his hands in disgust and left.
Many Israelis in Tel Aviv that I have met are very interested in ‘non-Orthodox’ Judaism, so I alerted the paradoxical man to the existence of Bina, the secular yeshiva that I attend, and Alma, another secular yeshiva in Tel Aviv. He smiled and told me about the Kaballah center a few blocks away. I told him I would stop by soon.
Israel is a land of paradoxes, truths that directly contradict each other. The dati, the orthodox, claim God gave the Torah at Mount Sinai and all of life’s instructions are there to be interpreted. The hiloni, the secular, claim a different truth about how to live one’s life derived more from modern reason. Jerusalem is a strict conservative city and Tel Aviv is an open liberal polis. The Israeli truth is that Israel is the Jewish homeland for all Jews for all time. The Palestinian truth is that Palestine is the homeland for all Palestinians. Maimonides claims that we have free will, or else it would be cruel to punish someone for their crimes. Spinoza claims that we have no free will, all behavior is caused by past experiences. Rabbi Akiva claims that we have free will and everything is determined. Israel, and Judaism, is about living within the debates, swinging between truths within the grand paradox.
When I ordered at the sandwich shop, I had no idea what I ordered. This is a regular personal practice when there is no fear of pork or shellfish. What I got was a mallawakh wrap. Mallawakh is a light buttery pastry that is flaky and golden on the outside and doughy in the middle. On the inside was a hardboiled egg, salsa, kharif (spicy paste), and thin sliced pickles. It was a paradox of a sandwich and it was delicious.