Paganism returns to the Holy Land

Tel Aviv, Israel - Like many other soldiers who took part in the Gaza operation, Omer, 20, occasionally took a few moments to pray, but he did not pray to the Lord of Israel. Omer considers himself pagan, and has sworn allegiance to three ancient gods. During combat, he says they appeared before him, giving him strength during the most arduous moments.

Omer is still in the army, and therefore refused to be interviewed for this story. Yet he did say he belongs to a religion whose goal is to revive worship of ancient gods.

In an online Hebrew-language paganism forum, Omer's accounts of his Gaza experience are standard fare. Another user recalled how he prayed to Anat, the Canaanite god of war, while serving in an elite combat unit.

The two soldiers are part of a tiny community of pagans that has developed in Israel. Influenced by movements in the United States and Europe, followers believe in multiple gods.

"Modern paganism is comprised of a wide variety of religions and faiths, most of which are based on ancient pagan rituals," said Rinat Korbet, a Bar-Ilan University researcher who wrote her thesis on the pagan community in Israel based on its online presence.

"People seek to take the essence of ancient paganism and suit it to our time period. Many of the followers have home altars where they can express their belief in nature and the gods. All the people I interviewed also took part in ceremonies and community rituals, in environments conducive to the spirit of paganism."

Korbet will present her research at the First Israeli Conference for the Study of Contemporary Spiritualities which opens tomorrow at the University of Haifa.

Due to Jewish sensitivity to idol worship, which is perceived as a sin, most Israeli pagans reveal their beliefs only to those who share them. They usually keep religious gatherings, such as the "holiday of equality" (Vernal equinox) on March 21st, secret.

Alon Kobets, 29, a neo-paganist from Rehovot, is one of the few who decided "to come out of the closet."

"Some people live in fear, but I'm past hiding my faith," he said. "Some guys live with religious families. They can't tell their parents, 'I don't believe in Judaism, I'm a pagan.' They'd chop off their heads."

Several years ago, Kobets took an interest in Wicca, a neo-pagan religion founded 50 years ago in England. Wicca calls for worshiping nature and an ancient goddess. Kobets abandoned Wicca upon enlisting in the IDF, but enthusiastically re-embraced it after completing his army service.

Now he runs the Wicca Israel Web site, one of the local pagan community's most widely visited and important sites. He estimates that there are 150 Israeli pagans.

"It finds expression in the rituals, like in all religions, but also in the world view that divinity is here. A person, a cat or a car - all of these things are life on some plain," he said.

"In a country like ours, which naturally has interreligious tension, being a pagan is not easy," Korbet said. "Worshiping other gods is something very sensitive in Judaism. We all were educated [to think] this is intolerable and illogical."

Contradiction to Judaism

Kobets says neo-paganism is a pluralistic religion, and every follower sets his own worship method. Nonetheless, the pagans interviewed for this article agreed their faith runs counter to Judaism, and added that they do not consider themselves Jewish.

"Judaism is a religion, it's something imposed and artificial," said Samuel, who runs a paganism forum on the Web portal Tapuz.

"I don't consider myself a Jew, but I do consider myself Israeli," he said.

Kobets agrees. "There is a problem with Judaism. Judaism contradicts paganism. Judaism has only one god, and if you do not believe in him, you will be driven off with stones."

How does one choose which gods to worship?

"Every individual picks himself a pantheon. There are many options," said Samuel, 31, who works as a jewelry designer.

"Nobody invents new gods," Kobets said. "People read mythology and try to make contact with and talk to some god or goddess."

Because the main sources of neo-paganist religions are England and the U.S., some Israeli worshipers pray to Nordic or Celtic gods. Others seek to revive the worship of ancient Canaanite gods who were fought by biblical prophets.

"As part of the interest in local traditions, there is a focus on Canaanite gods and traditions that existed here," Kobets said. "People are interested in it, but from what I gather I don't believe this is the dominant theme. I've seen more people who believe in Celtic Druidism, Shamanism and Indian religions."

Korbet wrote her thesis in the department of information science at Bar-Ilan University, under the supervision of Dr. Dan Bouchnik. She analyzed Web sites and forums used by pagans, and their philosophy regarding the Internet.

"Ancient paganism took place largely in nature, forests and villages," she said. "Modern paganism can take place in urban settings, and it can be more symbolic. If worship was once done in physical, holy places, now the Internet is being used as a virtual, spiritual venue. Neo-paganist believers have no qualms about using the Internet, though they prefer practicing their rituals in the real world. Advanced religious knowledge is something they would prefer not to divulge on the Web, and usually they will not invite someone to take part in a ritual exclusively online."

Korbet will be one of dozens of lecturers at the spirituality conference. Conference organizer Dr. Marianna Ruah-Midbar said there have been a wealth of studies on New Age topics in recent years.

"Some phenomena were not studied only marginally, if at all, for years, and now they are of central interest to academe," she said. "This conference is the first multi-disciplinary meeting of researchers who specialize in Judaism, law, medicine, sociology, film and more."

Ruah-Midbar believes paganism has a bright future in Israeli culture.

"At the moment paganism is not a large-scale practice here, but I believe it has very big potential," she said. "Pagan religions are the fastest growing religions in the West, and it could succeed here too, because Hebrewism and Zionism could connect to paganism due to the emphasis on land and Hebrew holidays. Paganism is a close, unusual parallel of more common practices, like environmentalism or traveling to the East. In practice, it really is not very different."