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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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Streams of Jewish Life in Israel Today

A profile of Israel’s diverse Jewish community.

To understand the variety of Jewish life in Israel it is necessary to take a historical journey to the end of the 18th century.

Until then Jewish life had been much the same as it had since the evolution of Rabbinic Judaism. The world that Jews experienced, particularly in Europe, was overwhelmingly hostile. European society sought to keep them apart as much as possible. Sometimes this separation was designed for protection.

The challenges that Jews faced were material; preoccupation with making a living and protection from harm. The Jew, however, did not need to protect his sense of identity. Gentile hostility reinforced that identity; the spiritual world of the Jew was generally strong and stable. The Gentile world invariably appeared barbaric and ignorant and held little or no attraction.

With the slow but steady emancipation of European Jewry, Jews began to discover that European society had some very attractive things to offer: science, philosophy, art and music. But the modern world’s opportunities were its dangers as well.

To these opportunities were two diametrically opposed responses within the Jewish community. There were those who saw society as attractive; they sought to run away from their Jewish identity – their faith, tradition and community – and assimilate into the non-Jewish world (assimilationists).

The other extreme perceived these attractions as insidious. They feared that future generations would be seduced from their heritage and values, bringing about Judaism’s demise. They withdrew even further into their ghetto and insisted on no value in any culture beyond the spiritual and intellectual life of the Jewish tradition. This group reacted against any change and froze itself in mind and manner of dress. This is why these ultra-Orthodox (in Hebrew haredi – sometimes called hasidic, though only a segment of ultra-Orthodoxy comes from the charismatic pietistic Hasidic movement) wear 18th century eastern European dress suited for cold climates, even in a humid New York summer or in the blazing Middle East sun.

As the process of emancipation and enlightenment progressed, most Jews rejected both of these extremes. They sought to find a balance between maintaining their identity and becoming a part of the modern world.

This desire produced different forms of modern Judaism. Even though there are doctrinal and practical differences, the different streams of contemporary Judaism, from modern-Orthodoxy through the most radical forms of Reform Judaism, all strive for a balance between Tradition and Modernity.

There was another response to the challenge of Modernity, one that became more compelling as Jews discovered that anti-Semitism was an entrenched disease even in modern European society. This response was rooted in the traditional bond between the Jewish people and the land of Israel.

This movement of political Zionism, which was founded on 18th century rationalism and inspired by 19th century nationalism, declared that if Jews wanted to be both Jewish and modern, then to do so with integrity was through the creation of a modern Jewish national state. The future of the Jewish people, it insisted, lay in creating a renewed Jewish national context and a new kind of Jew!

This modern Zionism had a strong secular character. Many religiously observant Jews would say that in rejecting the “old Jewish context” and the “old kind of Jew” secular Zionism threw out much of the healthy baby with the dirty bath water.

Zionism was rejected by the two extreme elements. Assimilationists saw it as a regressive tribalism that might raise the challenge of dual loyalties. Ultra-Orthodoxy bitterly opposed Zionism because of its secular character; it questioned whether Jewish independence should be set up by anyone other than the Messiah. Either way, to do so would only be legitimate if its purpose were to establish a theocracy. Modern Zionism had no such intention. For ultra-Orthodoxy then, Zionism internally threatened Judaism.

Ultra-Orthodoxy reserved its greatest wrath for those known as Religious Zionists. If Zionism was strictly non-kosher, Religious Zionism was like putting a stamp of kosher approval on a joint of pork.

Religious Zionism claimed that the attitude of ultra-Orthodoxy was blind to the idea of the Divine Presence in history. Zionism was bringing about the fulfillment of the Prophetic vision; the daily prayers of Jews for two thousand years.

What greater testimony of divine love and steadfastness could there be – to ignore it was religiously perverse.

After World War II and the Holocaust, the ultra-Orthodox developed a more pragmatic approach toward Zionism – they saw the establishment of the State of Israel as an undesirable necessity and as not having any religious significance.

This is not to say that the land of Israel was unimportant. Today their reservations are towards the state, which is democratic and not theocratic, and is one in which those who “desecrate the Sabbath,” according to Orthodox criteria, constitute the overwhelming majority.

Nevertheless, the ultra-Orthodox see themselves as affirming the divinely mandated bond between the people and the land, in much the same way that individuals and communities had lived in ancient Israel, even after the exile.

Many different elements emerged out of the European Jewish crucible. Those who sought to live in the historic land of Israel prior to the establishment of the state were either Zionist – secular or religious – or the non-Zionist ultra-Orthodox.

The other elements that sought to remain Jewish and modern – notably the Reform and Conservative movements – predominated in the Western diaspora. They were virtually nonexistent in the new State of Israel. While Israel was established by European Zionists, within a decade they were a minority; hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees from Islamic lands fled to the new state.

These Jews had hardly been exposed to Modernity, let alone to the ideological battles that had produced assimilationists, reactionary ultra-Orthodox or new streams of modern Judaism. One might say they were less fragmented.

Jews from Islamic lands were overwhelmingly traditional, but there was little of the extremes that characterized their European coreligionists. For them the return to Zion was a natural expression of their religious and historical identity. It was an event they had anticipated in the liturgy and the hope that pervaded Jewish spirituality.

It is touching to read accounts of Jews in Yemen in the 50s, who for the first time saw airplanes landing amongst Yemen’s treacherous terrain to take them back to Zion; how they marched with their few belongings, their Torah scrolls adorned with beautiful casings, into what they believed must be the inside of giant eagles – “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Myself” (Exodus 19:4).

For such Jews the encounter with the modern state was often traumatic. It frequently led to the breakdown of traditional authority and mores. Jews from Arab lands were generally on a lower educational and socioeconomic level than their European kinsmen and were less equipped to handle the difficulties encountered. These circumstances have made many of them a natural target for ultra-Orthodox religious revivalist movements. However the healthy traditionalism of Jews from Islamic lands predominates. Some call themselves “secular,” though this term is used more widely by those of European origin.

“Secular” is a misleading term in the Israeli context. It never implies an identity devoid of Jewish affirmation. Jews from Islamic lands use it to mean “not fully Orthodox in practice” or “lapsed Orthodox in practice.” Jews from Europe who use the term “secular” may have a more hostile attitude toward institutional religion; although their lives are still replete with Jewish content rooted in a religious tradition.

Their lives continue to revolve around the Jewish calendar. Their day of rest is the Sabbath, their holidays are the festivals – Passover, Pentecost, New Year, Day of Atonement, Tabernacles, Hanukkah, Purim. They generally study and know their Bible quite well and they express through their very lives a commitment to a transcendent destiny.

While hostility toward institutional religion originates in the ideological fragmentation of European Jewry, most of it lies with the politicization of religion in Israeli life and a feeling that these interests as well as those of the religious establishment threaten to curb civil freedoms.

The State of Israel affords religion exclusive control over matters of personal status, marriage and divorce. This practice goes back to the Turkish millet system –semiautonomous religious and cultural groupings. The religious authorities in these recognized communities were afforded sole jurisdiction over matters of personal status of their members. For Muslims the sole authority on such matters was the waqf, the Muslim religious trust and its courts; for Jews it was the recognized chief rabbinate; and several officially recognized Christian denominations – Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, Copt and Catholic – were authorized by Ottoman rule as having such jurisdiction over their faithful. No possibility existed for interreligious or civil marriage.

Despite the fact that most of Israel’s “founding fathers” described themselves as “secular,” they continued the millet tradition. This system provided a framework for religious pluralism in keeping with Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which guarantees freedom of religion as well as full franchise and equality before the law for all its citizens regardless of race, creed or sex.

While Israeli Christians and Muslims are generally more than happy to have matters of personal status, marriage and divorce placed in the hands of their respective religious authorities, not all Jews are delighted. There are those who do not want a religious ceremony at all. Even among those who do, not all want an Orthodox ceremony conducted by an Orthodox rabbi.

There were no established religious communities in Israel of any size to speak of that were not Orthodox when Israel was created. Even though Reform and Conservative congregations have increased with the numbers of Western Jewish immigrants, they are still few and have no official status.

This is another paradox of modern life in the Jewish State: Israel officially facilitates religious pluralism but not Jewish pluralism.

Although many secular Israelis fear the specter of “religious coercion” through political means, there is no such “danger” of theocratic rule in Israel. Ultra-Orthodoxy constitutes less than 10 percent of the population, and even those who identify themselves as Orthodox Religious Zionists constitute less than a quarter of the population. Some of these vote for general political parties and most oppose religious coercion.

It is primarily the entry of their ultra-Orthodox political representatives into key governmental positions that has aroused these fears.

When ultra-Orthodoxy kept its distance from the state, the rest of Israeli society felt more comfortable. As it has become increasingly dependent on state support, ultra-Orthodoxy has increasingly involved itself in Israel’s sociopolitical life and flexed its muscles.

The fact that there are two major political parties in Israel today, neither of which is large enough to rule alone, means that small minority parties have a disproportionate influence as coalition partners. This does not pose any serious threat to democratic freedoms and civil liberties in Israel.

Interestingly, ultra-Orthodoxy’s political pragmatism extends to foreign policy and often leads it to far more moderate positions than those of the political parties that represent Religious Zionism.

Because the latter sees religious meaning so powerfully in history and in the modern world, it also sees Israel in a messianic light. If the return of the people to the land is of religious meaning, then so is the return of the land to the people. To give it up would be to throw God’s gift and promise back in his face.

It is out of this Religious Zionist camp that the religious-nationalist settler movement of Gush Emunim emerged. This movement sees in its settlement of the West Bank a religious obligation and achievement. Its activities are supported by many in Israeli society for different security and political reasons.

However not all Religious Zionists identify with this position. Indeed, the religious peace movements, Oz veShalom and Netivot Shalom, similarly draw their inspiration from Religious Zionist sources, but insist that the settlement policy is incompatible with Jewish moral imperatives and actively threatens both the political and ethical future of the state.

Inevitably religion in Israel is caught up in internal and external politics, and this impinges upon contemporary forms of Jewish expression. This diversity of Jewish life, coupled with the state’s unwillingness to support Jewish plurality, reflects the tension between Tradition and Modernity, secular statehood and religious identity.

Jews in modern Israel are by no means a monolithic group. They are global in origin, often a millennium apart, each with a unique perception of identity. This diversity complicates the ongoing struggle between Tradition and Modernity.

Rabbi David Rosen is the director of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith in Jerusalem.

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