The Real Threat to Judaism's Renewal

We must ask ourselves what our justification is for giving control of religious life in Israel to the insular, dogmatic Chief Rabbinate, whose members lack appreciation for the radical new spirit that created this country.

David Hartman
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
David Hartman

In contrast to the pessimistic predictions about the future of Judaism in the modern and "post-modern" State of Israel, I firmly believe that Israel is the most seminal place for a possible revival and renewal of Judaism - a renewal that can have a profound effect on Jewish life and identity throughout the world. Israel has a unique ability to produce new Jewish human types, whose lives will bear witness to the possibility of living a meaningful Jewish life in the modern world. By so doing, these people will provide a compelling response to the Diaspora concern with "Why be Jewish?" - a question that haunts many Jewish parents outside of Israel. Nonetheless - and perhaps this will seem counter-intuitive to some - the behavior and public pronouncements of the Chief Rabbinate and of the Israeli religious establishment in general constitute a major threat both to Jewish solidarity and to the possibility of a renewal of the Jewish tradition as I understand it.

No matter how far ordinary Israelis appear to drift from Jewish tradition, they nonetheless seem to remain deeply rooted in Judaism. Almost all Jewish Israelis give their sons a brit; the Israeli calendar revolves around the Jewish festivals; the Passover seder is an organizing framework for the majority of Jewish families; and on Yom Kippur the synagogues are filled, with virtually no cars moving on the streets of Jerusalem. None of this is a result of Knesset legislation, but rather of a people's free and autonomous choice not to be alienated from its tradition.

Israelis have a strong sense of their being part of a familial cultural framework, one that existed throughout Jewish history. Israel was created by a bold and revolutionary group of people, who sought to introduce the Jewish nation into the modern world through establishing an independent, secular, Jewish sovereignty; the Zionist pioneers negated the need for messianic redemption as a necessary condition to end Jewish exile. Yet while they rejected much of Jewish tradition, they nevertheless forged a significant connection with that past. Although the establishment of the state and the intended creation of a "new Jew" were predicated on a rejection of tradition, this rejection was ideologically anchored in the Land of Israel - a powerful and evocative reality that has always provided Jews with a link to their collective past.

Pulled to the new, bound to the past

The irony of the Zionist revolution in Jewish history is that the Zionists' break with the past was influenced by, and indebted to, that very same past. This reminds me of the image of the impassioned teenager who casts off the yoke of parental authority by slamming shut the front door without actually leaving his parents' home. It is no wonder that Israeli Jews live in a country where they are both pulled toward the new, and bound to the past. Had our break with the past taken place in Uganda, we would not be a society characterized by two antithetical movements: radical innovation and conservative traditionalism.

The reader by now must be feeling somewhat skeptical about my charitable explanation of the Israeli experience; he or she must be wondering what universe the author actually lives in. Where are the signs of this purported renewal of the Jewish tradition? Where are the effects of the seminal dynamic of past and future? Where are the new Jewish types?

I am fully aware that Judaism in Israel looks more like a regression - a return to a medieval ghetto - than an exciting cultural and spiritual experiment. Instead of integrating the values of autonomy, individualism, freedom of conscience and feminism, the official religious establishment regards them values as a threat to Judaism. They dismissively associate modernity with promiscuity, the breakdown of the family, and the loss of true moral values. In many ways, the rabbinate's worldview and universe of discourse bear similarity to some of the most reactionary religious camps in Christianity and Islam.

A recent example of the dogmatic refusal of the religious establishment to confront modern challenges and values is the way in which the planned conference on agunot (women who cannot remarry halakhically because their husbands are missing or refuse to grant them a divorce) was aborted. Like many other committed Jews, I was initially pleased to hear that the Chief Rabbinate was organizing a conference on the issue of agunot. Although I did not expect the rabbinate to offer a halakhic solution to the problem, I was encouraged by its apparent willingness to acknowledge that the suffering that women were enduring because of men's control over their freedom was a serious problem.

But then, at the last minute, Rabbi Yosef Sholom Elyashiv, the spiritual leader of Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox Jewry, called upon the Sephardic chief rabbi to cancel the event. The latter dutifully capitulated and the conference was canceled. This callous decision to tolerate the unjustified and unnecessary human suffering caused by agunah legislation, rather than expose one's tradition and its authorities to criticism, reflects the profound gap that separates the official religious establishment from a large part of the Jewish people.

Crushing mindset

In light of this cultural and moral disparity, we must ask ourselves what our justification is for giving control of religious life in Israel to such insular, dogmatic people who have no appreciation for the radical new spirit that created this country. The religious establishment is dominated by a mindset that crushes the potential renewal of a moral and spiritual Jewish identity that could effect a global revitalization of Judaism.

The hegemony the Rabbinate exercises in this country alienates some Jews from Judaism, while it encourages others to search for alternate ways of understanding Jewish tradition. Instead of inviting Reform and Conservative rabbis to a discussion, even for the purpose of convincing them that their approaches are mistaken, the ultra- Orthodox establishment has demonized them, blaming them for Jewish alienation and assimilation in the Diaspora. Aside from the ignorance this reveals about the social and cultural conditions of modern, multicultural Western societies, the ease with which the ultra-Orthodox leadership delegitimizes other Jews and approaches to Jewish life reveals how utterly removed its members are from modern history, in general, and modern Jewish history, in particular.

The Law of Return invites Jews from around the world to come to Israel and participate in securing the future of the Jewish people. But I doubt whether Jews can understand, let alone accept, this invitation, if they are told they cannot bring their religious convictions with them. Israeli soldiers have confided in me about the deep pain and humiliation they feel knowing that despite their willingness to give their lives for the security of the State of Israel, religious authorities (and devotees) have no qualms about denying them a dignified burial because their Jewish origins cannot be fully demonstrated.

Similarly, the issue of conversion, if not handled humanely, can create a major upheaval in the State of Israel. There are at least 300,000 Russian immigrants who came to Israel under the Law of Return but whom the Rabbinate does not consider Jewish. This situation demands that the Rabbinate reach out to them in order to facilitate their beginning the process of conversion. Yet, as in the other cases discussed previously, the religious establishment's actions and words indicate that they are more concerned with safeguarding halakhic authority than with welcoming Jews to embark on a spiritual process.

The rebirth of the State of Israel after the tragic horror of the Holocaust represents the aspiration of our people to remain in history. The commitment to Jewish continuity and the willingness to make an ultimate sacrifice for the Jewish State must be given halakhic weight in the conversion process. A religious Jew who understands the meaning of love of God knows that ultimately halakha was meant to serve and inspire Jews in their yearning for God. We must not let it become a barrier to participating in and appreciating the joys of living as a Jew. And we must not let a rigid and limited religious establishment prevent Israel from becoming a witness to the moral and spiritual power of Judaism.

Rabbi David Hartman is director of the Shalom Hartman Institute, Jerusalem.

Click the alert icon to follow topics: