Thoughts on Jewish Culture
Democracy is associated with humanism, and humanism is associated with pluralism – i.e. the recognition of the equal right of all men to differ from one another. The differences between people are not a curse, but a blessing. We are different not because some of us have not yet seen the light, but because there are in fact many different lights in the world. Saadia Gaon’s famous work is rightly titled Beliefs and Opinions, not Belief and Opinion.
Jews Argue with God
There is no Jewish pope, but were one to be elected, we would all slap him on the back and say something like: “You don’t know me from Adam, but your grandfather and my uncle once did business together in Zhitomir, or in Marakesh, so give me a couple of minutes, and I’ll explain to you once and for all what God really wants from us.”
Throughout Jewish history, there have been pretenders to the throne, some of whom may even have had a considerable following, but as a rule, the Jewish People does not like to be told what to do. Ask Moses. Ask the prophets. God himself complains constantly about how undisciplined and quarrelsome the Israelites are. They argue with Moses, Moses argues with God and even submits his resignation, which he eventually withdraws –but only after he has negotiated with and had his demands met by God (Ex 32). Abraham bargains with God, like a used car salesman, over the fate of Sodom – fifty righteous men, forty, thirty – and even reproaches the Master of the Universe, with his poignant “shall not the Judge of all the earth do justly?” (Gen 18:25). Nowhere does the Bible tell us that he was struck by lightning for his blasphemy. The people quarrelled with the prophets, the prophets quarrelled with God, the kings quarrelled with the people and with the prophets, Job cursed the heavens. The heavens refused to acknowledge that they had sinned against Job, although they did award him compensation, and in recent generations, there have been hassidic rabbis who have summoned God to appear before a rabbinical court.
Jewish culture is anarchistic at heart. We don’t like discipline, and we don’t simply obey orders. What we want is justice. A simple shepherd can become king of Israel or compose the Psalms, if he is moved by the holy spirit. A dresser of sycamore trees can become a prophet. A shepherd of the flocks of Kalba Savua, or a shoemaker, or a blacksmith, can teach and explain the Torah, leaving a lasting mark on the daily life of each and every Jew. Yet the challenge “who made you a ruler and a judge over us” or “how do we know that you are the one” is never, or almost never, far away. You may be a great scholar, but there is someone of equal stature just around the corner, who does not share your opinion, and often “both opinions are the word of the living God”.
Questions of authority have generally been resolved by means of a partial consensus, never unanimously. The history of Jewish culture throughout the ages has been a succession of bitter and often tempestuous disputes, some of which have, nonetheless, been very fruitful. In the absence of an authoritative mechanism for the resolution of such disputes, the opinion of one rabbi was given greater weight than that of another, simply because the former was considered the greater scholar.
Jewish culture at its best is a culture of give and take, of negotiation and thorough examination of all aspects of a given issue, of keen persuasion and arguments for the sake of heaven, but also of strong passions merely masquerading as arguments for the sake of heaven. This spiritual foundation is quite compatible with polyphonic democracy – a choir of different voices, coordinated by a system of authoritative rules. Lights, not the light. Beliefs and opinions, not belief and opinion.
Jewish culture has always had “enclaves” of blind submission to authority. These are, in my opinion, a departure from tradition, even when they purport to be the very embodiment of tradition. Whatever differences there may be between the leader of “Lithuanian” ultra-orthodoxy, the messiah of Lubavitch, and the saint from Netivot, all three figures impose an atmosphere of papal authority, and their followers have but to obey. Blind obedience cannot possibly be moral. The meaning of “we shall act and we shall hear” (Ex 24:7) is that we shall act on condition that we have heard and understood.
For thousands of years, there has not been a single event that all Jews have recognised as a miracle. There are always critics, doubters and heretics. Almost every authority must contend with a counter-authority. Only a select few have enjoyed the recognition of an entire generation. The “source of authority” in Jewish culture has always been the will of the people – or a part of the people – to accept the authority of a given teacher, halakhic expert, saint, miracle-worker, or spiritual leader. Even Maimonides - “The Great Eagle” – gained preeminence by popular acclaim, not by the offices of a handful of cardinals.
Jewish hierarchy is voluntary. In this sense, Jewish culture is profoundly democratic – something worth remembering at a time when certain rabbis, not satisfied with the real tension between the authority of Halakhah and that of elected government, have portrayed the democratic spirit as antithetic to Judaism, or the Jewish spirit as antithetic to democracy.
Here I will cite a definition of democracy that I learned from my daughter Fania - Dr. Fania Oz-Salzberger of Haifa University: “Liberal democracy is a form of social or political organisation designed to establish a fair balance between the desires of all members of a society, while safeguarding their freedom. This mediation between individual desires is effected by means of voting and majority decision.” To this I would add: while safeguarding the rights of all minorities, through compromise. Dr Oz-Salzberger also points out the perennial debate between democrats: “Is political freedom primarily negative – live and let die; or positive – live right, in order to be truly free?” My daughter also taught me that the greatest exponents of democracy in the early Modern Era were, for the most part, religious extremists: the Huguenots in France, and the “Levellers” in Britain, who fought against attempts by the authorities to force them to adhere to the religion of the majority.
A Spiritual and Emotional Bunker
The world of Halakhah, like the universe itself, begins with the “big bang”: the Sinaitic revelation. From that day until the present - or the recent past, to be more precise - Jewish culture has been a series of expanding ripples, of commentary upon commentary. The further removed from Sinai, the smaller the scope for interpretation. The void is gradually filled, with each generation adding something, and none permitted to subtract or disregard the contributions of its predecessors. The house fills with furniture, the furniture fills with objects, nothing goes out and little comes in – for lack of space. While there is still room in the world of Halakhah for erudition, assiduousness, perspicacity and enthusiasm, the latitude for creativity has gradually been blocked.
The perception of halakhic “self worth” is also reduced, for “if the ancients were as human beings, we are as asses”, that is, the further removed from Sinai, the more conservative and the less creative halakhic Judaism becomes. The highest to which it may aspire is the standing of “Jephtah in his generation, as Samuel in his generation”. Later generations may certainly not change the decisions of earlier generations. Indeed different halakhic clocks have displayed different times in Spain, the Rhinelands, Eastern Europe and Salonika, Yemen and Baghdad – but all have wrapped the Sinaitic revelation in layer upon layer of interpretation. Hence the feeling of suffocation. Up to a point, the Judaism of strict adherence to the Shulhan Arukh – the Code of Jewish Law - held out against the pressures and temptations of the world at large. Such resistance was the product not only of Jewish piety, but of the fact that life in the Jewish enclaves resembled that of their neighbours of other faiths. As long as halakhic Judaism resided among Muslims or Christians whose lives also revolved around a clearly religious identity, it was possible to maintain a tense equilibrium. Where non-Jewish societies were more open and liberal, as in Muslim Spain, Jews too lived by looser and more flexible halakhic constraints, and the scope for creativity was more extensive.
With the proliferation of secularism in Europe, as non-Jewish religious identity was supplanted by national or international secular identities, life within the confines of Halakhah became increasingly oppressive, and the attractions of the outside world ever more compelling. This was, in part, due the fact that both individual and group identity are referential to the Other. When the Other changes – one’s own identity is necessarily shaken as well. Of course, millions of “good, God-fearing” Jews remained steadfast in their faith – although powerful tremors often swept through halakhic Judaism itself: Sabbateanism, Hassidism, indirect external influences. Very many Jews however, found that they were no longer satisfied with life according to Halakhah. Some politicised their Judaism and some sought religious reform, while others merely sought a way out. Halakhic Judaism panicked, banning and excommunicating, fortifying and defending, as if it had decided to wait out the storm in an emotional-spiritual bunker – one in which it has, for the most part, remained to this day.
Halakhic Judaism viewed nationalism, emancipation, integration, cosmopolitanism and modernity – doors that, by the nineteenth century, had begun to open before Jews – as passing aberrations. Moreover, not only did halakhic Judaism refuse to inquire into the new realities, but it refused to recognise even that they were new, insisting that what appeared to be new, was merely a rehash of age-old temptations. This was not the first time that “Shulhan Arukh” Judaism had refused to recognise change – both internal and external; as if the dictum “the Torah forbids innovation” applied not only to Jews, but to the world at large. Even the murder of millions of Jews by the Nazis was perceived by the fossilised part of halakhic Judaism in terms of worn and pathetic clichés (pathetic in relation to the magnitude of the atrocity): “Pharaoh”, “Haman”, “Amalek” – as if the Nazis were merely another desert tribe that had “smote the hindmost of thee, all that were enfeebled in thy rear”, or as if the genocide of the Jewish People were simply one more link in the familiar chain of “tzures”, another pogrom, another martyrdom, another “trial” we must endure “due to our sins”, which can be rectified through “repentance”. That is how they avoided any serious theological treatment of the murder of a third of our people.
Similarly, non-Zionist halakhic Judaism has failed to address the renewal of Jewish independence in the Land of Israel and the rebuilding of Jerusalem– not by angelic or messianic means, but at the hands of a secular political movement, influenced by the national movements of other peoples. Both the victims of the Nazis and the casualties of the Israeli-Arab conflict are perceived, by force of semantic habit, as martyrs, who gave their lives “to sanctify God’s name” – and therefore, “God will avenge their blood”. But the Jews murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators did not give their lives “to sanctify God’s name”. Millions of them did not even believe in the sanctification of God’s name, and hundreds of thousands of them – born to non-Jewish mothers – were not even Jews, by halakhic standards. To call these murdered Jews “martyrs” or “sanctifiers of God’s name” is a gross violation of their memory, identity and self-perception. Nor did those killed on Israel’s battlefields lay down their lives to sanctify God’s name, but to defend their lives and those of their people. Many hundreds of those killed in Israel’s wars were not Jewish, but Muslim, Christian, Druse, Bedouin, Circasian, and members of other peoples who had volunteered for service and absolutely did not give their lives “for the sanctification of God’s name”.
On the whole, Halakhic Judaism was unable to present a religious approach to the Nazi phenomenon, or to that of the Zionists. It was in fact modern Hebrew literature that developed profoundly religious approaches to the genocide of the Jews and to the founding of the Jewish state. A number of writers and poets took upon themselves the task that the halakhists had avoided. One might almost speak of a separation of religion – not from the state, but from the religious. The shocking fact is that theology has not disappeared; it has simply shifted from the religiously observant to the most creative force Jewish culture has witnessed in recent generations: modern Hebrew literature, prose, poetry and scholarship. These have refused to let God off the hook, tugging at his sleeve, showing a modicum of understanding, or taking him to court. Authors who have, for the most part, considered themselves secular, have dealt incessantly with theological perplexities. A broad range of authors – from Biliak, Berdyczewski and Agnon, through Uri Zvi Greenberg, to Yizhar, Dan Pagis, Amihai and others – have written, in some way or another, of “God’s withdrawal from the affairs of the world” (hester panim). It would appear to be the case that most of the dynamic and creative discoveries of the past century have taken place beyond the realm of Halakhah, albeit in dialectic or iconoclastic relation to it. Iconoclasm is also a kind of relationship however, often more intimate than the relationship of the museum curator who polishes a locked display case. Heresy too is a part of Jewish culture, as are disbelief and blasphemy. All of these approaches are eminently religious.
Judaism and the State
What is Jewish culture? All that the Jewish People possesses, all that it has amassed over the years – both native-born and adopted, practised an obsolete, universally accepted and sectarian, contemporary and outmoded written and oral, in Hebrew and in other languages. There may also be some shared patterns of behaviour, associated with a common memory - certain kind of restlessness or sharpness, a tendency to criticise others, but also a sense of self-irony, as well as self-pity and self-righteousness, fanciful pragmatism, sceptical enthusiasm, melancholy joyousness, suspicion of authority and objection to injustice. Naturally, these traits are not necessarily present in each and every individual, nor is their future presence in any way assured. There are sensibilities that are readily recognisable, but difficult to define. A number of these sensibilities are gradually disappearing.
In Israel, there is a bitter conflict between “Shulhan Arukh” Jews of all persuasions, and those who do not adhere to Halakhah. Attitude toward the state – which is the most blatant and immediate aspect of the conflict – is by no means the main issue.
Ironically, on the subject of the state, the two extremes of halakhic Judaism converge. Both the anti-Zionist haredim (ultra-Orthodox) and the messianic post-Zionists are ill at ease with the State of Israel as it stands, its elected government and the watchful eye of its supreme court. The haredim are unable to accept the Knesset and the supreme court as substitutes for the ancient Sanhedrin, yet they are not prepared to afford the Israeli state the halakhic status of the “law of the land”. The messianics, on the other hand, view the State of Israel as a means to an entirely different end, a Lurianic “husk” to be discarded now that the messianic age has arrived.
Both of these groups seek to dissolve the state: the one to replace it with a Jewish “kingdom”, and the other to turn it into a ghetto. Both claim that democracy is a foreign import, choosing to ignore the fact that monarchy is no less alien to autochthonous Israelite culture than democracy, and that the ghetto was forcibly imposed upon the Jews, although some may have later come to like it.
Perhaps halakhic Judaism is incapable of political life. Were it not for democracy, perhaps the various factions of halakhic Judaism would be at each other’s throats - hassidim against non-hassidim, hassidic court against hassidic court, mizrahim against ashkenazim, knitted kippot against non-knitted kippot – with no tradition of majority rule. Were the State of Israel to disappear, God forbid, these groups would be clamouring for a foreign power to come and settle their disputes, vying with each other for its favours. For every observant faction is convinced that it alone represents true Judaism, and that anyone who disagrees must be a deviant or a sinner, blind or a fool – or at the very least, an ignoramus. Virtually none of the halakhic streams can honestly say they welcome Jewish pluralism as a positive and constructive force. There are, of course, observant Jews brimming with love, but this love is always conditional - conditional upon your changing your ways, but they will never change theirs. It is the love of “open thy mouth wide and I will fill it”, for you, my friend, are an empty vessel, and I am a horn of plenty. There can be no spiritual dialogue between a “full cart” and an “empty cart”. Meaningful discussion is only possible with those who recognise that Jewish culture comprises a number of full carts.
The original title of Herzl’s book was “The State of the Jews” (Der Judenstaat), and not “The Jewish State”. A state cannot be Jewish any more than a chair or a bus can be Jewish. For half a century, the religious parties have been trying to strengthen, by political means, what they absurdly call“the Jewish character of the state”. It is pointless today, to refer to a single “Jewish character” – at best, we can speak of “Jewish characters”, in the plural. Halakhic Judaism would perhaps do well to abandon the political sphere, and focus on the Jewish character of Jews. The state is merely a framework – whether effective or flawed, decent or disregarded – and as such, should belong to all of its citizens – Jews, Muslims, Christians, Druse and those who identify with no religion at all. The concept of a “Jewish state” is a chimera. Far worse however, is the concept of “Jewish blood” – a monstrous expression to which Ben Gurion frequently resorted, although it appears nowhere in Jewish tradition. Only the Nuremberg Laws refer to “Jewish blood”. Traditional Jewish sources speak of “innocent blood” or “blood of the innocent”, “senseless blood” and “the voice of thy brother’s blood crieth unto me from the ground”. “Jewish blood” can only be found in the work of cannibals such as Rabbi Ginzburg, patron of the yeshivah at Joseph’s tomb – the same Joseph who married Asenath the daughter of Potiphera priest of On, with whom he had two half-Egyptian children: Ephraim – “the darling son” – and Manasseh; the same Joseph who was the grandson of Laban and the great-great-grandson of Terah.
The State of Israel itself was the product of a mixed marriage: the coupling of the Bible and the Renaissance, of the ancient yearning for Zion and the European “Spring of Nations”, of the “Assembly [Knesset] of Israel” and the parliamentary spirit, of ghetto and shtetl life and modern social movements. Natan Alterman described the fascinating convergence of the Hebrew concept of knesset and the idea of a “constituent assembly”, rooted in the French Revolution. This marriage between the Assembly of Israel and notions of equality, fraternity, liberty and democracy is not an easy one. It is no wonder that there are those, both in the religious and in the secular camp, who would have the marriage dissolved. It cannot be dissolved however, without creating a total rift – cannot and should not. It is better to try to the heal the relationship.
The rift between halakhic Judaism and those who do not conduct their lives according to the Shulhan Arukh is a fact, but it is still only a partial rift. All attempts to increase the state’s “Jewish character” by means of political manipulation and coercive legislation, or to use the IDF to hasten the coming of the Messiah, can only deepen the rift: Israel cannot be “Judaised” by force. Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that the religious parties somehow manage to impose the rule of Halakhah, and that in all the Land of Israel, no one may lift a finger without permission from seven rabbis. Would the state then be more Jewish? More religious? Or would it simply be more repressed and poisoned with feelings of frustration and rage? And were the messianic extremists, by some coalition agreement, to manage to blow up the mosques on the Temple Mount, rebuild the Temple, annex the Territories, cancel the Arabs, outlaw the outside world, re-conquer the Sinai and rebuild Yamit, would all of this produce a single believer?
Tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of Israelis, already consider Judaism a kind of ugly by-product of the extreme right, the clenched fist of nationalist repression, an extortion racket, or a steamroller threatening to overrun their private lives. Such impressions undermine the basic affinity between Israelis and Jewish culture. These feelings lead many to say to themselves, “Why don’t these fanatics just take their Judaism and go to hell”. To these Israelis, the Bible and the Talmud, the Prayer Book and the piyutim, are all part of the same steamroller threatening to crush them. They therefore throw it all away, and seek spirituality elsewhere. Both haredi and messianic Judaism are to blame - although not exclusively – for the fact that very many Israelis now feel no desire to be a part of Jewish culture.
Halakhic Judaism, for the most part, views Jewish culture as a museum piece. Haredi infighting notwithstanding, all are convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that they are closer to the “source” than secular Jews. Some remind us, for example, that sounding the air-raid siren on Memorial Day is a non-Jewish custom, as are the national flag and anthem. They are of course, absolutely right – right to a flaw. They are right as they wear the costumes of Polish noblemen of past centuries, right as they sing charming Ukrainian melodies, right as they piously dance Slavic folk dances. They are also right as they argue with us, using the principles of Aristotelian logic – courtesy of Maimonides, and right as they go forth to conquer the land, on the basis of Hegelian historiography - courtesy of Rabbi Kook. There is no reason to condemn halakhic Judaism for all that it has taken from the Persians, the Greeks, the Arabs, the Poles and the Russians. We may raise an eyebrow however, at the claims of Shulhan Arukh Judaism regarding its proximity to “the source”, while accusing its opponents of “Hellenising” and of adopting “foreign customs”.
It is therefore depressing to see how self-effacing many secular Jews are before the “authenticity” of the religiously devout: as if the hassidic rabbis of Satmar and Lubavitch, and Rabbi Shach and Rabbi Yosef were the most Jewish Jews around – the “premier league”. At the next level – the “championship league”, as it were – is the cult of the murderer Baruch Goldstein and fellow travellers. They too are very Jewish, bravely picking fights with the goyim. They may lack kaftan and streimel, but do quite a good job of oppressing Arabs and harassing them in a most traditional fashion. These are duly followed by the members of the Levinger camp. Below the “be-kaftaned” and the oppressors of Ishmael, stand the “traditional” Jews, who observe a little Judaism now and then, fasting on Yom Kippur – at least until the afternoon, and driving on the Sabbath, but never to pork grills. Further down the ladder are the Jewish “masses”: ordinary Jews who have lost their way, simpletons, fodder for religious recruiters. The lowest of the low, the worst Hellenisers, the most goyish of all, are those leftists, who are always pursuing peace and never stop defending human rights, who make a big deal out of a little injustice or some paltry nationalist persecution, constantly shouting “justice, justice shalt thou follow” – where in heaven’s name did they get that from?
There is good reason to fear all who purport to construe some divine plan, and seek to realise it by political and military means. I do not know what plan the world is following, or where it is going, and maybe I’m not the only one. Isaiah 55:8–9 reads as follows: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways ... For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.” To ignore this is to be incredibly presumptuous. We have no pope, and that is a very good thing.
From Halakhic Judaism to the Nationalist Right
Immediately after the Six Day War, there were some one million Palestinians living under Israeli rule in the Occupied Territories. Today, they number about two and a half million. The idea of Greater Israel is based upon the premise that some of the land’s inhabitants are less important than we are: we have our Torah, nationalism, aspirations, rights, and the Messiah. The Arab has a belly and a pair of hands, and can therefore be trained to be a grateful “hewer of wood” and a contented “drawer of water”. This twisted approach has also come to colour religious-secular relations: there are people who are fully human, who have the Torah and its precepts, and the things that they hold dear and sacred are truly dear and sacred; and there are people who are not quite as human - the secular, who don’t seem to hold anything dear and to whom nothing is sacred. The latter are therefore, like an “empty cart”, that can be moved aside to make way for those who possess a “full cart”.
The assassination of Yitzhak Rabin had Kahanistic roots. Halakhic rulings by extremist rabbis and the loathsome rhetoric of certain messianic nationalists – not all of whom were religious – contributed to the climate in which the assassination matured, as did the murder of Emil Grunzweig in 1983. Who is to blame? The murderer, his accomplices and his immediate environment. Who is responsible? There are many different levels of responsibility. There are those who hear criminal incitement around them, yet remain silent; those who reconcile themselves to the mausoleum and cult of the murderer Baruch Goldstein in Kiryat Arba; and those who deny the legitimacy of an elected government because they believe the source of authority should be rabbinical rather than popular – even for those who do not recognise rabbinical authority. Subordinating an elected government to a non-elected authority, paves the road to hell.
One of halakhic Judaism’s greatest failures is its long-standing alliance with the nationalist right. It is an alliance based not merely on convenience, but on a real affinity. The right, unlike Labour Zionism, never purported to create a new Hebrew culture, a new literature, new holiday observances, a new lifestyle, new precepts. The left, in its heyday, considered itself spiritual heir to Jewish culture, which it approached with a renewed sense of creativity. Halakhic Judaism thus feels comfortable with the right, and ill at ease with the left.
Moreover, the right and halakhic Judaism share a conflictual view of the outside world. Both groups believe in an eternal clash between Israel and the nations; either a sheep among seventy wolves, or a wolf terrorising its surroundings; either “the hand of the nations is uppermost” (in which case we grovel before them), or “the hand of Israel is uppermost” (in which case we pour out our wrath upon them). The efforts of the left to resolve the “eternal conflict” between Israel and the Arabs and the entire world, thereby enabling it to join the family of nations as a “normal” member, are viewed by a part of the right and by halakhic Judaism as a threat to the “uniqueness” of the Jewish People. If there is no enemy and no persecution and no martyrdom, say some on the right and in the religious camp, we will be tempted by the outside world, and will lose our unique identity. Identity is, it would seem for them, the product of persecution, exclusion and the ever- presence of an enemy. The state of conflict is thus perceived as a “friendly” one, familiar from the annals of Jewish history: almost every Jewish holiday is rooted either in a victory or a defeat. Our common memory is filled with tragedy and salvation. A “normal” situation on the other hand, in which there is no “adversary and enemy” (the very situation to which Herzlian Zionism aspired, and to which Labour Zionism continues to aspire) is seen by many on the right and many exponents of halakhic Judaism, as a threat to our identity. “In every generation there are those who rise up to annihilate us, and the Holy One, blessed be He, saves from their hands”. If the day is approaching when no one will rise up to annihilate us, what will our identity be? Who will the Holy One, blessed be He, save? There are, it would seem, many on the right and among the religious, who care less about the Territories themselves, than about the need for perpetual conflict.
The rift between observant and non-observant has been a fact for over a century and a half. This rift need not be the end of the world, however. It can also be a positive force, if all sides truly listen to one another – not the saccharine listening of the missionary, and not the arrogant listening of those who have all the answers. There must be active and useful dialogue between halakhic Judaism and the other heirs to Jewish culture – the tolerant and dynamic elements of mizrahi Judaism, the Hebrew culture of early Zionism, Hebrew literature, Yiddish and Ladino culture, non-Orthodox streams of Judaism – all have important contributions to make to contemporary Jewish culture. Rather than bickering over the pointless question, “which of us bears a greater resemblance to our great-great- grandfather?”, we would do better to discuss what we should do with our inheritance – what is fundamental and what is secondary, and what should be added. A claim often made by adherents to halakhic Judaism is that it is the Torah which preserved the Jewish People: were it not for the Torah, we would have been assimilated by other nations. The truth however, is somewhat different. It is not the precepts that preserved the Jews, but the Jews who chose to observe the precepts. The Jewish People has survived for thousands of years by virtue of millions of personal decisions that millions of Jews – Jews who chose to preserve their identity – have made over many generations.
The Internal Map is the One that Really Counts
The blowing of the shofar horn at the Western Wall, at the end of the Six Day War, let the genie out of the bottle. Ever since, religious and secular, left and right, have been wallowing in the question of where Israel’s borders will be, and which flag will fly over the holy sites. But the holy places are holy to those who consider them so, with or without a flag; their holiness does not derive from the flag. And while the question of borders is indeed a weighty one, only a madman would see it as the ultimate question, with all other questions paling by comparison. What lies within the borders is far more important than the specific line that demarcates them.
Israel might be a caricature or a monster within extensive borders, just as it might be a decent, ethical, creative society that appreciates its own heritage and is at peace with itself, within more limited boundaries. It is in fact madness to allow the question of borders to dominate and distort all else. Borders have never been the only or most important issue on our national agenda. We must wake up, snap out of this fixation with maps. It is time we dealt with the crux of the matter: What lies in store for us here? Will we finally realise – if not all of our hopes, then at least two or three of them?
The internal map is the one that really counts. On the one hand, there is the haredi camp, which aspires neither to a state nor to a creative society, but to an insular existence that resembles, as closely as possible, that of the Eastern European shtetl. On the other hand, are the “Hellenisers” who want nothing more than to free themselves of the terrible burden of Jewish culture, in order to create, in Israel, a society resembling what others see as the best of the western experience. In the middle stands the Bialik school of thought, which draws upon Judaism’s cultural heritage and contributes to it, further developing and renewing it. Both extremes – the fossils and the Hellenisers – have little interest in the Hebrew language: the former choosing to conduct their lives in Yiddish, and the latter preferring English.
The choice faced by religious Zionism is between dialogue with the Bialik school, or gradually slipping into the ritual-oriented haredi fold. Once it snaps out of its obsession with expanding Israel’s borders, religious Zionism could easily become not only a political ally of the Bialik school, but a catalyst capable of strengthening the original principles of Jewish culture. If, on the other hand, the awakening from the “Greater Israel” dream drives religious Zionism toward ghetto Judaism, the Bialik school may be swept toward the new Hellenisers.
If you are criticising Hellinisation, then count me in, but if you are asserting that the only answer is for all of us to live according to the Shulhan Arukh, don’t look at me. The Shulhan Arukh certainly has an importan place in Jewish culture, but it is not paramount. There was life before the Shulhan Arukh, an there is life beyond it. Furthermore, there is Jewish culture above the Shulhan Arukh. Democracy and tolerance are merely expressions of something far deeper: humanism, the basis of which is that mankind is always an end and never a means. This principle is not a “foreign element” or an “import”, but flows directly from the radioactive core of the Jewish spirit.
Bialik, Kaznelson and Gordon never believed that we should “raze the old world to the ground”. Even Brenner never said to the Jews of Halakhah, “you can keep your holy scriptures and other antiquated baggage”. They said, “we too are heirs to Jewish culture – not sole heirs, but legitimate heirs”. As legitimate heirs, we are not slaves to our inheritance, but may choose to highlight one aspect and downplay another. We may seek to develop a “dialectic” relationship between Jews and their culture – one in which an element of recurrence is also desirable. What flourished yesterday will fertilise that which will flourish tomorrow, and what will flourish tomorrow may in fact resemble that which flourished the day before yesterday. Cultures have seasons. For thousands of years, Jewish culture has been enriched by other cultures – on which it has, in turn, left its own mark.
All of this is encapsulated in the biblical phrase “renew our days as of old”; you cannot renew something without “of old”, and “of old” has no future without renewal.
This text, originally published in 'Secular Jewish Culture,' is being exclusively republished here courtesy of the Library of Secular Judaism and the volume's editor, Prof. Yaakov Malkin. The text was translated by Shmuel Sermoneta-Gertel, illustrations by Felice Pazner Malkin.