Skip Navigation
September 1, 2015 | 17th Elul 5775

Pluralism II

Galilee Diary #299, August 20, 2006

Marc J. Rosenstein


For Torah shall come forth out of Zion, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem…

-Isaiah 2:3

Zionism began a new era, not only for the purpose of making an end to the Diaspora but also in order to establish a new definition of Jewish identity - a secular definition. I am certain that the builders of our land will in the future sacrifice themselves for national forms, for land and language, as our ancestors accepted martyrdom for the sake of the religious content of Judaism.

-Jacob Klatzkin, “Boundaries” (1914)

It turned out that there was no consensus among the builders of the new Jewish state regarding the nature of its Jewishness. Among the various conceptions that were floated, were:

· A total negation of the Jewish tradition, as an artifact of the exilic experience which was about to become obsolete. An extreme version of this view was that of the “Canaanite” movement of the 50s, which argued that Israeli Jews have more in common with Israeli Arabs than with Diaspora Jews, as identity is determined by the place and its culture.

· The belief that creating a state was an act of sinful hubris and a denial of God’s will and His plan. This is the root of today’s non-Zionist or anti-Zionist “ultra-Orthodox” positions.

· The belief that the state is indeed the fulfillment of God’s messianic plan, “the first flowering of our redemption.” This is the view of religious Zionism.

· The expectation, held by a small group of Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist leaders in the pre-state years, that out of the experience of re-establishing sovereignty would arise a modernized, revitalized, and renewed Judaism.

· The mainstream position of Israeli culture: that the main elements of Jewish tradition could be secularized and made into national culture, without religious belief: language, music, foods, holidays, folk literature, etc.

The trouble was that virtually all the Zionist cultural revolutionaries who sought to discard or at least secularize Jewish tradition had received their education in Orthodox communities, so Orthodoxy was the only Judaism they knew, and they saw the institutions of the Orthodox community (whether they loved or hated them) as the repositories of the tradition, keepers of the flame, the authentic source. Thus, even while they were rebelling against Orthodoxy, it retained upon them a pull, an authority, a sense of being “the real thing.” There was a sense that while we cultural pioneers may reject Orthodoxy belief and life style, we need to keep the Orthodox around to keep us grounded, to keep the tradition alive for whenever we may need to refer to it, adapt parts of it, seek reinforcement for our nostalgia for it. And so we developed a kind of Oedipal national ideology of hating our Orthodox “father” – but loving him; rejecting him and his authority, but unable to separate from him, fearing that if he were really to disappear, we would remain rootless, cut off, our identity somehow crippled.

Thus, it seems to me that the cover story we tell ourselves, that the Orthodox influence on Israeli society is simply a result of cynical manipulation of coalition politics (none of the big parties can get a majority, so to form a ruling coalition they need the Orthodox parties, whose price for joining is maintenance of Orthodox control of certain budgets and of certain legal areas like marital law) is an oversimplification. I believe that there is a deep feeling in mainstream secular Israeli society that we dare not cut loose from Orthodoxy, for to do so would be to cast ourselves adrift with no Jewish moorings, and then our very Jewish identity would be in doubt – and with it, the moral justification for Zionism. The question is, where do we go from here? Can Israeli society mature past this phase? How can we shape a Jewish society which is rooted yet open, authentic yet allowing for autonomy? Indeed, it seems that this is the very same challenge that faces Reform Judaism as well.

Comments left on this website are monitored. By posting a comment you are in agreement with Terms & Conditions.

URJ logo

Donate Now



Multimedia Icon Multimedia:  Photos  |  Videos  |  Podcasts  |  Webinars
Bookmark and Share About Us  |  Careers  |  Privacy Policy
Copyright Union for Reform Judaism 2015.  All Rights Reserved