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October 4, 2015 | 21st Tishrei 5776

Reforming Israel

Galilee Diary #364, November 18, 2007

Marc J. Rosenstein


The revival of Israel will bring with it the revival of the religion.
And the religion, in its revival, will cast off its old shell, that no longer fits it…
The religion of Israel has never ceased to be capable of development…
-Shlomo Schiller (1863-1925), “Zionism and Religion”

One of the most frequently requested programs at our seminar center is a lecture/workshop on “the streams of Judaism.” This is particularly in demand for groups planning missions and exchange programs to North America. Just last week I did two of them, one for teenagers, the other for a group of school principals. The agenda implied by the title is not, of course, a review of the many ideological and religious divisions that have characterized our entire history (Judah and Israel, zealots and Hellenizers, Sadducees and Pharisees, Karaites and Rabbanites, Chassidim and Mitnagdim, etc.). The purpose is rather to give the participants a crash course in the main denominations of North American Judaism, so they won’t be totally shocked upon their arrival. For all the recent growth of the liberal movements in Israel, they are still quite foreign to most people.

A one-session class that covers the topic is of course superficial. But as the Israeli slang expression goes, “That’s what there is.” If I talk fast, I can do a historical survey of the development of the movements since 1800, summarize their basic ideological and cultural differences, and even have time to discuss some case studies of how the different movements have responded to specific challenges (women’s rights, assimilation, homosexuality, Zionism). I find people extremely interested. Many of those from Orthodox backgrounds have trouble accepting the approaches of the liberal movements. Many of those who define themselves as part of the “secular” majority, when pressed, actually come to the conclusion that not only is Reform Judaism not the weird assimilationist cult they thought it was, but that it actually describes them: they identify strongly as Jews; they reject the authority of halachah; they choose from among the resources of the tradition those practices that give spirit and meaning to their lives – be it Kiddush on Friday night, or holiday observances - or even daily prayer or the dietary laws. And while many, if you ask, will tell you that their personal morality stems not from their Jewishness but simply from their humanness, at the same time they will allow that they do expect Israel, as a Jewish state, somehow to manifest Jewish moral values.

When you look closely, the secular–religious divide turns out to be somewhat of a false construct. The Jewish population of Israel is highly variegated in terms of religious belief and practice, with a broad spectrum of idiosyncratic patterns of observance that don’t fit any neat definition.

In the 1920s and 30s there was a circle of educators and community leaders in Jerusalem, many but not all of them from English speaking countries and affiliated with the liberal movements, among them Henrietta Szold, Alexander Dushkin, S. D. Goitein, and Ernst Simon, who agreed with their colleague, the educator Shlomo Schiller, quoted above: in reviving Jewish national independence we would revive the Jewish religion. The experience of applying Judaism to the realities of sovereignty, and the authority of having a world center, and the possibilities of cultural creativity in a thoroughly Jewish society – together would give rise to a new, modernized, unified, revitalized Judaism. There would be mutual beneficial influences between the state and the religion. We would throw off the encrustations of exile but we would not throw away Judaism as the radical secular Zionists imagined. Rather, the experience of statehood would set the religion back on its feet, vital and looking forward and ready to respond actively and flexibly to the future.

In the light of the religious strife and extremism that seem to characterize Israeli life, it is easy to dismiss those optimistic dreamers as just that. But I think that would be a mistake. Israel’s vision of itself – and of the place of Judaism in the state – is far from fully articulated. It is a work in progress, not a fait accomplis. The challenge is to remain sensitive to what is developing on the ground, to remain open to new forms and syntheses, not to get stuck in orthodoxies of any kind – even Reform ones.

I will pour out My spirit on all flesh;
Your sons and daughters shall prophesy;
Your old men shall dream dreams,
And your young men shall see visions.
-Joel 3:1

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