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November 27, 2014 | 5th Kislev 5775

Definitions I

Galilee Diary #481, March 10, 2010
Marc Rosenstein

Sound the great shofar for our freedom, raise the ensign to gather our exiles, and gather us from the four corners of the earth. Blessed are you, O Lord, Who gathers the dispersed of His people Israel.
     -from the traditional Amidah prayer

 

About ten years ago the local Orthodox community turned to our seminar center at Shorashim and asked us to organize programs that would bring them together with the other, non-Orthodox communities around the county, as they were feeling as though they lived in a ghetto.  We began with some joint study evenings, and ever since we have been producing programs of different types, with that original goal of bringing people together across the denominational lines: film evenings, lectures, holiday observances, etc.  At the end of one of the first evenings, at which the discussion had been very open and lively, I asked a "secular" friend, who had been somewhat cynical about the project, what she got out of the evening.  "Well," she said, "I learned one thing: they are not all the same!"  From the occasional reader comments, directly or on the blog, I have the impression that, as is so often the case, people find it hard to recognize differences among those who are "the other" to us.  Therefore, as a public service, over the next few entries I will present a guide for those who might be interested in some nuance:

Throughout the middle ages, Jewish communities were organized around a life based on the legal system of halachah, with the rabbi as legislator/judge/interpreter/teacher - in any case - as authority.  As the traditional community began to break down with the rise of the modern, individualistic, secular state, a new movement arose that argued that we needed no rabbinical authority, as the individual was the proper authority to interpret the tradition.  This movement, Reform, rejected the binding nature of halachah, seeing it as a source of values, open to individual interpretation, but not a legal system.  Those who rejected this approach began to be called Orthodox.

When, at the end of the 19th century, European nationalism and Jewish messianism combined to yield Zionism, both Reform and Orthodox movements mostly rejected this new idea - the Reform because they believed that where they were was now their homeland (e.g., Germany); the Orthodox because they believed that the return to Zion must await the messiah, and not be a secular political process.  On the other hand, the Orthodox did attach great significance to the Land of Israel, and to the religious and spiritual significance of living in it.  Hence, they saw no contradiction between coming to live in Israel and being opposed to the Zionist enterprise.  The Jews we call "ultra-Orthodox" today are the continuation of that strand: they believe it is a sacred obligation to live here, but they are either indifferent - or actively opposed - to Zionism.  These Jews believe that they do more to preserve the Jewish people by studying Torah full-time than do those who engage in military service.  They believe that in order for the messiah to come, it will be necessary for the maximum number of Jews to do the maximum number of mitzvot - hence, some are prepared to use any means necessary to cause that to happen - like using coalition political deals to prohibit the sale of hametz on Pesach, or using their bodies to block traffic on Shabbat.

Meanwhile, early in the 20th century, some Orthodox Jews found the pull of Jewish nationalism so strong that they were drawn into Zionism and developed an ideology to overcome the conflict with the traditional insistence on awaiting the messiah. What if the very existence of Zionism (especially in view of its success in moving toward a state) were indeed evidence that we are living in messianic times, and that this progress is a manifestation of Divine providence?  If so, then it's a religious obligation to support it. Hence: Orthodox Zionism, whose followers serve disproportionately in combat units and as officers, and have been deeply involved in all aspects of the development of the state and its economy. They believe that the state should reflect its Jewishness in culture and behavior, and hence have generally supported legislation to preserve that reflection.

So indeed, they are not all the same - but that's only the beginning.  To be continued...

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