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Sunday 27 May 2007

The Real Threat to Judaism's renewal

*The real threat to Judaism's renewal*

*By 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.


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