Column

06.01.12

A Tale of Two Judaisms

Some years ago I was ordained by a distinguished Orthodox halakhist in Jerusalem (not that that was any help at all in convincing the Rabbinate of my Jewishness when my wife and I applied for a marriage license, but that story is for another time). Yet, in the years I was part of the 'spiritual care' team in the oncology-hematology unit of one of Israel's leading medical centers, I never went by 'rabbi.'  That, I knew, would get me nowhere, eliciting either, "don't worry rabbi, I put on tefillin this morning," or "are you trying to make me repent or something?" or, from the ultra-Orthodox, a chuckle. I also knew that the rabbi of the medical center wouldn't be pleased.  Hospital rabbis in this country are charged with keeping the kitchens kosher, answering halakhic questions (what about elective surgery on Shabbat? Does an elderly patient fast on Yom Kippur?), and, if they're particularly thoughtful, maybe sitting on an ethics committee. Visiting patients isn't part of the job description, and nobody expects it.

I tell you all this to try and convey why Tuesday's announcement by the state's attorney general Yehudah Weinstein that the Israeli government will, for the first time, fund Reform and Conservative rabbis—undoubtedly good news though it is, will not result in much of anything changing anytime soon. And not all the reasons for that are bad.

Until now Reform and Conservative Judaism have foundered here for two reasons: the official war against them, and their inability to strike roots. The first has now eased a little, and the challenge of the second becomes even greater. I write this with sadness, because the Reform and Conservative rabbis I've known here are terrific people, who have been made to put up with one indignity and disability after another. And Israel and Judaism both desperately need religious alternatives to official Orthodoxy. Yet in the end their failure to make any but the most limited inroads into Israeli society and culture is due not only to policy, but also to their Judaism's being too deeply and ultimately American and out of place.

Ashkenazi Israelis have inherited a secular-religious dichotomy that grew out of the intense Eastern European culture wars of the 19th century, when tradition became traditionalism (a.k.a. Orthodoxy) and Jewish peoplehood and ethics, now unhinged from metaphysics and religion, were translated into the social and political program of Zionism in all its varieties. Religious Zionism was long content to be a junior, moderate partner of the political establishment; and when it began to make its own, decidedly romantic, ideological claims it did so via the settlements. Haredim established their own subcultures, single-mindedly focused on maintaining their institutions and cultural autonomy and, increasingly, taking over the institutions that preside over everybody's life-cycle events (marriages, funerals). 

Secular Zionism has been showing signs of wear for years not least due to its self-imposed alienation from the cultural and spiritual resources that animated its most vibrant founders. Crucially—in a polity whose collectivist ethos permeated every facet of life, where social welfare was nationalized and the civil religion was saturated with traditional Jewish language and symbols, the very notion of the synagogue shifted from community center to house of traditional prayer, for those who still thought they needed one.

Sephardic Judaism, by contrast, was traditional well into the 20th century, without Ashkenazi's Orthodoxy ideological character. Catastrophically mashed up in the brutal experience of immigration, it was triumphantly resurrected by Ovadia Yosef, whose Shas party's clout rests on the votes it gets from non-Haredi Sephardim who nonetheless see him and it as the bearer of their ultimate values. They may fill the Soccer stadiums on Shabbat, but when they (unlike the Ashkenazim next to them in the bleachers) go to synagogue for Havdalah, they want to see their grandfather's siddur, and someone who looks like his rabbi. 

All this is fathoms away from institutional American Judaism, whose denominational structure is inherited from Protestant Western Europe, whose clergy who are a mix of social worker-community organizer-teacher (with no obvious analogue in a country where even Orthodox synagogues scarcely function as congregations), whose conception of Judaism is thoroughly privatized, internalized, reworked along the lines of American liberalism and its profoundly middle class ethos.  Now, that's not a bad thing (it's the world that produced me) but it's a very different thing than Israeli Judaism.

Yes, Israeli society has in recent years been seeing signs of a new cultural and spiritual renaissance, visible in pluralistic Batei Midrash, secular yeshivot and prayer circles, writers and musicians reworking classic texts, surges in Kabbalah, neo-Hasidic spirituality, New Age and more.  New forms of Judaism are struggling to be born here, beyond the tired and increasingly irrelevant dichotomy of religious and secular in Hebrew, but they can only come in the often jagged shapes and fervid intensities that mark life here.   

American Jews need to understand that the only way their movements can make a difference on the ground in Israel is by becoming something very different from what they are in America, less wedded to their structures, more Hebrew-speaking, more passionate, scrappier, as demanding, unpredictable and unsettling as the Torah.