Searching for Identity

The State of Israel is now approaching the end of its seventh decade. By all measures, its achievements are remarkable in many areas. The economy is booming, innovations ‘made in Israel’ are world class and its intellectual institutions, religious and secular alike, attract and accommodate a diverse student body. Last, but not least, the revival of Torah learning and its observance in Eretz Yisrael after the tragedies of the Second World War is nothing less than miraculous.

Nevertheless, the State is missing its centerpiece — a clear identity, a definition of itself. Any state must have an identity, otherwise it is without character and purpose; eventually it disintegrates.

The identity of a nation may be born out of a common denominator of its citizenry. Traditionally, a mutual ethnicity of the population creates a natural communality, or a shared ideology or set of beliefs creates a framework for a political entity. For instance, the United States, a country comprised of immigrants from different countries with different beliefs, became a nation by its constitution. This constitution formulates the core principles which the American citizens accept as the basic civic values of their society.

The State of Israel, from the day of its inception, was not able to define its identity. The root for this failure lies in the very nature of the Zionist movement, the driving force for its establishment. Zionism has different faces with diverse motivations, yet it is at its core a secular movement.

To understand this, let’s look at the history. At the turn of the twentieth century Jewish suffering, particularly of Eastern European Jewry, came to a climax. At the same time, the geopolitical conditions and globalization of politics presented an opportunity for Jews to resettle in their ancient homeland, Eretz Yisrael.

For the religious forerunners of this movement, the chovevei Zion, it meant that Jews could return to the land of their spiritual roots, regardless of the rulers of the country. They were the motivators of the so-called aliyah rishonah who were mostly religious people who wanted to settle in Eretz Yisrael. The establishment of a Jewish government was not an issue to them at all. They recognized a historic opportunity to live in Eretz Yisrael without oppression and persecution, and it represented the realization of a dream even if the land was still a pikadon in gentile hands until the Final Redemption.

For secular Jews, the issue was completely different. In the spirit of the times, various ideologies replaced religion. Secular Zionism — depending on the faction — adopted Nationalism and Socialism as their own version of Judaism; they then demanded a State for a nation that had no home. This became the credo of Zionism. Eventually, the Balfour Declaration and the aftermath of both World Wars led to the birth of the modern-day State of Israel.

Zionism was not an uncontested movement. Opposition came from two conflicting camps. Religious Jewry opposed the secularization of Judaism and vehemently resisted the representation of our nation by secular Jews.

No less vehement was the opposition from the other side of the spectrum. The Reform movement rejected the concept of defining Jews as a distinct and separate nation. The return to the ancient Jewish homeland was thus anathema to loyal citizens (of different countries) of the Jewish faith. True to its set of beliefs, the Reform prayer book omitted any prayer for redemption or return to Jerusalem.

Reform Judaism was an innovation of Western European Jewry, whose goal was total assimilation into the mainstream of their host countries. The first wave of Jewish immigrants to America were German Jews who established the foundations for Reform Judaism in this country. True to its roots, this movement strongly opposed Zionism. In 1885 the Pittsburgh Platform declared that, “We consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community, and therefore expect neither a return to Palestine, nor a sacrificial worship under the sons of Aaron, nor the restoration of any of the laws concerning the Jewish state.”

Eventually, the demographics of new waves of immigrants, particularly from Eastern Europe, changed the constituency and ultimately the leadership of Reform. Some leading Reform leaders, most notably Steven Wise, were decidedly pro-Zionist, but it was not until 1999 that the Union of American Hebrew Congregations endorsed Aliyah.

Not surprisingly, it did not change the modus operandi of its followers. Immigration of card-carrying Reform Jews to Israel is to this very day almost non-existent. Even organizations like ‘Birthright’ that organize trips to Israel for unaffiliated Jewish youth, are more (moderately) successful in preventing assimilation than in promoting immigration to Eretz Yisrael.

The history of Jewish resettlement in Eretz Yisrael in modern times is a subject in its own right. It certainly did not start in the late nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth, with the so-called Aliyah Rishonah or Shniyah. The continuous presence of Sephardi Jews, the extraordinary mesirus nefesh of the early aliyot of talmidei haGra and talmidei haBaal Shem Tov, laid the foundation for the future resettling of Jews, religious and otherwise.

Throughout the course of the resettlement of Jews in Eretz Yisrael, the various groups had many disagreements about Judaism and politics but they never disagreed that the definition of religion is the traditional observance of Torah. Even secular German Jews who immigrated to Eretz Yisrael never entertained the idea to establish Reform congregations.

Once the establishment of the Jewish State became a reality, the Zionist leaders struggled with the dichotomy of their secular vision versus respect for Jewish tradition. From this point on, the Jewish State was faced with the dilemma of how to define its identity. The connection to Tanach and Jewish values was innate to this generation of Zionists. Hence, they did not separate Religion and State.

Furthermore, in Ben Gurion’s view, the emergence of a new type of Jew, the Israeli, and the gradual disappearance of the traditional Jew in Israel was only a question of time. This was the background for his challenge to the Jewish leaders of his generation, mihu Yehudi, (what defines a Jew?) and his historic meeting with the Chazon Ish, zt”l.

For the secular leaders of that time, Reform Judaism was not on their radar. This version of Judaism was not less alien to them than to the observant Jew. And so is it to the present Israeli Jew, secular or observant.

Like any man-made movement, Reform Judaism is constantly redefining its ideology. At this point, it is a synergy of egalitarian, liberal values clothed with some Jewish tradition and sometimes a shot of Zionism. For this, the Jewish State is a welcome point of reference, if it is willing to validate a Reform version of Judaism. It may give a much-needed uplift for a dwindling membership and strengthen the influence of the Reform pulpit rabbi.

For some Israeli political leaders as well, the existence of Reform is a welcome point of reference. Even if the regular Israeli, secular or observant, will never embrace Reform, the validation of this movement in Israel is a welcome opportunity to weaken the grip of the Rabbinate and to redefine the character of the State to their liking. This is the real issue at stake.

It is not about the women reading the Torah at the Kotel; it is about allowing a process that will compromise all areas of halachah, foremost among them, giyur. In fact, it isn’t a question of forcing chareidim to give up their lifestyle but rather to deny them direct or indirect control of the character of the state. Unfortunately, there are Rabbanim and politicians in the religious camp, in Israel and the Diaspora, who for different reasons participate in this process, at least passively, not recognizing the imminent danger this represents for Judaism. Support for Mosdos HaTorah is not an excuse to behave irresponsibly.

In the view of those who promote this approach, it will finally define the identity of Israel as a quasi-Jewish state. A constitution might be written that tolerates different streams of Judaism, all under the umbrella of a Jewish state. In their opinion, it might not satisfy the radicals on the left and on the right but it will answer the needs of a silent majority. The chareidi Jews will continue to live their lifestyle in their own enclaves and analyze ancient texts in the yeshivos; the secularists of Tel Aviv will enjoy the beach on Shabbat and the Dati Leumi will continue to enlist in the army and serve with dedication. It’s cantonizing of sorts.

In truth, the introduction of a secular, man-made constitution that governs Israelis and tolerates different streams of Judaism is playing with fire. The repercussions of such a move would cause a volcanic upheaval on all levels of society and government. For the religious in Israel, Chareidi or Dati, to tolerate such a constitution in a Jewish State, or even agree to any official recognition of a movement that falsifies the core beliefs of Judaism, is akin to suicide. It is worse than the original platform of secular Zionism declaring that there is Judaism without Torah altogether. Secular Zionism didn’t create a new set of beliefs; it just abandoned the Torah, calling themselves Zionists, which is bad enough. But falsifying Judaism is fake news.

There is no silent majority that can tolerate a falsification of Torah in a Jewish state. To share the governing of a Jewish State with those who officially define Judaism independent of Torah, means accepting a premise that Torah is not MiSinai. On a practical level, it means creating unacceptable standards of geirus, kiddushin, gittin and kashrus.

So, religious Jews will have no choice but to unite to protest it, using all available resources. The resulting friction within society may well destabilize and even destroy the already delicate coexistence between the religious and secular citizenry.

Finally, I presume that participating in such a government is halachically highly questionable.

We, the religious Jews throughout the world, must unite in an unceasing effort to stop this development. Ki benafshenu hee.

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