Different Judaisms, Different Realities

Two demonstrations recently took place in Israel. One of these, ostensibly a prayer meeting, brought together a quarter of a million Jews—a mixture of anti-Zionist and non-Zionist haredim—onto the streets of Jerusalem to protest against the rulings, and raison d’etre, of Israel’s Supreme Court. Yeshiva students were told that it was ‘an obligation’ to be present, and religious councils utilised their state-provided budgets to bus in the protesters. The former Sephardi chief rabbi, the two current Israeli chief rabbis, the Belzer, Gerer and Vishnitzer rebbes and many leaders of ultra-orthodoxy were present. Prayers were recited and shofars blown. Placards declared that the Israeli high court was ‘dividing the people’ and at least one rabbi proclaimed Chief Justice Aharon Barak ‘an enemy of the Jews’.

A counter-demonstration in Sacher Park in Jerusalem attracted an audience of 50,000 secularists, leaders from all mainstream parties and a smattering of the modern orthodox. They came to show their support for ‘democracy’ in Israel.

These protests were triggered off by a series of decisions by the high court. One such decision confirmed the appointment of non-orthodox representatives to religious coun-rils; a second questioned the legality of army conscription exemptions for some yeshiva students. Haredi leaders argued that the state did not possess the authority to intervene in religious matters, particularly Halakhah; the non-orthodox should not be given a voice and their representatives should not take their place on the religious councils—it was better to abolish the councils than to sit with the non-orthodox.

All this repelled an already alienated secular majority. Even the National Religious Party condemned the haredi rally as ‘an incitement to violence and insurrection’. An editorial in the authoritative newspaper Ha’aretz spelled out the secular viewpoint: ‘It is clear that the religious onslaught is aimed at undermining the authority of the Court and weakening it by intimidating the justices into no longer ruling in accordance with universal values but with interpretations given by Halakhah to legal questions.’ The London-based non-Zionist Jewish Tribune concurred that the demonstration was ‘a public affirmation that the Jewish people will willingly never accept the rule of foreign law in a Jewish state.’ The Israeli high court, it was claimed, was passing judgment on matters between man and God and not between man and man. The haredi demand was to put an end to ‘selective judicial activism’ by transferring power from the high court to the Knesset. In reality, this meant a transfer of authority from an independent judiciary to the political arena, where the religious parties could deploy their bargaining power on sensitive issues and affect legislation. In normal situations, a high court seeks to protect minorities from the oppression of a majority. In Israel, the reverse is true. The high court protects the democratic majority from a minority which does not share its values.

All this was yet another rejection of the legacy of the Haskalah by the ultra-orthodox world. For the haredim, Judaism is not a structure to meet the challenge of modernity, but a container to separate it from external influences.

For many outside the haredi fold, normative Jewish history has provided a framework for the construction of Jewish identity, both secular and religious, but this has been virtually abolished by the ultra-orthodox or revised to fit a particular line of thought. For example, there are some publishing houses in the United States which have reduced the struggle of Soviet Jewry in recent decades to the level of fairy tales. How did this bizarre situation arise?

Following the destruction of the Temple and the disastrous wars against the Romans, the rabbis turned away from providing their followers with any sense of normative Jewish history. Before the dispersion, religious history and normative history were to some extent synchronised. Religious history began to dominate and was maintained as a history of generations, the Rishonim and the Achronim (the First and Last Rabbis), but normative history was ignored. There was no conventional understanding of a sequence of events. This became increasingly pronounced over time. Did Akiva come before Maimonides or after? Jewish teaching was dehistoricised and predicated on philosophy—an approach which found favour in similar societies such as Islam. As Mount Sinai receded in time so did the capacity to commemorate new events through a growing dilution of authority and an inability to take clear decisions. For example, the Yom Kippur mussaf the additional prayer service, commemorates many instances of martyrdom in medieval Jewish history, but are the annual Holocaust Day and Independence Day integrated into the Jewish cycle of life by contemporary haredim?

For the best part of two millennia, no one actually recorded Jewish history. It was as if a normative history of Jews outside Eretz Israel could not, and should not, be written. Jews were asked to sharpen their memory through a commemoration of a Jewish homeland, the destruction of the Temple through Tisha B’Av, the Exodus through the reading of the Haggadah on Passover, and the establishment of the Hasmonean state and the reclaiming of the Temple through Chanukah. But normative Jewish history was also clearly and closely entwined with a wider history of other societies and peoples. To permit Jews to record their history and to learn from it thus meant a breaking of the seal of the container that was haredi Judaism and its transformation into a structure for coping with non-Jewish society. No doubt all this was accentuated by the deliberate marginalisation of Jews by their host societies. Yet post-Haskalah sages such as the Hatam Sofer feared anything new—Hadash asur min ha ‘Torah (Anything new is forbidden by the Torah’)—and strongly condemned the historicisation of Judaism out of concern that it might provide an alternative view of the Jewish future. Jews should not interact with history.

Yet history was interacting with the Jews. The French Revolution breached the ghetto walls even if the intended aim was to create Jewish Frenchmen rather than French Jews: `To the Jews as individuals everything, to the Jews as a nation nothing’. Most Jews did not wish to be segregated from the wider society nor did they wish to merge into it and abandon their faith, culture and heritage. They required a structure which would allow them to occupy the middle ground with its attendant dangers of acculturation and assimilation. The advent of the Wissenschaft des Judentums, the scientific study of Judaism and Jewishness, at the beginning of the nineteenth century led to the writing of histories of the Jews by Nachum Krochmal, Heinrich Graetz and Simon Dubnov. Jews began to ask themselves awkward questions—religious, sociological and political—and the answers were not always forthcoming from the rabbis and the gedolim, the great ones. Some broke away completely and embraced Marxism; others, who wished to retain their identity, joined the Bund; and still others left for Palestine to build a Jewish state. Those who wished to adopt a Judaism which came to terms with modernity sought out the neo-orthodox, conservative and reform movements.

Different judaisms, different understandings of Jewishness, different realities. Thus, despite self-righteous claims to represent the `community’ and the people’, there are a plethora of Jewish identities in existence 200 years after the French Revolution. The kulturkampf among the Jews is very much predicated on how we understand history. For the haredim history seems to have ceased with the destruction of the Temple in the year 70. Had they recognised transformations in the outside world, in world history, they would have had to confront change rather than reject it. In turn, this may have prevented many of the schisms and religious fragmentation of the nineteenth century. Instead, they are enveloped in an ahistorical cul-de-sac which brings secular Jews no closer to God.

Following the Jerusalem demonstrations, a tearful Chief Rabbi Lau called for reconciliation: `We have always known how to die together; the time has come for us to learn how to live together.’ Although generous in motivation, these were hollow words. Anyone who imbibed the self-congratulatory triumphalism and declarations of moral superiority that followed the demonstration will find it hard to believe that a path will be found. Secularists have certainly turned their back on the haredi world, but have they turned away from Judaism as well? Probably not. Only a public recognition of this distinction by the haredim themselves—that they do not have all the answers—will counteract a fundamental estrangement from religious culture and confront an ignorance of the traditions and customs of centuries.

Judaism Today Spring 1999


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