Article Library / Annual Assessment

2019 Annual Assessment

In Israel many of these developments are concerned with the impact, in one fashion or another, of the Jewish state and the particular life that developed within it on “Judaism.” Two notable books discuss the contemporary application of religious Halacha in the state context while a whole slew of books examine the meaning of contemporary Jewishness from the opposite vantage point – that of “secular” Israeli life. More books deal with the concept of “Israeliness” or” Hebrewness,” both as distinct from Jewishness.

The two Halachic works stem from the Religious Zionist camp. They represent long standing, but still very potent trends in the religious Zionist/modern Orthodox world. The first of these is Rabbi Ido Rechnitz’s Medina K’Halacha. The title is a play on words, which discloses some of the ideological freight the book carries. The title translates first, as “A State According to Halacha.” However, in idiomatic Hebrew it also means “a state as it is supposed to be” or “as is worthy to be.” Indeed, Rabbi Rechnitz, in an interview in the Makor Rishon newspaper, stated that the underlying purpose of this book is to overcome the compartmentalization of life in the modern world – that is, to subject all the spheres of life to religious (Torah) regulation and imbue with them religious meaning, first and foremost the state and political spheres.

The potency of this tendency in Religious Zionist circles can be seen from Minister Bezalel Smotrich’s recent statement that the State of Israel must be governed according to the Halacha, “as in the days of King David and King Solomon.” Yet, the scholarly and nuanced tone of Medina K’Halacha is a far cry from Smotrich’s declaration. The book argues that Halacha preserves individual privacy and democratic procedures and that the enactment of religious norms (if they are at all enacted) would be a far cry from that of fundamentalist states.

The focus of the second Halachic work, And Beit Hillel Rules, is somewhat different. It does advocate applying the Halacha to all areas of life, but its overriding goal is not de-compartmentalization, but rather confrontation with issues and values characteristic of a liberal or inclusive society. The book is the result of a collective effort on the part of the participating Orthodox rabbis, both men and women of the Beit Hillel organization, which defines itself as “attentive rabbinical leaderships.”

Thus, a significant portion of the book is devoted to issues of women and Judaism – can women say the Kaddish or deliver Halachic rulings. It also considers attitudes toward non-Orthodox Jews – can one invite them on Shabbat even if they drive? It is significant that the organization defines itself as “attentive” and not as liberal. This attentiveness is rooted in the text’s structure: each Halachic essay is proceeded by an extensive introduction giving the relevant psychological, sociological, historical etc. background. In addition, arguments for a permissive ruling are adduced. But there is no guarantee that after taking everything into account the ruling will in fact be permissive.

The broad trend that these Halachic books represent, of extending the Halacha and its regulation to the state and the broad society, whether in an attentive or more conservative mode – is related to the public debate over Israel’s claimed “religionization,” which is, of course, a complex debate we cannot fully cover here. But one can briefly state that there seems to be a partially successful attempt to cast in religious or sacred terms national and public issues – such as the Land of Israel, borders and peace agreements. This “religionization” of how Israelis think and talk about national issues has elicited a counter movement – a reflective pre-occupation with Israeli secularism and the initially secular character of the Zionist movement and the Israeli state. Some writers and thinkers wish to reconsider Zionism and Jewish nationalism as alternatives to religion, not as a fulfillment of it.

Fully seven books published in the last year address the issue of Israeli secularism or closely related concepts such “Hebrewism” or “Israeliness.” They can be divided in accordance with their central thrust or tendency. Three of these books, Ram Furman’s HaDerech Hachilonit (The Secular Path), Aviad Kleinberg’s Madrich Lehiloni (the Hiloni Handbook) and, in a slightly different way, Amnon Rubinstein’s Sipurum shel Yehudim Hilonim (Life- Stories of Secular Jews), are aimed at reinforcing secular consciousness and identity. They explain to secular Jews how to rebuff the wave of religionization and provide arguments for living a secular lifestyle and being a secular Jew. Much of Kleinberg’s book provides arguments against religion and the belief in the existence of a supreme, non-corporeal being, while Rubenstein’s book, the stories of key figures such as Einstein, Kafka, and Freud addresses how to be a secular Jew – how one can maintain a strong Jewish identity while being secular and what that would entail.

Two books, one celebratory and one elegiac, discuss Israeliness as an orientation that is an alternative to Judaism or religion. Yossi Shain’s book, HaMeiah HaYisraelit VeHayisralizatzia shel HaYahadut (The Israeli Century and the Israelization of Judaism) argues that the State of Israel has had a profound impact on Judaism and Jewish life. His argument is that Israel today is Judaism, that Israel and the Israeli experience is the center of Jewish life, and that involvement with Israel takes the place of what had been religion and Jewishness. Rami Livni’s book, The End of the Era of Hebrewness, is an elegy to the Israel that was – the Israel that was dominated by a secular, Ashkenazic elite with a socialist orientation. In a certain sense this is a soft version of the complaint (more imagined than actually heard) of the old Ashkenazic elite – “They stole the State from me!”. While Livni mourns the loss, there are populations – religious, masorati, Mizrachi who do not grieve the passing of the Yishuv era and that of the first decades of the state.

The final set of two books, challenge the traditional dichotomy of “religious” and “secular.” The first, Israeli Judaism, by Camil Fuchs and Shmuel Rosner accomplishes this through a descriptive approach (more on this book elsewhere in this Annual Assessment). The second, Micah Goodman’s Hazara Bli Tshuva (Return without Repentance), has a normative orientation. Fuchs and Rosner’s central claim is that the majority of Jewish Israelis are both national and traditional. To use their plastic metaphor, they both make Kiddush on Friday night and hang the Israeli flag on Independence Day. To a certain extent this conclusion is in tension with the celebration of Israeliness and the adoption of national identity as a totally secular replacement of traditional Jewish religious identity.

Micah Goodman, a talented and prolific author, has devoted considerable energies to bridging dichotomies. He founded and heads the post-army beit midrash in Ein Prat with a combined religious and secular student population. His newest book, which he presents as part of a diptych concerning Israeli society (last year he released a book on the Arab-Israeli conflict attempting to overcome the dichotomy of left-right), takes as its point of departure that human beings have two equal needs – the first for belonging and meaning, the second for freedom. Organized religion provides for the first need, while a secular life style supplies the second. This book attempts to show how to satisfy both needs together. In so doing, Goodman proposes new readings of both religion and secularism.

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