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Do not give up on Judaism: It’s what makes Zionism profound

The liberal camp must fight for Israel’s Jewishness, or the Haredim will hobble the country with their version of Judaism.

The escalating religious war that has taken hold throughout Israel comes with terrible “collateral damage.” Secular individuals are turning even further away from the Torah. The distance between non-religious Jews and the Jewish sources is nothing new, but the heat of the political battles surrounding the judicial reform and the excessive demands of the ultra-Orthodox for public financing of Torah study exacerbate the reluctance to engage with the Jewish sources. However, the days and weeks following Shavuot present an Israeli opportunity to the non-religious to rethink their attitudes toward the Jewish sources, which are an inexhaustible Jewish-cultural-intellectual treasure. Instead of resignation and alienation, there is an opportunity to reappropriate and deepen the affinity with our intellectual-national-cultural roots — for the religious and the non-religious alike, all of us.

The disconnect between those who are not from the beit midrash (study hall) and the Jewish canon, and the sparse knowledge of children and graduates of the state education system, has never been something to be proud of. But it seems that the events of the last few months and the coalition — that in the name of God has ironically resulted in a denigration of, and alienation from, Judaism — have only made the situation worse. Demonstrations of outrage against the additional billions of shekels extorted to support yeshiva students, and the incitement of the religious bloc against the secular bloc, have justified fears of religious coercion in Israel, and have caused those with even a basic interest in our sources to associate them with the Smotrich and Goldknopf brand of extremism. And that is a tragedy.

Shavuot, which we celebrated a few weeks ago, marks the day when the people of Israel received the Torah on Mount Sinai. Whether you believe this to be historical truth or a sublime myth, the Five Books of the Torah, the Bible, the interpretations of the Sages, the Mishnah, the Talmud, the legends, the words of wisdom, and the countless texts compiled over the ages belong to all Jews. And all Jews are invited to revel in their riches. Jewish history encompasses kings and wars, but perhaps more than anything else, it is a religious-intellectual edifice built upon the foundation of the Five Books of the Torah that embodies norms, values, wisdom, and life advice, where solace and inspiration are on offer — a glorious and abundant heritage that is ours.

Zionism and its realization in the State of Israel is a secular enterprise. One that sought to perpetuate Jewish existence in the Land of Israel without starting from scratch. Zionist thinkers were rooted in the Jewish world just as they were anchored in the Western world. The Bible was a beacon at Ben-Gurion’s feet. Some of the Israeli leaders who came after him, and certainly many great Hebrew intellectuals and artists, also found in these texts the basis for their lives and a springboard for their work. For example, the first great novel of Meir Shalev, whom we sadly lost last month, was titled The Bible Now. Neglecting these sources amounts to an abandonment of a profound dimension of Zionism.

The gaping Israeli chasm between the ultra-Orthodox, who identify themselves as “the religious camp,” and the majority of other Israeli Jews is not new. The current coalition, its “Jewish values” and the judicial revolution designed to grant them control over these values in Israel, have exposed this divide in all its ugliness. A side effect of the significant resistance against the coalition, which has come to “represent” Judaism in some minds, is that some feel compelled to align with the other side of the identity binary — the democratic — and its universal, humanist values. In effect, they concede their claim and connection to the Jewish aspects of the state, and to Judaism itself, its treasures and sources.

Ben-Gurion in a meeting with the Bible class at his home. Photo: COHEN FRITZ

This concession is a double disaster. First, it harms Judaism itself. Rather than embracing the Jewish sources that belong to all of us and feeling that connecting to them is a unifying force, many distance themselves from their own inheritance, associating the Jewish trove with those who falsely claim to represent it in contemporary Israeli politics. In a kind of downward spiral, to the extent that the ownership of interpretation and practice of Judaism “belongs” to this group, others will give up and stay away. Second, and much more serious, it means relinquishing the essential constitutional-identity foundation of Israel — its Jewishness. If the liberal camp retreats and does not fight for the definition of Israel’s Jewishness, the extremist-nationalist version of Judaism promoted by the ultra-Orthodox and the religious-nationalists will seize control of the country and its institutions. In the absence of familiarity with Jewish sources, the ability of the Israeli-Zionist secular majority to fight for the Jewish identity of the state will be hobbled.

The Midrash says that every Jew who was ever born or will be born was present at Mount Sinai. Of course, the Midrash does not mean the physical presence of all of us at an event that occurred 3,000 years ago. It tells us something else: the Torah, its interpretations and the gifts it carries, belongs to all of us. These days provide an opportunity to contemplate how to turn the existential struggle of the last few months not just into a fight for Israel’s democratic values but also a fight for its Jewish values, distinct from the version of Judaism promoted by this coalition.

First published by ‘The Times of Israel’.