Israeli Judaism: The Continuing Chapter in the Jewish Story

Of all Zionism’s attainments, and of all that Israel has accomplished on the political, military, technological, and economic planes, history will remember, above all, the state’s cultural achievement: the creation of a climate that enabled the Jewish people to write a continuing chapter to the Jewish story.

The Jewish people are the People of the Book. And what is Judaism? Judaism itself is a book. It is a unique book, not the kind of book written to completion, but rather an unfolding work composed over the course of generations, with each generation adding a new and distinctive chapter.

Judaism was notably likened to a book by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, based on philosopher Ronald Dworkin’s thought experiment that tried to explain what cultural continuity is: Let’s say a group of people want to write a book together, with each member of the group penning only one separate chapter. The procedure is as follows: after the first member has written the first chapter, the next member writes the second chapter, then another member writes the third chapter, and so on.

What is the condition for the joint effort’s success – a book that flows and develops from chapter to chapter? The condition is a simple one: each succeeding writer must indeed produce a chapter that is a continuation of its predecessors. If someone writes a chapter without reading the earlier chapters, then the new chapter will not be a continuation of the others. Likewise, if one of the participants writes a chapter that merely replicates what came before, then this chapter too will not constitute a continuation.

Two forces emerged in the modern era that work against the writing of the continuing chapters to Jewish tradition. Among the various forms of secularism is one that is rebellious and radical; this version wants to sever itself from the earlier chapters, rather than continuing them. Similarly, among the various forms of religiosity is one that is conservative and authoritarian; this version wants to simply copy the earlier chapters and even to withdraw into them. Both these forces, from opposite ends of the spectrum, are refusing to write Jewish tradition’s continuing chapter.

In Israel, these two forces  are mired in a kind of culture war, and they tend to express themselves in terms of separate identities. The “conservatives” identify as Jews and only then as Israelis, while the “rebels” see themselves as Israelis first – Israelis who identify as Jews. The battle between the Jews and the Israelis is a battle between opposing forces with a shared characteristic: they both refuse to write a new, up-do-date chapter for Jewish tradition.

The Kulturkampf between the “Israelis” and the “Jews” reverberates widely, makes headlines, and even finds expression in Israeli politics, but is not reflected in Israel’s living, breathing cultural reality. In order to understand the unique character of Jewish life in Israel, we need to compare it to Jewish life outside of Israel.

A chosen people and a choosing people

American Orthodox rabbis maintain, again and again, that a way of life intensively focused on sacred texts is the iron wall protecting Jewish identity. According to studies conducted by the Pew Research Center, they are right. What are the chances that a Jew living in the United States who doesn’t regularly attend synagogue or engage in ritual practice will have a Jewish grandchild? Studies have shown that those chances are very low. By contrast, what are the chances that a Jew living in Israel who scorns religious texts and steers clear of synagogue will have a Jewish grandchild? Very high.

In the Diaspora, it is hard to ensure Jewish continuity without religious rituals; in Israel, Jewish continuity is assured even without religious commitment. Some have defined this state of affairs as follows: Israeli Jews are the chosen people, while Diaspora Jews are the choosing people. The identity of Israelis is pre-chosen for them. Even if they don’t want it and do nothing to sustain it or actively choose it, it clings to them. Outside of Israel the opposite is true: Jews who do not actively choose their Judaism or exert themselves for it will lose it.

A Jew living in Israel absorbs, involuntarily and without choosing to do so, a wealth of Jewish experience composed of four elements: language, people, time, place.

Language – The Jews of Eretz Israel speak Hebrew. As Gershom Scholem observed: one cannot speak that ancient language, the language of Jewish Scripture, the language of the sacred texts, without all its associations infusing one’s soul and consciousness.

People – The Jews of Eretz Israel are a clear majority. The result is that an Israeli Jew is surrounded by Jews, his social circle is Jewish, and nearly all his friends are Jews.

Time – In Israel, time is Jewish. The Israeli public realm operates according to the Hebrew calendar. The music on the radio, the TV chatter, greetings in the street – all relate to the Jewish people’s holidays and festivals.

Place – Israeli Jews live in Eretz Israel, the historical homeland of the Jewish people. Jerusalem vistas evoke biblical events; Galilee landscapes bring the Mishna to mind. Even the names of streets, towns, and cities remind us that we’ve been here before.

A modern Jew living in Israel lives in Jewish time, in Jewish space and a Jewish language, and is surrounded by Jewish people. These four elements – time and place, language and people – combine to produce an intense Jewish life. No effort needs to be made for such a life, nor does it need to be chosen.

In the United States, by contrast, the space in which Jews live is not Jewish, and the songs they hear in the public realm herald the approach of Christian holidays; the language is English, and Jews who do not sequester themselves in their communities find that most of their good friends are not Jewish. In the absence of space, time, language, or people, how can a Jew experience his Jewish identity? He needs to step out of his regular life and go to synagogue, listen to the rabbi, pray and participate in religious ritual. Outside of Israel, Judaism happens during “breaks” from real life. In Israel, however, Judaism is a part of life. Outside of Israel one connects to Judaism by leaving one’s everyday routine behind, while in Israel Judaism is an inseparable and natural part of the routine.

Not only did Zionism result in a change of place for Jews; it also altered the experience of Jewish life. Zionism created the option of living as passive Jews and makes it possible to live a Judaism-saturated life without having to strive for it, or to choose it. 

A new chapter in an old book

Again, these four Israel-based elements are passive; but they equip those who experience them with everything they need to be active creators of Jewish culture. Jewish tradition is an ancient book that is still being written, and its next chapter is now being drafted in Israel. It was preceded by the Bible, the Mishnah, the Gemara and many other chapters of great depth written in the many exiles, all different from each other. Today, in sovereign Israel, another chapter is being written.

This updated chapter contains Jewish music, such as that of Ehud Banai. One of Banai’s songs talks about standing “on HaHalacha Bridge / looking for HaShalom Road” (omed al gesher hahalacha / mechapes et derech hashalom). This is a song that all Israelis understand. We all speak Hebrew and we’ve all been stuck at times in traffic jams on Ayalon Highway under HaHalacha Bridge, or on the exit ramp to HaShalom Road. But most Israelis also naturally sense the song’s echoes of deeper strata in the Jewish story.

Banai is referring to Halacha – Jewish law – as a bridge, and when we treat Halacha as a bridge that connects us, rather than as a wall that separates us, then we can find the road to peace. No complicated academic-literary unpacking is needed here. Any educated Israeli who listens to the song will hear the contemporary Hebrew words and understand how they echo the wisdom of the past and the ideas of the ancient speakers of the language.

The new Israeli chapter includes television series such as The Jews Are Coming. This is a satirical show, and satire is a common TV genre across the globe. People in England, France, and the US enjoy sitting in the evening and watching short comedy sketches about their political and social leaders. The difference is that The Jews Are Coming is not parodying the nightly news, but rather Jewish history as a whole. The series does not distinguish between modern Israeli history and ancient Jewish history. All the stories and all the events that mark the history of the Jewish people are candidates for satirical treatment. The skits devised to entertain Israeli evening TV viewers feature not only their prime minister, but also Maimonides, King David, Queen Esther, and Joshua, son of Nun.

Similar events and figures can be found in Israeli documentaries, public intellectual debates, works of literary prose and of philosophy, original dramatic works, and even jokes. Contemporary Israeli culture is a culture resonant with the historical layers of Jewish tradition: when Jews live together in their ancient place, language, and time, their creative work is not detached from the Jewish story. Rather, it constitutes a continuing chapter in that story.

Life in Israel has a powerful impact: Israel changes those who live there. Life in Israel has led Israeliness to merge with Jewishness and Jewishness to merge with Israeliness. In this way a new hybrid identity has emerged: Israeli Judaism.

Israeli Judaism

Throughout its history, Judaism has repeatedly changed its form. In the Middle Ages it took on the forms both of rationalism and of kabbalah; in the 18th century it donned Hassidic garb in the Ukrainian town of Mezhybozh, and Lithuanian garb in Vilna. It goes without saying that rationalist Judaism is no more authentic than the Judaism of the mekubbalim, or that Lithuanian lamdanut (“learnedness”) is not a more authentic form of Judaism than Hassidic devekut (“closeness to God”). Judaism has many authentic states of being, and in today’s Israel a new state of being is in the making – the Israeli state of being. Just as there is a rationalist Judaism, a Hassidic Judaism and a Lithuanian Judaism, now another form of Judaism is emerging before our eyes: Israeli Judaism.

This new form of Judaism encompasses music, literature, traditionalism, rituals, and habits. Israeli Judaism lives in the present and faithfully echoes the past. Chazal, the sages of the Oral Law, noticed the linguistic similarity between banim (“children”) and bonim (“builders”): al tikrei banayikh ela bonayikh (“Call us not your children, but your builders””) (Babylonian Talmud, Brachot 64a). The German-Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig explained that people can be children of the tradition, but also builders of the tradition. The children of the tradition are the tradition’s passive heirs, while the builders of the tradition are active partners in its formation. If Israeli Judaism is indeed an authentic form of Judaism, just as Lithuanian Judaism and Hassidism are authentic forms of Judaism, then the Israeli cultural space is a space whose participants are not only the children of the tradition but also its builders.

Israeli Judaism has no legal owners. It does not belong to the religious, or to the secular. Both these streams produce it, and both consume it. Israeli Judaism is a great tent of identity that shelters religious, Masorti, and secular Jews alike.

The collapse of the binary  

Per conventional political wisdom, Israel is an arena where Jews and Israelis clash. But the reality of Israeli life undermines this convention. A binary distinction between Israelis and Jews could only have been made before the founding of the state – before life melded the two categories together.

The phenomenon known as “Israeli Judaism,” a vital, living ethos that expresses the way most Israelis actually feel, calls into question the idea that Israeliness stands in opposition to Jewishness. Just as Lithuanian Judaism is a type of Judaism and Hassidism is a type of Judaism, so is Israeliness a type of Judaism. The attempt to place the two in opposition is a conceptual failure. Is basketball the opposite of sports? Is jazz the opposite of music? Basketball is not the opposite of sports but rather a type of sport, and jazz is not the opposite of music but rather a type of music. Likewise, Israeliness is not the opposite of Judaism, but rather a type of Judaism. It is Israeli Judaism.

In his Republic, Plato discerns a profound relationship between a society’s music and its character. Plato believed that when music changes, society changes. He even maintained that when music departs from its common modes, its listeners also become less obedient and less law-abiding. Plato took this idea seriously enough to assert that, in an ideal state, restrictions should be placed on the kinds of music that citizens listen to: if musical change precedes social change, then by controlling music one may control the consciousness of society.

We can glean instruction from Plato’s insight without adopting his conclusion. Rather than changing music in order to control society, we can analyze music in order to understand its audience. For decades, “Jewish music” and “Israeli music” were totally separate genres. Israeli music, including the songs of Shalom Hanoch and Arik Einstein, sounded completely different from Jewish music in the manner of Mordechai Ben David and Avraham Fried. Singers of Jewish music had a Yiddish, “exilic,” accent, while Israeli vocalists had an Israeli, “sabra,” accent. The two genres were intended for two utterly distinct audiences and were even aired on separate radio stations: Kol Israel and Galei Tzahal played “Israeli music,” while the Haredi radio stations played “Jewish music.”

Two decades ago, a dramatic turnabout occurred. Leading figures in the Israeli music industry began writing, composing, singing and playing new melodies. Berry Sakharof, Etti Ankri, Corinne Allal, Ehud Banai and others started putting piyyutim (Jewish liturgical poems), Biblical verses, and psalms to music. The accent of these singers is the sabra accent. Their music is played on the non-Haredi radio stations, and their audience segment cuts across sectors. The content of this music consists of poems and verses from Jewish sources.

In what category should we place these productions – “Jewish music” or “Israeli music?” Meir Banai’s Sha’ar HaRachamim (“Gate of Mercy”), Ehud Banai’s Egel HaZahav (“Golden Calf”), Hanan Ben Ari’s Cholem Kmo Yosef (“Dream Like Joseph”) and Ishay Ribo’s Seder Ha’Avoda (“The Avodah Service”) are huge hits. These are the most Israeli songs imaginable, but they are also the most Jewish songs imaginable.

The story of Israeli music is a story of two genres that merged and became a single genre. Jewish music and Israeli music have become “Israeli Jewish music,” and if music indeed mirrors society, then the wall that collapsed – the wall that differentiated between Jewish and Israeli music – reflects the collapse of the divide between Judaism and Israeliness.

A tourist from a distant land who comes to Israel and tries to understand the country can do so by observing it through two different windows. One window is that of Israeli politics, and the other is that of Israeli music. Through each of these windows, the tourist will see a different Israel. When he tries to understand Israel in terms of its politics, he will conclude that the country is deeply divided between “Israelis” and “Jews,” but when he studies it via the music being created here, he will see Jewishness and Israeliness merged into each other. Which version should he believe? Which is the prism that offers a more truthful image of Israel – the country’s politics or its music?

There is an answer to this question that is supported by data. According to in-depth surveys conducted by the statistician Camil Fuchs and the researcher Shmuel Rosner, the new synthesis in Israeli culture does faithfully reflect a new identity synthesis: a minority of Israeli Jews identify as “Israeli,” another minority identify as “Jewish,” while an absolute majority of the Jews in Israel identify as “Israeli Jews.”

Of all Zionism’s attainments, and of all that Israel has accomplished on the political, military, technological, and economic planes, history will remember, above all, the state’s cultural achievement: the creation of a climate that enabled the Jewish people to write a continuing chapter to the Jewish story.

Dr. Micah Goodman is a writer and a scholar of Jewish thought.