Reports

MASORTIM AND MASORTIYUT IN ISRAEL

WORLDVIEWS, DISCOURSE, AND CULTURAL TRENDS

Gabriel Abensour

MASORTIM AND MASORTIYUT IN ISRAEL

In the broader public discourse, the Masortim are often depicted as gam v’gam – “both one and the other.” This portrayal is frequently negative, the dualism being depicted as an inability to choose between secularism and religiosity. Another variation on this idea – more positive though suffused with essentialist romanticism – highlights the exceptional inclusivity of the Masortim. The data indeed show that the Masortim are better able than any other Israeli sector to coexist gracefully with all other Jews, whether they be Haredi or secular, LGBTQ or settlers. And yet, even at the intuitive level one senses that a “both” identity does not necessarily lead to acceptance or tolerance. The Religious Zionist, for instance, though identifying with both Jewish nationalism and the Orthodox idea of mitzvah observance, nevertheless has a separate identity from the secular or Haredi Jew, and will not necessarily display tolerance toward either.

In order to understand Masorti tolerance, I suggest that we return to the secularization process and to the creation of forms of categorical belonging. As Charles Taylor noted, secularization empowered the “I” and focused on the human sphere, thereby creating new forms of belonging.101 Taylor calls these forms “categories,” seeing them as based on impersonal attributes. These attributes may be nationalist, religious, or ethnic, or they may be associated with specific political outlooks or, in fact, with any type of formulated ideology that redraws boundaries of belonging. The secret of Masorti tolerance is not the ability to straddle two competing identity categories, but rather the ability to rise above them. In this sense, Masortiyut emerges through a rejection of the modern paradigm described by Taylor, and from a desire to reestablish a deep sense of Jewish belonging.

I propose that this old-new Masorti identity be thought of as porous. A porous identity is one that is not dominated by dogmatic-ideological thinking and is therefore able to absorb new ideas and even to expand on the basis of those ideas. It stands in contrast to the non-porous identity categories of secularism and stringent ultra-Orthodoxy. This organic and living identity-porousness has been described in various ways by all of the spokespersons of Israeli Masortiyut. This is how Meir Buzaglo, for instance, writes about the Mizrahi-Masorti identity:

The Masorti can usually live in peace with both secular and Haredi Jews. He has no need of religious-secular dialogue, and certainly not of artificial dialogue, as he generally has family members in both camps. In fact, the very idea of dialogue between Haredim and secular Jews is alien to the Masorti ethos, as such dialogue presupposes polarity and even exacerbates it. The Masorti moves freely between the camps. It does not bother him that the camps do not belong to his own circle, nor does he wish to “convert” his interlocutors. […] He shares many values with the secular, and other values with the Datiim and the Haredim. As noted above, he does not view one as wrong and the other as right.102

In the absence of categorical thinking about identity, the Masorti moves freely within the Jewish space without feeling separateness or that he is in ideological discord with one side or the other. He is able to absorb the good in everyone, but also to stand up for his own beliefs. This isn’t “both one and the other” but rather a comprehensive subversion of the polarization itself. For this reason, despite its ethnic component, Mizrahi Masortiyut is unquestionably capable of expanding beyond ethnicity, as Yafa Benaya suggests:

An understanding of Masortiyut as a space of multiplicity allows us to expand it beyond the identity of a specific group, the “Mizrahim,” and to transform it into a proposed alternative for the Israeli Jewish sphere as a whole. An understanding of Masortiyut not as still another category of “religious” or “secular,” but as a different way of organizing the Jewish identity space – this could serve as the inspiration for a different Israeli model, one that would replace the rigid division between secularism and Orthodox conservatism. This is a proposal for a different kind of conversation or, more precisely, for a multiplicity of conversations, with Jewish tradition.103

Many other figures at the secular-Masorti end of the spectrum have talked about this sphere of multiplicity and made this same proposal for a different kind of discussion about the Jewish cultural-ideological space. Notable among them was Professor Eliezer Schweid, who pointed out that ideological-categorical thinking distorts the Jewish experience:

If we merely allow ourselves to shake off the influence of the frameworks of public belonging that unequivocally identify us with one or another camp, and that condition us to a stereotypical self-concept, we will see that the needle on the dial of our life trends, even regarding everyday decisions, is never fixed. It quivers and shifts, and sometimes even jumps from side to side. How many moments of unbelief mark the life of a man who usually defines himself as a believer, and how many moments of faith mark the life of a non-believer? When we fail to acknowledge the closeness of those two worlds, the degree to which they reflect each other and the openness of the border between them, not only are we disregarding the other choice, which defines our worldview in the intellectual sphere, but we are also disregarding the delicate fabric of human experience.104

Not only does categorical language create artificial separatism, it is also a disservice to the human spirit and to Jewish heritage, which does not want to remain with the confines of a specific ideology. The same criticism of rigid identities, and of the idea that there exists a secular-Masorti identity capable of engaging in dialogue with the entire Jewish sphere, was formulated by Beeri Zimmerman, a leader of the Jewish renewal movement, as “secular” Judaism:

I’m not “secular.” That word grates on me. But I’m not exactly “religious,” either. There are “religious” Jews whose Judaism I feel very close to, and there are “secular” Jews whose Judaism I’m uncomfortable with. In short, I’m sick of these terms, that don’t really map the dividing line I want. And now I’ve figured something out: I’m an “open-window” [haloni] Jew, and my adversaries – “secular” [hiloni] Jews, “religious” Jews, if they so wish – are “shuttered” Jews. Who is an “open-window” Jew? Someone whose windows are open wide and offer a view of other Jews, other possibilities; someone who’s aware that there are other windows from which people are observing him. And the “shuttered” Jew is one whose blinds are closed. Within his sealed room he lives, not looking out, no one looking in. “One-truth!” his entire being proclaims, unaware of the shutters enclosing him. Many are the scenes he might view through his blocked windows, but himself he sees in them as in a mirror. Not me, not the other open-window Jews, who look upon his shutters through unobstructed panes. Happy am I to be an open-window Jew.105

Using poetic language and a pun on the Hebrew word for “secular” (hiloni) Zimmerman describes the “open-window” Jew, the Jew who grew up in Israel’s strictly secular environment but chose to open himself up to other identities and to return to the Jewish bookshelf. This is an intellectual, spiritual, and identity journey from “shuttered” Judaism – an insular Judaism founded on an impermeable identity – to an “open-windowed” Judaism of porous identity, able to engage in productive dialogue with Jews of all stripes. Like Buzaglo, Zimmerman takes care to emphasize that this identity is based on a clear worldview. In his case, this is a continuation of his parents’ secular identity, but with a new story added to that edifice or, in his words, new windows. The purpose of exiting one’s rigid identity is not to tear down the building, but rather to expand and open it up to new vistas.

On the religious side, much has been written about “datiyut haretzef” or “religiosity on the spectrum” as being based on a soft religious identity that engages in dialogue with other Israeli identities. Rabbi Ido Fechter expressed this effectively in his proposal not only to open windows to the religious world beyond Israeliness, but also to open the gates of Halacha itself and to create a pan-Israeli Halacha.106

As with Zimmerman, Buzaglo, Benaya and others, Fechter’s approach is based on the belief that there need be no artificial divisions between the various components of the Jewish people, all of whom are able to engage with their common heritage and together reformulate it with a view to the future. From a less rabbinical angle, Micah Goodman recently proposed seeing a religiosity and a secularism capable of talking to each other and learning from each other as “another kind of religiosity” and “another kind of secularism,” which together are creating an “Israeli middle way”:

This is not a middle way from a sectoral perspective, but rather from a supra-sectoral perspective. A Jewish religiosity that is open to the world is another kind of religiosity; diverging from conventional religious norms, it cannot be said to be a middle way within religious society. Similarly, a secularism that is tied to Judaism is another kind of secularism; it diverges from the classical conception of secularism, so it cannot be said to be a middle way within secular society. But together, these paths constitute a middle way in the culture of Israeli society as a whole.107

Goodman is describing here the porous identity of the “other” religious and secular people, those with Masorti identities that connect them to each other despite their many and varied backgrounds, lifestyles, and beliefs. Together with the Mizrahi Masortim, they are creating an alternative web of discourse for Israeli society, based on a rejection of categorical thinking, on identity porousness, and on continuous dialogue with Jewish tradition.

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