Gabriel Abensour


In the old debate over Judaism as religion or culture, Masortiyut long ago chose Jewish heritage as the thread that connects them. Alongside the axis of Judaism as religion or culture, we may posit another axis, tradition. One pole of the axis represents disconnection from tradition, while the other represents submission to it. Generally, the completely secular person may be situated at the intersection of “disconnection” and “culture,” while the Haredi may be placed at the intersection between “religion” and “submission.” The Masorti identities are all much closer to the center. They all agree that Jewish heritage includes a religious and a cultural component, and they all refuse to detach from it or to self-abnegate before it. Some Masorti identities emphasize the religious or the cultural elements more strongly, with varying levels of obligation to observe the religious commandments. Common to all is a self-concept as heir to Jewish tradition, and thus a desire to continue that tradition organically, which necessarily includes appropriation, interpretation, and reformulation so that the tradition can stay alive and keep developing.

The Israeli Masorti identities maintain loyalty to Jewish tradition, but seek to investigate, develop, and interpret it from a standpoint of autonomy and free choice. Meir Buzaglo described this interpretive autonomy as inherent to a living tradition:

The Masorti has autonomy in interpreting the content of the words he has inherited. Thanks to this autonomy, there can be several meanings for “each one,” and these meanings may contradict what might seem from the outside to be departure from tradition or the like. Thus, a tradition-oriented person also has the possibility of understanding his parents’ words in terms of another line of argument. The Masorti not only has the key to deciphering what his parents have told him, but also the knowledge of how the assertions were made and on the basis of what rationale. The dynamic nature of tradition manifests not only in the interpretations of words and concepts, but also in how they are argued, and this makes a high degree of freedom possible.113

The ability to interpret and reformulate tradition so that it will remain alive and comprehensible in the renewing present was referred to by the Shadmot circle as an inherent “right to homiletically interpret” Jewish tradition:

One thing that’s important to me in Jewish tradition is the right to take a homiletical approach to it. The right to interpret is a recognition of the fact that we accept the yoke of tradition but see ourselves as having the right to express our world through it – the right to interpret entails recognition of the eternal nature of the Torah and of the historicity of its manifestations.114

Despite the similarity between Buzaglo’s and Tsur’s views, the difference between them is also noteworthy. For Buzaglo, the process of transmission is characterized by intimacy between the transmitters (the parents) and the receiver (the child). This intimacy allows interpretation that goes beyond the words and returns to the power of assertion. In contrast to the Mizrahi-Masorti founded on the continuity of transmission, the secular-Masorti identity is founded largely on the attempt to reformulate and make understandable the traditions that were not handed down by the parental generation. However, a sizeable portion of the secular-Masorti narrative that developed within the Jewish renewal circles interprets the generation of the halutzim and the Second Aliyah as an inseparable part of the continuum of Jewish tradition.115 Rather than symbolizing the generation of disconnection, the halutzim gained an interpretation that made them a generation of connection, of special importance in the development of a contemporary tradition anchored in the Jewish generational succession and the Israeli here and now.

Among the more autonomous circles of Religious Zionism, the individual’s choice regarding Jewish tradition, and his ability to interpret it, have long been regarded as central. Ariel Picard expressed it thus:

If we look at the history of Jewish tradition, we find that interpretation always accompanies the choice between different options. The nature of Jewish interpretative culture which places the interpretations alongside the source, and not as a substitute for it, requires of the student a multivocal, pluralistic, approach to the tradition. […] The modern Jew sees himself as someone with the authority and the responsibility to choose the sources and the traditions that inspire him as an individual and as a member of a society and a people. Berl Katznelson expressed it well: “A renewing and creative generation does not throw its inheritance on the dust heap. It studies and investigates, puts it at a distance and brings it closer; at times it keeps hold of tradition and adds to it, while at others it descends into the junkyard, discovers forgotten things, wipes off the rust, revives an ancient tradition capable of feeding the soul of the renewing generation.”116

This same action of “shaking out” tradition and bringing forgotten voices from it into the present has been described by Micah Goodman as the basis for “another kind of religiosity” and “another kind of secularism” that are now emerging in Israel.117 In his view, these different kinds of religiosity and secularism constitute two counterpart groups, each of which, in its own way, seeks to continue Jewish tradition, and which together are creating an “Israeli middle way.” “Another kind” of secularism and “another kind” of religiosity are more or less what we have been referring to here as Masorti secularism and Masorti religiosity, i.e.: identities that are formulating themselves on a basis of consideration for Jewish tradition and openness to the possibility of absorbing new ideas.