Gabriel Abensour


Masortiyut is a soft identity that emphasizes self-evident belonging to the Jewish people over the radical ideologies that split the people into sectors and subsectors. However, among Masortiyut’s proponents we can discern different approaches to the roots of Masortiyut and, accordingly, different approaches to Masortiyut’s present and future goals. It should be noted this time that the various approaches do not necessarily reflect the three-Masorti-discourse breakdown described above. Rather, they create ideological frictions that sometimes spill over into those subgroups.

One approach relates to Masortiyut as a continuation of premodern Jewish identity. Supporters of this approach view European-Jewish modernity as the spark that caused the nation to split into rival ideological camps, and Masortim as those who have remained attached to a continuous Jewish identity that transcends the camps.

This approach is having two direct effects on the Israeli-Jewish present. One is in the religious sphere: If Masortiyut preceded the various Jewish streams, then it has a kind of precedence over them. This is a Masortiyut that is willing to include the different streams – from Orthodoxy to Reform – on condition that they first recognize its precedence. In the words of Meir Buzaglo: “Tradition is the womb from which the Jewish movements and streams emerged, and to which we will return with every innovation and update. As with the biological phenomenon of stem cells: Cells that have undergone differentiation – Haredism, Reform, Religious Zionism, Conservatism – may contain much knowledge and wisdom, but you don’t return to them when you want to build something new.”124 Just as there is criticism of the modern streams, there is also criticism of modern nationalism and a contention that Masorti-Jewish nationalism preceded it.1125 This is a narrative that is naturally more conservative from a religious and social perspective, as it views Masortiyut, and in particular Mizrahi Masortiyut, as a more authentic identity than the other modern-Jewish identities.

Another approach relates to Masortiyut, and in particular to Mizrahi Masortiyut, as a fundamentally modern phenomenon. This approach has received support from research by the sociologist Nissim Leon, who has investigated Masortiyut from the long perspective of Middle Eastern/North African Jewry.126 In his view, while secularization directly clashed with religious belief in the Christian-Western context, in the MENA context it did not manifest as opposition to religious tradition, but rather as disengagement from strict religious observance.

Per this approach, Masortiyut should not be regarded as a fragile religiosity lacking in commitment to what it perceives as an important source of authority, but rather as a reflection of modern secularization processes as shaped by Muslim societies, and which also found a place in Judaism. Abandonment of the Orthodox perspective that characterizes Israel’s religious-secular discourse enables one to see Mizrahi Masortiyut as a non-Western modern secular version of Judaism. The main emphasis, in this case, is thus on Masortiyut’s ability to accept the premises of secularization while also offering a more conciliatory approach to the various components of Israeli-Jewish existence. The picture that emerges is of a Masortiyut whose power lies in its ability to encompass the various parties and to create a broad sphere of commonality. In the national context, advocates of this approach stress the ability of Masortiyut to breathe new life into Israeli mamlachtiyut. In the religious context, this is a Masortiyut that supports the existence of a soft secularism and a soft religiosity, without deciding between them.

A third approach sees Masortiyut as a postmodern phenomenon. Per this approach, Masortiyut sprang from the criticism to which secularization and the halutzi-Zionist negation of the exile were subjected. It is a path of re-engagement with the past and with Jewish heritage that emerged when the basic assumptions of secularism were questioned. It is a Masortiyut that criticizes the illusion of “rightness” on which the modern streams of Judaism are built, but without proposing a return to an imagined premodern Masortiyut.

This Masorti approach also engages in productive dialogue with the past and with Jewish heritage, but out of a belief that multiple voices, multiple interpretations, and a divided culture are among the major features of that heritage. The continuity represented by this approach is not a matter of lifestyle, beliefs or opinions, but of awareness of the past, and of attempting to reformulate it for our present. As Ruth Calderon put it: “What was does not have to be what will be, but the knowledge of what was makes choice and innovation possible.”127 Lacking an ability to rank the various Jewish systems and streams, this Masortiyut offers a distinctly pluralistic approach to all.