The 2022 Annual Assessment

The Situation and Dynamics of the Jewish People

Project Head:
Shmuel Rosner

Gabriel Abensour, Nadia Beider, Dan Feferman, Shlomo Fischer, Shuki Friedman, Avi Gil, Noa Israeli, Dov Maimon, Steven Popper, John Ruskay, Adar Schieber, Noah Slepkov, Yedidia Stern, Shalom Salomon Wald, Haim Zicherman

Barry Geltman

[addthis tool="addthis_inline_share_toolbox_2u16"]

The 2022 Annual Assessment

Changing Haredi Leadership

On Shushan Purim, (March 18, 2022), Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, the leader of the “Lithuanian” wing of Haredi Judaism passed away at the age of 94. R. Kanievsky represented the culmination of a long-term trend of establishing charismatic leadership at the head of this community. R. Kanievsky held no institutional or official leadership position, except for his occasional participation, in his last years, in the Torah Sages Council of the Degel HaTorah party (the political representative of the Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox public). In a similar vein, most of those who sought an audience with him after he became the sole leader of Lithuanian Jewry in 2017, despite his immense erudition, were not pursuing Talmudic or halachic answers, but rather his “blessing” and/or guidance in their personal lives.

The development of this charismatic orientation is somewhat surprising given that the central ideal of “Lithuanian” Haredi life is the rational study of Talmud and Halacha (Jewish law). Nevertheless, we should recall that the origins of modern Lithuanian Haredi society trace back to the leadership of R. Eliyahu (1720-1797), the Gaon of Vilna, who also had no official position and achieved leadership due to the charisma associated with his extraordinary learning. Over the years though, while charisma maintained a certain degree of importance, especially since the founding of Agudath Israel in 1911, most of the leaders also held official leadership positions either as heads of yeshivot or as communal rabbis or rabbinic judges. R. Chaim Kanievsky, in contrast, remained a Kollel student almost his entire life, though he could have benefited from his family connections in obtaining an important official position – he was the son of the Steipler Rabbi (R. Yaakov Kanievsky), one of the most important Talmudists since the Second World War.

Together with this charismatic leadership, R. Kanievsky’s family maintained an efficient “court” or staff, which channeled his leadership into actual political influence. It appears that this staff continues to function and R. Kanievsky’s children, and even his grandchildren, remain influential. It is possible that this influence continues because no obvious figure has emerged to replace R. Kanievsky’s leadership.

The most plausible candidate is the 97-year-old R. Gershon Edelstein, who heads the Ponevezh Yeshiva in Bnei Brak and has much less of a charismatic orientation.

It is possible that as the culmination of Lithuanian charismatic leadership, R. Chaim Kanievsky, was also its last great representative. Haredi charismatic leadership seems to be inextricably linked to politics. The concept of Daat Torah (special Torah insight) was developed by Agudat Yisrael in Poland in the interwar period to give its leaders the capacity and authority to rule on mundane matters of politics, economics etc. Unlike formal halachic rulings, Daat Torah does not require that one write a formal legal opinion (responsum) marshalling evidence and arguments. Naturally, this concept very much augmented the charismatic aspect of Haredi rabbinic authority.

Charismatic leadership facilitates a strong sense of communal belonging and collective identity. According to historian Gershon Bacon, Daat Torah was established as a defensive measure to help close ranks and increase Haredi political mobilization. The contemporary emphasis on Daat Torah and charismatic leadership started in the 1950s with the leadership of the Chazon Ish, R. Abraham Isaiah Karelitz (1878-1953), R. Chaim Kanievsky’s uncle.

However, the impact of this leadership remained primarily confined to the small and emerging Haredi community. This charismatic leadership took on greater national importance when Agudat Yisrael became an important member of the ruling right-wing coalition in 1977. R. Eliezer Min-Shach, who was the most important leader of that time, began to receive national media coverage and politicians began to make regular pilgrimages to him.

However, the political self-conception of the Haredim may be changing. Rather than viewing themselves as an embattled enclave of religious purity, they may be starting to see themselves as an integral part of Israel’s ethno-religious right-wing. The move of some Haredi voters to support the right-wing religious nationalist “Religious Zionist” party is evidence of this shift. This move was so pronounced in the last elections that a full Haredi Knesset seat switched over to the Religious Zionists.

The need for charismatic leadership seems to be connected to the self-image of the Haredim as an enclave. As an embattled enclave, they need the high boundaries and full mobilization capability charismatic leadership provides. However, if they see themselves as part of a more general right-wing political force, that is, as part of the dominant political bloc in Israel, the Haredim might feel much less threatened and the need for charismatic leadership dissipates.

Different Patterns of Returning to Judaism

Uri Zohar was the most famous Israeli “returnee” to ultra-Orthodox Judaism. A very important and central film director, actor, and stand-up comedian, his adoption of a Haredi Orthodox Jewish way of life in the late 1970s caused a sensation. Despite his absolute commitment to the Haredi way of life, he continued to maintain contact with figures from his former world – entertainment and culture – especially maintaining his close friendship with his former collaborator, Arik Einstein. The pair even became family members as two of Zohar’s sons married two of Einstein’s daughters.

Zohar (and Einstein) represented the post-heroic phase of Israeli culture – the period of the 1960s and ‘70s, when after the heroic creation of the state, the Zionist dream settled down into the routine forms of everyday life in the Israeli heartland of greater Tel Aviv. While early Israeli drama and films centered around the heroic struggles and self-sacrifice involved in the creation of the state, Israeli literature, drama, and films in the late 1960s began to examine the more quotidian aspects of daily life. Uri Zohar had a major hand in this as he introduced French New Wave cinema to Israel. Under this influence he made such Israeli classics such as Peeping Toms (1972) and Big Eyes (1974), which dealt with the themes of infidelity and casual sex.

In this context, Zohar’s “return to Judaism” should be construed as a challenge: Can the routinization of the Zionist dream really provide meaning and fulfillment? Can meaning and fulfillment really be had by focusing upon the small pains and pleasures of love and autumn days, or of exploring the moral dilemmas of marriage and infidelity? Zohar’s films, especially those made in the 1970s, seem to indicate an underlying sense of existential emptiness.

It is within this context that one can interpret the ongoing friendship between Zohar and Einstein as presenting, in a nutshell, the two main Israeli cultural options of those years – either life in the routinized Zionist utopia of Tel Aviv or life in Bnei Brak, the Haredi “negative” of secular Israeliness. In other words, both the extremely religious Zohar and the very epitome of secular Israeliness, Arik Einstein, shared the same conceptual map. The fact that each chose different paths along that map is less important.

Each of these options was conceived of as total. The “truth” that Zohar found in ultra-Orthodoxy was of the same order as Stalin’s socialist “truth,” that he was taught as a teenage member of the Hashomer HaTzair (the left- wing Labor-Zionist secular youth movement). The total and unquestioning commitment to a “the truth” (of whatever sort) is characteristic of Zohar’s (and Einstein’s) generation. However, it appears to be less characteristic of the contemporary generation. Shuli Rand, a much younger performer and film director, also returned to ultra-Orthodox Judaism, becoming a Breslover Hasid. His “return” is more nuanced, as he has made films critical of the Haredi establishment. A step that would have been unthinkable for Zohar.

This distinction between the totalistic “return” to Judaism of Zohar and the more nuanced “return” of Rand reflects a central shift in Israeli culture – from the collectivism that characterized Israeli society in the first half of the 20th century and the early decades of the state, to the more individualist culture that started to characterize Israel at the end of the 20th century and has continued into the current century. “Return” today does not signify joining a sweeping mass community with a clear and unequivocal truth. Rather, it is a choice that stems from the individual’s search to crystalize meaning and identity. Thus, even though those who return to Judaism enter a framework of Orthodox observance of the commandments, they continue to explore the appropriateness of the new framework for each of them personally. This enables them to identify with certain parts of the return to Judaism package and have reservations about other parts.

The Lead Tablet from Mt. Eival

One of the ongoing controversies of Jewish and Eretz Yisrael studies has been the relationship of contemporary archeology to the Bible. Archeology, of course, has been one of the more fraught disciplines in Israel. The archeology of ancient Israel, both of the Biblical and the Second Temple periods, has provided both a sense of identity and legitimacy to the Israeli nation-state. It had been commonplace that literary works such as the Bible and the writings of Josephus Flavius provided a guide to locating archeological finds and interpretating them. At the same time, archeological finds enabled one to understand the Bible and canonical Jewish texts better and confirmed the veracity of biblical accounts.

Yet, some archeologists have argued that many finds (or lack of them) did not in fact confirm biblical accounts but rather contradicted them. Archeological research showed that many central biblical accounts were “mythical” and did not really represent factual history. Some archeologists, too, have been uneasy with the connection between archeology and Israeli nation-building, arguing that archeology as a scientific discipline should not serve political or identity ulterior motives.

The latest fascinating stage in this ongoing controversy has been the spectacular find on Mount Eival in Samaria of a (2 cm by 2 cm) lead “curse” tablet. The Book of Deuteronomy (chapters 11 and 27) commands that once the Israelites crossed the Jordan and entered the Land of Israel, they were to carry out a ceremony blessing those who keep God’s commandments and cursing those who do not. The ceremony was to be conducted in the valley between Mt. Gerizim and Mt. Eival. Half of the Israelites were to face Mt. Gerizim and utter the blessing and half were to face Mt. Eival and utter the curse. According to the Bible (Joshua 8), this ceremony was carried out by Joshua and the Israelites after they crossed the Jordan and after their victory over the city of the Ai. The Book of Joshua states that along with the ceremony Joshua built an altar on Mt. Eival and offered sacrifices.

Archeological interest in Mt. Eival started in the 1980s when a young Israeli archeologist, Adam Zertal, uncovered a large rectangular structure he claimed fit the descriptions of an alter in the Bible and the Mishna. Zertal dated the alter to the late Bronze Period and argued that it was in fact the altar Joshua built. Zertal’s claims were met with skepticism by other archeologists because there is not much archeological evidence for the biblical conquest narrative. Nevertheless, excavation continued on the Mt. Eival site by American (with Christian and Evangelical affiliations) and Israeli teams. Early in 2022, using new technologies to sift the earth around the “altar” site, the teams found a folded lead tablet with an inscription inside. The tablet has been dated to the late Bronze Age (thought to be the time of Israelite penetration into the Land of Israel) and contains a Hebrew inscription. Using sophisticated scanning techniques researchers contend that the inscription is a curse. In other words, a tablet containing a curse has been found on the mountain that the Bible describes as the mountain of the curse!

The Christian institutes that sponsored the excavations held a press conference before these findings and their analysis had been submitted in a formal scientific article subject to peer review. They claimed, of course, that the find reconfirms the veracity of the biblical account. Israeli Bible scholars have stated that the inscription is formulaic (it starts and ends with the words “cursed be”) and conforms to biblical usage. Other scholars have argued that the Christian affiliation of many of those involved in the excavation and analysis casts some suspicion on the findings, especially as they have not yet undergone proper scientific evaluation and peer review.

If the findings are validated, then they do not exactly conform to the biblical text but are, rather, in the “spirit” of the biblical account. That would seem to indicate a midway position regarding the issue of the relationship of archeology to the Bible – not an exact reproduction – but something that increases the plausibility of the biblical account.

The Roots of Jewish Consciousness

Since Steven M. Cohen and Arnold M. Eisen published The Jew Within in 2000, researchers have been aware that moderately affiliated American Jews tend to construct Jewish meaning in personal and private terms. Accordingly, a growing body of literature addresses “Jewish spirituality,” and offers insights into the “self-development” and “self-transformation” that enables one to become a more “authentic” and “fulfilled” human being and the practices associated with doing so. Many of the recently arisen “alternative minyanim” have a spiritualistic orientation, and this trend has extended itself, to some degree, to the Israeli Jewish Renewal movement.

Erich Neumann’s The Roots of Jewish Consciousness promises to make a significant contribution to this trend. Though Neumann wrote this book in the 1940s and ‘50s, it was first published in English in 2019. In February 2022, the Hebrew translation appeared. Neumann (1905-1960) was a prominent psychoanalytic theoretician and a leading student of Carl Jung. Although brought up in an assimilated German-Jewish family, he was influenced by Martin Buber’s presentation of Hasidism. Based upon his reading of Hasidic stories and teachings, he identified key aspects of Jungian Depth Psychology in Jewish religious teachings, especially among Hasidism.

Hasidism, with its focus upon the soul and its powers, is well positioned to be articulated in the terms of Depth Psychology. Neumann identified in Hasidic teaching the integration of the Jungian “shadow-self” into the overall personality and the integration of the feminine and masculine aspects of personality (anima and animus).

Neumann worked on the Roots of Jewish Consciousness during the same years he wrote his most important works, The Origins and History of Consciousness (1949) and The Great Mother (1955). However, he didn’t publish the Roots of Jewish Consciousness, possibly because he did not have access to the original Jewish and Hasidic sources. Neumann thought that this connection between Hasidism and Jungian Depth Psychology would bring about a renewal of Judaism among assimilated Jews. He was not wrong. The “introversion” of Judaism today (two generations after his death) is connected to a revival of interest in Judaism among some non-Orthodox and loosely affiliated Jews. The publication of both volumes of The Roots of Jewish Consciousness will likely quicken interest among those searching for “the Jew within.”