An Orthodox Jew looks at Israel’s secular-Orthodox divide

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Review

“The Wondering Jew: Israel and the Search for Jewish Identity” by Micah Goodman. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press 2020. 190 pages. $30.


Many religious Israeli Jews are not free people, writes author Micah Goodman, but are servants to an “ossified” halachah. In addition, being faithful to Jewish law sometimes means they must jettison science and ditch their human values — especially when it comes to the rights of women and homosexuals. They often tend to be dogmatic, closed and intolerant of others, writes Goodman, an Orthodox Jew, in a stimulating intellectual treatise into the great divide separating secular and religious Israeli Jews.

However, studies also show that religious Israelis are happier than their secular counterparts. They possess “a sense of belonging to something greater than themselves, and thus restrain and moderate the powerful forces of modernity that push people toward self-absorption.”

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Secular Jews claim that secularism nurtures free people who live their values, guided by their consciences. Unfortunately, notes Goodman, the 20th century saw people in the most secular parts of the world commit unspeakable atrocities. ”Human beings who had no faith in a higher being and felt no connection to an older tradition had nothing to restrain the evil they harbored inside themselves,” he writes.

Secularism also fails to satisfy its adherents’ “emotional needs” to be part of something greater than themselves. Families in religious communities — and those communities, as well — tend to be much stronger than their secular counterparts.


Many secular Israelis not only reject their tradition but also know little about it.

So, should Israelis sacrifice liberty for tradition or tradition for liberty? Is dogmatism or ignorance worse? Israelis need not be forced into choosing between two unpalatable possibilities, the author argues.

For both within the religious and secular worlds are people whose ideas present both a way out of that dilemma and bridges to people on the other side of the religious-secular divide.

Sure, there are secularists like Mica Josef Berdyczewski, who believed that a free Jew is one who severs himself from the past, that studying Jewish texts and Jewish law is what enslaved the Jews.

The renowned Jewish thinker Ahad Ha’am, however, had a different take on tradition. He believed that Jews created the Torah and that “secular Jews would devote themselves to studying their nation’s Holy Scripture in the same way religious yeshiva students did.”

Yeshivah students would search for “divine will”; secular students for “the national spirit. … Consequently, the Jewish nationalism that would replace the Jewish religion would not abolish tradition — it would renew it.”

The great Israeli poet Hayim Nahman Bialik agreed. Bialik called for a secularized version of Jewish law. For example, he wanted to reshape Shabbat. During the week, we “struggle for survival. … On the Sabbath, we reach for the meaning of life.”

On the religious side, in the 19th century, fearful of the new openness of European society, which might seduce Jews away from Judaism, haredi Orthodox Jewry froze Jewish law. “The progress of halakha was halted, and its evolution ended,” according to the author.

When Israel became a state, this most conservative version of Judaism took control of the state’s religious establishment and remains the dominant strain of the religion today.

But there also are thinkers who give us hope, Goodman believes. Hillel and Maimonides were both open to change.

So are some prominent modern Sephardi rabbis. While conservative Ashkenazi rabbis advocated no change in Jewish law, Rabbi Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uziel, the chief rabbi of Mandatory Palestine in the early 1940s, believed that when life changes, the law must change.

Rabbi Haim David Halevi asked how it was that the Torah given in antiquity still guided the Jewish people thousands of years later. It was because religious leaders down through the generations were permitted to “renew halakha according to the changes in times and events… .”

There are growing numbers of young secular and religious Israelis who are drawn to the old/new versions of secularism and religion, Goodman writes.

“When secular Jews in search of inspiration meet religious Jews who dare to open up to the world, they frequently discover they have more in common with each other than with their original societies,” he says.

Unfortunately, the open Orthodoxy in which universal values from prophetic Judaism play such a big role is only relevant for Israel, the author believes. Elsewhere, the tsunami called assimilation dictates the use of an unchanging halachah as “defense barriers” against the disappearance of the Jewish community.

That’s a shame, because the changes that Goodman talks about would revitalize American Orthodoxy and perhaps make it and traditional Judaism in general more attractive to the country’s young Jews.

Aaron Leibel’s memoir, “Figs and Alligators: An American Immigrant’s Life in Israel in the 1970s and 1980s,” is slated to be published by Chickadee Prince Books early next year.

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