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(First of Two Parts)
While there is of course more than one way to look at the last two centuries of Jewish life on the planet, one instructive way to summarize them might be as a two-hundred year search for an alternative to traditional Orthodoxy.
Beginning with the Haskala (Enlightenment) movement and the partial, or in some places total, emancipation of Jews from the constrictions of the ghetto, Jews faced the dilemma of how to deal with modernity and “rationality,” particularly in such matters as technology, science, and higher education. The dilemma of how to adapt Judaism to the modern era and how to merge it with modernity was particularly sharp in Western Europe and North America, but played a role elsewhere as well.
The attempts to resolve the dilemma took five principal forms:
* Quasi-assimilation in the form of radical reformation of Judaism
* Diminution of Judaism while conscripting Jews for Non-Jewish political movements
* Secular Zionism
* Modern Orthodoxy.
Before taking them on one by one, let us note that not all Jews felt the need to attempt to resolve the conflict between Orthodoxy and modernity. Large numbers of those popularly referred to as ultra-Orthodox (or haredim) resolved the dilemma by defying modernity altogether or seeking to minimize its presence in their lives. Their attitude might best have been summed up by Rabbi Moses Sofer of Pressburg: “All that is new is prohibited by the Torah.”
Their resolution of the dilemma took the form of refusal to adopt modern dress, lifestyle, and often even language. Yiddish-speaking haredim are still to be found everywhere from Brooklyn to Meah Shearim, often living in homes where there is no television, no radio, no Internet connection; where no form of higher education or training besides yeshiva study is pursued, where Darwin and astronomy do not exist; in short, where an embargo on modernity in most of its forms takes place.
The pole diametrically opposite to the rejection of modernity by haredim is the secularist extremism of modern Jewish assimilationists. These resolve the dilemma by rejecting all forms of Jewish tradition and embracing modernity and “progress,” not to mention consumerism, as its replacement.
Between the two extremes are those who have searched and attempted to develop and proffer various forms of blending of Jewish tradition with modernity. And all of these forms have failed in one way or another.
Trying To Blend
Perhaps the most commonplace form of “blending” in the Diaspora is the adaptation of Jewish tradition to modernity through religious reform. This has taken many forms. In its earliest manifestations in Europe and especially Germany, this took the form of adopting outer symbols and signs of modernity while maintaining a total commitment to Rabbinic, i.e., halachic, Judaism.
In the vision of Moses Mendelsohn and others, Jews would maintain their traditions while dressing in modern fashion, speaking German or whatever was the language of their surroundings, learning modern trades and professions, making synagogues less “backward” looking, making Jewish prayer less boisterous and disorderly and “offensive” to gentile
However, such modest tampering gave way within a generation to “reforms” so radical that the European reformers themselves often were indiscernible from the full assimilationists. Jews would move their Sabbath to Sunday, would refrain from circumcision, would abandon all observance of kosher eating laws, would pray in the language of whichever country in which they happened to live, would cease to attend separate Jewish schools, and so on. Some of the more radical reformers eventually converted to Christianity.
The radical reformers of tradition also were commonly involved in another effort to merge Jewish tradition in some form with modernity — namely, conscripting Jews into non-Jewish patriotic or political movements of one sort or another. Those who did so sought to gain acceptance for Jews through their being seen as integral parts of the progressive, liberal (occasionally conservative) and patriotic organizations and parties in their countries of residence.
Advocates of this solution to the modernity dilemma argued that such mobilization for “good causes” should be the primary expression of Jewish modernism. The specific causes selected varied from country to country. In Hungary it was Magyar patriotism. In Russia it was socialism and communism. In parts of Europe it was and is support for social democrats. In the United States it was and is political liberalism.
While there are many interesting case studies of the attempts to resolve the dilemma of modernity, I personally find that of Hungary to one of the most instructive. In the first half of the nineteenth century, Hungarian Jews essentially embraced all of the above methods to resolve the dilemma except secular Zionism, which came along two generations later.
Most Hungarian Jews embraced radical Magyar nationalism. Indeed, they participated in the Hungarian nationalist movement and in the army that attempted to fight a war of independence against Austria in numbers far exceeding their proportion of the population. They made enormous efforts to “Magyarize” themselves, and abandoned Yiddish and German for Hungarian. They even resented the immigration of non-Magyar Jews into Hungary and sometimes lobbied to prevent their admission.
Significantly, the excessive Magyar patriotism of Hungarian Jews brought down upon them unanticipated — but all too characteristic — consequences. It earned them the enmity of the Austrian rulers of the country and Austrian anti-Semitism. The non-Magyar minority groups in Hungary resented the attempt by the Jews to enlist in the Magyar nationalist movement, and anti-Semitism was fanned among the Serbs, Croats, Rumanians, and other non-Magyar elements in Hungary. And Jews were blind to the growth of Magyar anti-Semitism.
Meanwhile, much of the Hungarian Jewish Reform movement was so extreme as to endorse de facto adoption of Christianity as the religion of the Jews, and many leading Hungarian Reformed Jews did in fact convert. Other segments of the community embraced Orthodox rejectionism of modernism.
Attempts to substitute fashionable political causes for Jewish identity have generally failed. They have often resulted, not very surprisingly, in full assimilation. In the United States, for example, much of the Jewish community declared that political liberalism was its new form of modern “religion,” in which Jewish identity would be subordinated to the pursuit of “social justice” goals.
Such Political Liberalism as Religion manifests itself in a general disregard for less fashionable forms of Jewish tradition, and generally restricts itself to a shallow appeal to “Tikkun Olam,” suitably misinterpreted, and empty nostalgia for the Ethics of the Prophets as expressed in such trendy things as the struggle for affirmative action, gay marriage, and the environmentalist agenda.
After two generations in which this new political orthodoxy has dominated the non-Orthodox segments of the American Jewish community, intermarriage rates have passed the 50% mark, total assimilation is commonplace, and the non-Orthodox forms of Judaism in North America are in imminent danger of disappearing altogether in another generation or two.
Modern Orthodoxy, Secular Zionism
That leaves us with two other attempts to merge Judaism with modernity: secular Zionism and Modern Orthodoxy. But before turning to secular Zionism, a brief word is in order about the Modern Orthodox, who generally see no conflict between science, technology, and Judaism. In an important sense, Modern Orthodoxy is the least unsuccessful of all the attempts to resolve the dilemma that concerns us. It is a thorough integration of traditional, that is, halachic, Judaism with modernity. Moreover, its practitioners are the least likely to assimilate and leave Jewish frameworks and institutions, and certainly the least likely to intermarry.
The failure of Modern Orthodoxy has been its inability to attract larger numbers of Jews, especially those who have otherwise resolved the dilemma by abandoning Orthodoxy altogether. The Modern Orthodox in the United States are a small minority among Jews, a somewhat larger one in Israel and certain other Diaspora communities. There is, of course, always a stream of ba'alei teshuva, or returnees to Orthodoxy, among some Jewish secularists, though in recent years they have gravitated more often than not to the haredi and mystical/chassidic variants of Orthodoxy.
But as an alternative that resolves the dilemma between modernity and tradition for the bulk of modern Jews, Modern Orthodoxy has not been embraced and is unembraceable. People who do not believe in G-d, or who cannot bring themselves to believe in traditional Jewish doctrines, are unlikely to become Modern Orthodox Jews, although I suppose one should not automatically dismiss the possibility that some of their offspring might.
In sum, it's fair to say that the aforementioned attempts by Jews to adjust to the new reality — staunch patriotism, radical religious reform, Orthodox rejectionism — ended in total failure. Indeed, each in its own way prevented Hungarian Jews from migrating to safe havens, such the United States or Palestine, before World War II. And in the end the super-patriotism and Magyarization did not prevent the Hungarian nationalists from joining the German Nazis in exterminating five out of every six Hungarian Jews in the Holocaust.
One of the greatest ironies of Jewish history is that the secular Zionism of the nineteenth century was formulated precisely for the purpose of offering an alternative to the assimilationism and “self-hatred” of the Diaspora. It arose as a response to both assimilationism and
anti-Semitism. Who then could have dreamed that it would itself magnify anti-Semitism, in time giving birth to a particularly malignant form of Jewish anti-Semitism within the Jewish state itself, leading to a bizarre form of Israeli “Post-Jewish” assimilationism in Zion?
From Jewishness To ?Israeliness'
Until very recently, it was widely presumed that the one unqualified success in resolving the dilemma between Jewishness and modernity was achieved in Israel. Secular Zionism represented a blending of modernity with Jewishness that involved neither the assimilationism of the radical reformers nor the rejectionism of the fervently Orthodox. It achieved this in the formation of “Israeliness,” which was a new phase of identity for Jews who lived in their own Jewish state. Israeliness was ever-so-modern, with high-tech industries cropping up everywhere, with European standards of living and lifestyles, with prestigious universities and scientific institutions, not to mention a military of legendary prowess. All this in a state whose raison d'etre was its Jewishness, its serving as a national home for Jews.
Certainly, Israeliness had its problems, not least of which was a dubious, if not outright hostile, attitude toward Jewish tradition. Israel's intellectual, journalistic, academic and artistic elites have long displayed a deep animosity to matters of religion and to religious people, an antipathy shared by parts of the broader secularist population. This was fanned in part by resentment at the powers of the politicized religious Establishment. Anti-Orthodox bigotry has long been the primary form of bigotry in the country, escalating after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin by a religious law student.
Beyond hostility to religion and tradition, Israeliness also had other dubious roots. There was always a strong ''Canaanite'' trend present in Israeli society, especially among its intellectual elite, which insisted that Israelis were a new ''post-Jewish'' nationality and ethnic group
(The ''Canaanites'' were a movement of Israelis in the 1950's and thereafter who attempted to detach Israeliness from Jewishness and create a new “non-denominational” Hebrew-speaking “nationality” of Israelis, one that could encompass the Arabs as well.)
As such, these new “Israelis” had little in common with Diaspora Jews and even less with Diaspora history. Many an Israeli Jew insisted that he had far more in common with the Druse
and Bedouins of the country than with Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn. One of the many forms of backlash against Diaspora Jewishness in Israel was a ferocious hostility to Yiddish. Another was a wave of demonization of Orthodox Jews, which included the emergence of single-issue political parties devoted to bashing the Orthodox.
In the first decades of its existence, the celebration of “Israeliness” in Israel took many forms, including those that downplayed the role of Jewishness in the state. The curriculum at secular schools, which the majority of Israeli children attend, was largely stripped of Jewish content. Jewish history in the typical Israel school ended at Masada or with Bar-Kochba and then mysteriously rematerialized at the first Zionist Congress in Basel. Jewish religion, other than the Bible, was eliminated almost altogether from the curriculum, except in the religious schools.
The result of all this is that today many an Israeli teenager cannot complete the sentence that begins with the words “Shema Yisrael,” and few can correctly explain what the Amida is.
The celebration of Israeliness was also widely believed to offer the ultimate path toward resolution of Arab-Jewish differences. After all, there was no reason why Arabs could not follow the example of the “Canaanite” Jews and embrace with enthusiasm the new Israeliness, an
Israeliness that would transcend religion and pre-Israeli ethnicity or religion.
National challenges and “Canaanitism” aside, until recently few would have questioned the basic conclusion that secular Zionism had succeeded where all other attempts to bridge Judaism with modernity had failed. Despite the State of Israel's many serious problems, Israelis were at least not assimilating like their brethren in the Diaspora; they would always remain Jews, even if only Jews knowing little about Judaism.
How could it be otherwise, in a state where Hebrew was the everyday language of communication? Where Jewish holidays were the bank holidays? Where Jewish symbols were the symbols of state?
Moreover, the secular Zionist merging of Judaism with modernity appeared to be stable for the long run. It was not threatened by modernity even in its most extreme forms.
It is the contention here that the collapse of the Oslo “peace process” will produce a crisis of identity for Israeli Jews and perhaps for Jews outside Israel as well. More and more, questions are being raised about whether secular Zionism was ever really successful at all.
Certainly no such crisis in Israeli identity is as yet fully evident or widely recognized. Indeed, much of Israeli society and most of Israel's media and chattering classes have yet to internalize fully the fact that the Oslo “peace process” has not just stalled, but has come to an ignominious end.
Nor have most Israelis come to terms with the implications of that failure. But fail it has, and it is only a matter of time before the underlying questions will arise and force their way onto the national agenda.
(Continued Next Week)
Steven Plaut is a professor at the University of Haifa.
About the Author: Steven Plaut is a professor at the University of Haifa. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
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