The Role of Judaism

The Role of Judaism

In 1988 two-thirds to three-quarters of Jewish Israelis were not religious or Orthodox in observance or practice. Among the minority of the religious who were the most extreme in their adherence to Judaism--the haredi--the very existence of Israel as a self-proclaimed Jewish state was anathema because Israel is for them (ironically, as it is for many Arabs) a wholly illegitimate entity. Given these facts--the large number of secular Israelis, and the sometimes fierce denunciation of the state by a small number of the most religious extremists--one might expect the traditionalists to play a modest role in Israeli society and culture. But the opposite is true; traditional Judaism has been playing a more dominant role since the late 1960s and affecting more of the political and economic dimensions of everyday life.

The relation between traditionalists and the Jewish state has always been ambivalent and fraught with paradox. In the nineteenth century, Zionism often competed with Orthodox Judaism for the hearts and minds of young Jews, and enmity existed between Orthodox Jews of Eastern Europe and the Zionists (and those residing in Palestine in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries). Orthodox Jews resented the dominantly secular nature of Jewish nationalism (for example, the desire to turn the holy tongue of Hebrew into an instrument of everyday discourse), whereas the Zionists derogated the other-worldly passivity of Orthodox Jews. Among the most extreme Orthodox Jews, the Zionist movement was deemed heretical because it sought to "force the End of Days" and preempt the hand of God in restoring the Jewish people to their Holy Land before the Messiah's advent.

Nevertheless, for all its secular trappings, Zionism as an ideology was also profoundly tied to Jewish tradition--as its commitment to the revival of the Jews' biblical language, and, indeed, its commitment to settle for nothing less than a Jewish home in biblical Palestine indicate. Thus, secular Zionism and religious Judaism are inextricably linked, and hence the conceptual ambivalence and paradoxes of enmity and attraction.

In any case, conceptual difficulties have been suspended by world events: the violence of the pogroms in Eastern Europe throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and the Holocaust carried out by Nazi Germany, in which approximately 6 million Jews were killed, nearly destroying Central and East European Jewry in the 1930s and 1940s. In the face of such suffering--and especially after the magnitude of the Holocaust became known--Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews devised ways to work together in Palestine despite their fundamental differences. When the advent of the state was followed immediately by invasion and lasting Arab hostility, this cooperative modus vivendi in the face of a common enemy continued.

The spearheads of cooperation on the Orthodox side were the so-called religious Zionists, who were able to reconcile their nationalism with their piety. Following Rabbi A.I. Kook (1865-1935), the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Palestine, many believed that Zionism and Zionists, however secular, were nonetheless instruments of God who were engaged in divinely inspired work. On a more pragmatic level, under leadership such as that of Rabbi I.J. Reines (1839-1915), the religious, like the secularists, organized in political parties, such as the Mizrahi Party. They were joined in the political arena by the non-Zionist Orthodox, organized as the Agudat Israel Party. Although Agudat Israel was originally opposed to the idea of a Jewish state, it came to accept the rationale for it in a hostile gentile world (especially after the Central and East European centers of Orthodoxy were destroyed in the Holocaust). Because Orthodox Jews, like secularists, were organized in political parties, from an early date they participated--the religious Zionists more directly than the religious non-Zionists-- in the central institutions of the Yishuv and, later, the State of Israel. Indeed, since 1977 and the coming to power of Menachem Begin's Likud, Orthodox Jews have been increasingly vocal in their desire not just to participate in but also to shape--reshape, if need be--the central institutions of Israeli society.

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