Ordination and Academic Convocation Address Professor Joseph Dan Gershom Sholem Professor of Kabbalah, Institute of Jewish Studies, Hebrew University of Jerusalem - Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion
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Ordination and Academic Convocation Address Professor Joseph Dan Gershom Sholem Professor of Kabbalah, Institute of Jewish Studies, Hebrew University of Jerusalem

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Thursday, April 1, 1999

March 11, 1999 / 23 Adar 5759

Fifty years after the establishment of the State of Israel it is possible to view the developments which occurred in this period in the realm of Jewish religious culture in a methodical, historical way. It seems to me that the major historical changes which characterize this period can be presented by six important phenomena: five of them relate to movements and groups which existed before the State was founded, and only one is completely new, the result of the unique circumstances created by the State of Israel.


The most important change, which is the least understood yet the dominant one and affecting and overshadowing all others, is the gradual though drastic change in the attitude of the majority of Israeli citizens towards Jewish tradition. The non-religious segment of Israeli society, the hilonim, was transformed in these fifty years from a community which, while not participating on a regular basis in Jewish rituals and not observing most of the mitzvot, cherished and appreciated Jewish culture as a component of its heritage and did not see any conflict between it and the attachment to European-American cultural norms, into a community dominated by deep resentment - often, even hatred - towards all manifestations of Jewish tradition. Subjects like the Bible, the aggadah, history and archaeology of Israel, Jewish philosophy and kabbalah, and many others, which have been part of Israeli culture in the fifties and sixties, have been identified now with haredi fanaticism and are being ignored, if not rejected, by the hilonim. This period is characterized by the staunch refusal of this vast segment of Israeli society, which includes most of its social and intellectual leadership, to uphold and join any non-orthodox expression of Judaism. It insists that true, authentic Judaism is only that of theharedim, which they love to denigrate. The hope of bringing forth in Israel a viable non-orthodox synthesis between the best of Western humanistic culture and a selection from the values and norms developed in the millennia of Jewish religious creativity has been lost. Attempts to revive such a synthesis have been made, and are being made today, but their chances of having a meaningful impact on Israeli society are diminishing with each passing year. Every decade in the history of the state was more detached, more remote, more ignorant and more antagonistic to Jewish tradition in its entirety than the preceding one.


The second dramatic change which occurred in this period, closely related to the previous one, is the disillusionment of a significant segment of Israeli society from the socialist dream, as apart from the universal crumbling of the Marxist movement. Socialism in Israel - like that in many other countries - acquired religious dimensions, and it expressed a spiritual dedication to a utopian future, which will redeem both society and each individual from all their worldly flaws. It was fused with the Zionist dream, and - unlike what happened in most other countries - it was believed to be, at one and the same time, a revolution against Jewish religious tradition and a revival of the best values inherent in that tradition. Many Zionist socialists viewed the establishment of socialism as the fulfillment of the visions of biblical prophets concerning social justice and the creation of a perfect social order. Many of the components of Jewish traditional concepts of redemption were fused with the Marxist utopia, and the kibbutzim, for instance, were regarded as the place where a new Judaism would be created. The crisis which brought about the demise of socialism all over the world should be viewed, in the Israeli context, as a spiritual-religious one, which left its adherents in a cognitive void, destroying not only social-political visions but also Jewish ones. With the abandonment of this dream, many Israelis lost the hope for the renewal of Judaism in a modern context. It should be remembered that Zionist socialists were those who refused to dedicate themselves completely to international socialism and insisted on a particular, Jewish-Israeli brand of the world movement. The present dedication of the hilonimto Western culture without any particular Jewish-Israeli character is an expression of deep disappointment and the void left by the crumbling of socialism.


The third change occurred among the seekers of another kind of fusion - the orthodox Zionists (Mizrahi, Ha-Poel Ha-Mizrahi, the Mafdal). This movement was dedicated, in the first decades after 1948, to the inclusion of Jewish norms and values in the structure of the State of Israel, often causing intense political conflict with the hilonim, the majority. However, after the wars of 1967 and 1973, this meaningful segment in Israeli society was divided into three parts. Some of them drifted towards the haredim and became ultra-orthodox, thus diminishing the Zionist component in their world-view; others tried to continue the old way and tried to influence Israeli society to follow a more Jewish path (they are represented today by the Meimad movement); but the majority of the orthodox Zionists adopted a nationalistic-messianic world-view, and dedicated themselves completely to the ideal of settling the territories, substituting a geographical-political ideal to a religious-cultural one. They allied themselves with the right wing of Israeli politics, which is led by people who are not characterized by their adherence to Jewish norms and precepts. They became separate from the mainstream of the hilonim not only because of their orthodoxy, but also because of their extremist political beliefs, thus contributing to the identification, in the eyes of many hilonim, of Jewish tradition with nationalistic fanaticism. Since the Oslo Agreement they have been put on the defensive, knowing that their political-religious dream has been marginalized in Israeli society and culture.


The fourth change, which is the only one which occurred outside of Israel but has an impact on its culture and politics, is the increase in the involvement of the leaders of non-orthodox Judaism in the diaspora in Israeli affairs. In the first decades after the establishment of the state, the Reform and Conservative leadership was remote and hesitant in its relationship towards Zionism and Israel. In the last few decades, however, the centrality of Israel for these movements has been enhanced, and today there is a meaningful group of Jews who belong to these congregations who have two homes, one in Israel and one in the diaspora, who come to Israel several times every year and in many cases their families are divided between two countries. These groups, mostly but not exclusively from the United States, represent a non-orthodox Jewish religiosity, together with some congregations which were organized within Israel. They express the existence of an alternative Jewish way, but at the same time their presence emphasizes the remoteness of this alternative from the hearts and minds of most Israelis.


The ideological changes which occurred in these fifty years among the Ashkenazi haredim, both the Hasidim and the Mitnagdim (opponents of Hasidism, often called "Lithuanians") are minimal and secondary when compared to their increase in numbers and in political and cultural impact.


The anti-Zionist and non-Zionist ultra-orthodox, who were regarded as marginal and meaningless in 1948, have become one of the most dynamic and fastest growing segments of contemporary Judaism. The miraculous resurgence of Jewish ultra-orthodoxy after the Holocaust and after the victory of Zionism has induced self-confidence in the leadership of these communities, and many of them adhere today to the belief that the future is theirs, that they are the only "real" Jews in the world and that eventually this will be recognized and accepted by all. Their increased involvement in the affairs of Israel has diminished the early attitude of standing aloof from the state's institutions, and their rejection of Zionism is expressed today more symbolically than actually (refusal to fly the flag, celebration of the Day of Independence, non-acceptance of the title of government ministers while employing ministerial powers in the full). They are still characterized by their sectorial adherence to their own community rather than that of the state as a whole, and their political quest for exclusion: from army service, from the system of education, living in separate neighborhoods, even from municipal and state taxes, yet always relying on public funding. The crisis of the last few weeks is the result of their quest to be exempt from the state's judicial system. It is wrong to suppose that this crisis is caused by the Supreme Court's adoption of the Yale Law School principle that "everything is justiciable." Rather, the question is not what, but who, is justiciable. The haredimwould be completely satisfied if this principle would be applied to everybody else but themselves. It should be remembered that the principle that "everything is justiciable" had actually been invented by Moses, millennia before it was re-discovered in New Haven, and the Jewishhalachah - especially as utilized by many present rabbis - does not accept that there is anything, in any realm, to which the norms of Jewish law do not apply. The haredim have come into conflict with the last Israeli institution which has universal jurisdiction on the country, and they struggle to be exempt from its decisions as they are from almost all other realms of Israeli existence.


These five changes occurred within movements and groups which existed and flourished before the establishment of the state. The only religious-cultural phenomenon which developed within the State of Israel, as a result of the unique circumstances of Israeli existence, is the Sephardi ultra-orthodoxy, represented by the Shas movement. Its origins lie in a deep sense of rejection experienced by talented Sephardi young students who were educated in Mitnagdic academies but were not accepted as equal by the Ashkenazi haredim, and felt obligated to establish their own separate entity, though emulating the norms of their Ashkenazi teachers. This rejection was fused with deep feelings of resentment towards the Ashkenazi establishment as a whole, feeding on the deep-rooted feeling that Israeli society treats Sephardi Jews, especially immigrants from North Africa, as second-rate, inferior citizens. They cherish the tradition of the "golden age" of Spanish Jewry in the Middle Ages, and seek political power in order to achieve social and cultural equality in the fabric of Israeli society. Shas has become the third largest party in Israel, and its aspirations increase with its remarkable achievements. Most of its leaders do not share the intense rejection of Zionism by the Ashkenazi haredim, but, like them, they seek separation from the state's institutions, most notably by the development of their independent system of education (though it is fully financed by the state). It seems that there is an intrinsic conflict within this movement between purely sectorial tendencies - to use its power to take care of its own people - and an inclination to use its increasing influence to shape the country as a whole and take part in all political and cultural processes in Israel. Much depends on the results of the elections to be held in a few weeks. If Shas will continue to increase its power and influence the second trend may dominate, and if it will be felt that it has peaked, it may withdraw into the confines of representing its own sectorial interests.


Summarizing the developments and changes during these fifty years from the point of view of the historian of the Jewish religion, one can state that they are characterized, in the first decade or two, by the diminishing of the uniting forces which were apparent when Israel was born, and the last three decades are marked by an increase of radicalism and extremism in almost all the separate religious trends of which Israeli culture is constituted. Groups are receding from each other, increasingly despairing of any discourse and understanding between them, and substituting political struggle to spiritual dialogue. The fragmentation of the concept of Judaism in this country is increasing daily, and the distance between the different parties is becoming unbridgeable. What seems to be even more worrying is the fact that most sections have even stopped dreaming; it is very difficult to find in Israel (or the diaspora) meaningful groups of Jews united around a religious vision. Even the Lubavitch messianic dream which dominated the hearts of thousands just a few years ago seems to have left behind it only a fragmented and confused Habad movement. It is nearly impossible to discern positive, constructive tendencies in any of these groups; they seem to be set on the acquisition of political power to further their particular interests rather than a sincere quest for dialogue and understanding. For instance, recent events seem to have brought the hilonim in Israel into closer contact and support of the non-orthodox Jewish denominations. But this is not a religious bond; it is based on common views concerning civil rights and the rule of law, rather than a shared religious attitude.


If I must conclude these brief remarks with an expression of some hope for the future, I can find it only in one powerful lesson of history: Historians make very bad prophets, probably the worst, especially in the ever-changing Middle East. If the historian fails to find a way out, leading to a better future, history itself will.

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