On the Future of Judaism in the Jewish State
A few months ago, I was giving a lecture in Connecticut in honor of Israel’s Independence Day. At the end of the talk, a woman came up to me and cried, “I have five grandchildren; only two of them are still Jewish.”
One does not need a Master’s degree in statistics to know that the United States is not the best place to live if you want to ensure that your children and grandchildren remain Jewish. Indeed, the future of Judaism is in the state of Israel.
Just look at the data. In 1948, 5.2 million Jews lived in the United States and 650,000 lived in Israel. Today, over 6 million Jews live in Israel — a symbolic number — while the population in the US is in fact declining, in large part due to increasing rates of assimilation and intermarriage. There is no doubt that the Jewish majority, the Hebrew language, the Israeli lifestyle and the overall Jewish character of the state of Israel are all factors that dramatically increase the probability that the Jewish state will be responsible for the continuation of Jewish civilization.
But, even in Israel, there are no guarantees.
Anyone who is familiar with Israeli expats living in the US has likely heard the stories about the man who only heard kiddush for the first time in New York, or the girl who discovered the Jewish tradition of havdalah in a Michigan summer camp.
Assimilation is not limited to exile.
Only a few weeks ago, I was astonished to find out — despite my familiarity with the problem — that only one of my 56 students at the Tavor Academy for Social Leadership knew the prayer of Yedid Nefesh. The safety-net created by the state of Israel and the Hebrew language is riddled with holes, as it enables Jews to feel Jewish without ever knowing anything about the Gemara or siddur.
The secularized assimilation of Israeli society is a looming threat to Jewish civilization. The Jewish state is in danger of transforming into the Israeli state. The Zionist project may itself be responsible for bringing about the the end of Judaism, or at least distorting its foundation.
I direct anyone who finds this to be a far-fetched scenario to a 2003 petition to Israel’s High Court of Justice crafted by left-wing supporters and Israeli artists demanding that the ethnic registration on their identity cards be changed from “Jewish” to “Israeli.” Politician Shulamit Aloni, playwright Joshua Sobol and former Israel Air Force commander Benny Peled were among the petitioners. Their argument claimed a distinct “Israeli nationhood,” separate from the Jews. The request was rejected and, a few years later, Noam Sohlberg, a Jerusalem District Court judge, upheld that decision, stating, “The issue is not one for the court to decide, and there is no legal proof of the existence of a uniquely ‘Israeli’ people.”
This petition is one of the clearest expressions of the cultural battle between those who wish to protect and preserve the Jewish character of the state of Israel and those who wish to move the country in a post-Zionist and post-Jewish direction.
Standing on the sidelines of this cultural battle are those — such as Noar Hagvaot (Hilltop Youth) and some Orthodox Jews who wish to transform Israel into a state governed by religious law — and those, such as the Meretz political party and the New Israel Fund, who wish to transform it into a “transparent” state without any particular religious or cultural character, on the grounds that democracy and Judaism are contradictory.
However, these groups are not representative of those who will largely influence or determine the results of the cultural battle. Those who will shape the future are ironically not widely represented in the media discourse, despite holding the beliefs of the majority of Jewish-Israeli citizens. The secular Zionist Jews, the traditional Jews, tolerant Orthodox Jews, and the religious Zionists are the groups who will decide whether or not, in 50 or 100 years, there will be 10 million Jews living in a either a thriving democratic Jewish state, an Israeli state lacking in both Zionism and Judaism or a faltering religious state.
These groups must be persuaded that democracy, identity, liberalism and Judaism do not contradict one another. As Natan Sharansky wrote in his inspiring book, Defending Identity:
Democracy expresses the value of liberty; identity provides a reason for liberty… Democracy – liberal life in a liberal society – is essential because it enables us to choose our own paths, act on and pursue our goals. It expands our options and gives us an opportunity to develop ourselves. Identity – a life of commitment – is essential because it fulfills the human need to be a part of something larger than us. It adds meaning to our lives and deepens the human experience.
The decision is in the hands of our educators and cultural influencers. They are are now required to execute the second phase of the Zionist Project, a phase emphasizing culture and spirit. The time has come to bring about the vision of Ahad Ha’am, the founder of spiritual Zionism who mourned the lost connection to the Jewish legacy:
Is it the future of the Israelites to live in their land according to their unique spirit, and to develop their nationality that was left to them as their legacy, or is the future of the state only a “European colony in Asia,” a colony who looks to the “Metropolis” in yearning, and strives to imitate it?…[I]f there is no more a link between past and present nationhood in Israel, and the whole of our national ideal is that we will have the ability to be Ashkenazi or French, in a unique State, why have we lost our power – and especially, our son’s power – to study the language and literature of the past, and the past itself, which has no future?
As an educator and head of Tavor, I allow myself to be cautiously optimistic. Under the media’s radar, deep processes are taking place. Over 15,000 young Israelis aspire to attend the Mechinot (pre-Military leadership academies), where unity within Israeli society is promoted and students’ connection with and understanding of Judaism in all of its various forms is deepened. Jewish renewal organizations within Israel, such as Kolot and Alma, are appearing more and more. Changes are occurring within haredi society, such as gradual integration into the army and workforce. It appears that despite strong currents acting against the second phase of the Zionist revolution, the phase of cultural Zionism is still moving forward.
The power of Israel culturally, spiritually, socially, economically and militarily will determine the strength of Judaism. Therefore, those who care about the future of Judaism must take part in securing Israel’s prosperity, not just as a military power or a start-up nation, but as a Jewish nation.