iENGAGE: Reimagining the Jewish in ‘Jewish’ state
An engaged and pluralistic Jewish public sphere can enrich life in Israel and across the Jewish world.
Rabbi Hartman funeral Photo: Rachel Marder
There was something poetic in the fact that in the same week that Rabbi David
Hartman (z”l) passed away, one of his students, Ruth Calderon offered a moving
lecture in Talmud in her maiden speech in the Knesset as a new MK for the
centrist Yesh Atid party.
Hartman, who championed a pluralistic, morally
driven and engaged Judaism – a Judaism that informs the public policy of a
Jewish state and the private search for meaning of Jews everywhere – did not
live to see his ideas expressed so poignantly from the floor of the
But his spirit and his philosophy were there in full
The power and resonance of Hartman’s thought and life’s work
challenged and helped undermine the idea that the Jewish population of Israel
can be neatly separated into religious and secular – with religious meaning
Orthodox, and secular meaning Israeli as distinct from anything Jewish. He saw
the Torah as a living document for all Jews to wrestle with, not the domain of a
select stream. And he saw the State of Israel as an opportunity for Jewish
values to meet the reality of a sovereign existence, not a purely secular
experiment that only seeks to ensure that Jews can live a “normal”
The “religious/secular” divide never really reflected the diversity
of Jewish expression in Israel.
Today, it should be declared
And David Hartman, years before the idea was popular, led the
effort to bury it. Yes, the inadequate language of “religious and secular” still
exists and permeates the discourse, but it does not reflect reality.
obscures more than it reveals about what Jewish Israelis feel about the role of
Judaism in the state and in their lives. It confuses both what is agreed and
what is disputed about the place of Jewish identity in Israeli
Over several decades there has been a renaissance of Jewish
life, learning and culture in Israel that is rich and vibrant but does not
necessarily regard orthodoxy as the final word on authentic Judaism. It is
found, for example, in secular batei midrash study halls and synagogues that
have sprouted across the country, in Israeli music’s return to Jewish roots, and
in a search to give new meaning and new interpretations to Jewish festivals
across non- Orthodox Israeli society.
And, in this recent election, there
is a sense that this Jewish revival has finally penetrated Israel’s political
realm. It is evident in the language of the Knesset where “secular” (or,
perhaps, “post-secular”) MKs remind us that our Jewish tradition is a shared
heritage, where the monopoly of the Chief Rabbinate is being ever-more
challenged, and where claims for social justice, lowering the cost of living,
“burden sharing” and more, are advanced not only in terms of a liberal,
democratic social contract, but on the basis of Jewish ideas and
It is too early to assess the scope and impact of this
But here are some areas where it promises to bring change.
First, there is now a clear and growing non-Orthodox, non-traditional
constituency in Israeli society that cares about how Judaism is given meaning in
Israeli public life. For too long, secular Israelis left this question to the
exclusive treatment of the national-religious and ultra- Orthodox parties. Even
if they looked for new ways to be Jewish privately, or within their own
communities, they did not challenge the dominion of Orthodoxy.
Conservative Jews outside of Israel found few political allies within Israeli in
their battles for legitimacy and equality.
Today, one can hear a rising
Israeli political voice that questions the power of the Orthodox rabbinate, that
doubts the wisdom of Orthodox control over personal status issues such as
marriage and divorce, and that is willing to challenge the preference given to
one form of Jewish practice over other denominations.
But what is
especially significant is that this voice is not necessarily driven by a desire
for the state to be more secular, but rather by a demand that it be more
inclusively and equitably Jewish.
Second, the rising place of Jewish
content in non-Orthodox political circles creates an opportunity to reimagine
the very meaning of the word Jewish in “Jewish state.”
For a long time,
secular Israel conceived of the Jewishness of the state in the shallow terms of
a Jewish majority, the Law of Return, and of public symbols and days of rest
that have Jewish origin. But, increasingly, one hears debate about how Jewish
values and our experience as a people should shape our public policy, from
social welfare, to the treatment of minorities, to national security issues. It
is a debate not about how Israel can be a “normal” state, but about how we
create a society that gives public expression to the unique history, ideas and
diverse traditions of the Jewish people.
Third, an Israel that is
perceived as divided along religious/secular lines is an Israel that can often
feel distant and alien to the thriving multidenominational and pluralistic
Jewish communities outside the country, particularly in North America. In this
construct, Diaspora Jews can feel that Judaism in Israel is radically different
from their own, and offers them little by way of a sense of belonging and
connection. By breaking down that false paradigm and realizing that the
religious/secular divide just does not describe contemporary Israel, we also
create multiple points of connection and interrelationship between Jews inside
and outside Israel that will strengthen us as a people.
In all these
ways, and others, the deepening and broadening of our conception of Jewish in
the Jewish state offers new opportunities, whose full potential cannot yet be
clearly mapped out. The empowerment of an engaged and pluralistic Jewish public
sphere carries the possibility of enriching the life, culture and public
discourse in Israeli society and across the Jewish world. This growing power,
however, is not without its dangers. If used as a blunt instrument, it will
alienate and produce backlash among the Orthodox, whose legitimate interests and
needs are no less deserving of respect. It should be wielded with sensitivity,
with determination and with hope.
Dr. Tal Becker is a Senior Fellow of
the iEngage Project at the Shalom Hartman Institute. Learn more about iENGAGE at