Modernity—modern values, modern institutions, and modern politics—have served as both a blessing and a curse for the Jewish people. The granting of citizenship through Emancipation gave Jews an equality and freedom they had not experienced before in the Exile. No longer would Jews in the West merely be tolerated. They would be citizens. The downside to Emancipation was that integration and acculturation were replaced by assimilation and loss of Jewish identity.
As well, modern political national movements in Europe inspired the rise of Zionism and the founding of a Jewish State in the Land of Israel. This would not have been possible before the onset of modernity, Jewish Enlightenment embodied in Haskalah, and European nationalism. Yet, at the same time, modernity spawned new forms of racial anti-Semitism that would prove the most deadly in Jewish history, leading to Auschwitz and Babi Yar.
These are the legacies of modernity, both triumphant and tragic, both successful and disastrous. We cannot turn back the clock nor should we. In terms of human history, the onset of modernity occurred only recently and the changes it brought about were revolutionary. We, as Jews and human beings, must learn to live with this radical change without embracing all the institutions and ideas of the past two centuries. But we simply cannot run away from these realities. We cannot return to the medieval ghetto and we cannot return today to a community with laws based solely on halacha. There is no escaping modernity and we cannot retreat from the challenges and obstacles modernity entails. There is no running away.
Jewish leaders all over the world—including rabbis and including the Chief Rabbinate of Israel—must begin to deal with some very difficult issues. From the mapping of the human genome to the plight of women who are agunot and whose husbands refuse to offer a religious divorce, Judaism must respond and act. Even if Jews in America and Israel are living in democracies, Jewish law should still stand up and address the pressing issues of the day. If rabbis and communal leaders cannot do so, Judaism will devolve into a fossil and a relic. Judaism must speak to the movements and technologies of the 21st century. Two thousand years ago Hillel the Elder had to provide a constructive solution to the erasure of debt in the Sabbatical year, responding to the situations of real life. The rabbis of Yavneh reconstructed Judaism in the face of a destroyed Temple in Jerusalem. If Philo in ancient Alexandria faced Plato’s philosophy, if Maimonides struggled with Aristotle, if Martin Buber interpreted modern existentialism—we must do the same.
Israel’s Chief Rabbinate must start facing the challenges of our time. Israel has become the political, religious, and ideological center of world Jewry. Its religious leadership is failing to address as important a modern issue as the status of Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union, 250,000 whom live in limbo from the standpoint of Jewish identity. When will the issues of conversion of Jews accepted under the Knesset’s Law of Return but who are not halachically Jewish be resolved? This is an important issue and it must be tackled by the Chief Rabbinate. This body seems to be only interested in political privilege. This will not do. Jews never ran away from pressing issues that needed to be resolved to maintain unity and continuity and we cannot stop now.