Liberal Judaism and complexity science

 Two friends, who I am sure do not know one another, have provoked this note with issues dealing with what appear to be different matters. 

One worries about the weakness of Liberal Judaism in Israel. Another sent me an item about "complexity science."

The topics link to one another. The "findings" of complexity to explain the weakness of Liberal Judaisms in Israel. 

One friend is a Reform Rabbi, who asks why Israel's secular plurality (more than 40 percent of the Jewish population) does not provide more support for non-Orthodox Judaism.

The best answer came years ago from a prominent liberal politician, Haim Ramon, one of the country's innovators,  largely responsible for producing a considerable advance in the country's health system. 

Ramon said that secular Israelis were not religious, and have no reason to support another religion in competition with Orthodox Judaism.

Israel recognizes as Jews those who affiliate with Orthodox and non-Orthodox congregations, and accepts those individuals who don't pass muster with the Rabbinate on account of a non-Jewish mother or a non-Orthodox conversion. However, the status of different Judaisms is limited by politics. There aren't nearly enough non-Orthodox, religious Jews in the electorate to counter the three or four Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox political parties in the Knesset (their numbers vary with shifting alliances) that are committed to the proposition that non-Orthodox Judaisms are religions that do not deserve support in the Jewish State.

Israel has moved to the point where it provides financial support to non-Orthodox congregations, including synagogues and schools. However, Rabbis from those congregations do not have the same powers with respect to performing marriages or deciding about divorces as Orthodox rabbis. Some time ago, the government announced an agreement to provide non-Orthodox Jews an area alongside the Western Wall for their rituals, including the freedom of women to participate equally alongside men. However, Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox parties have dug in their heels against the concession, and its future is doubtful.

My friend the Reform Rabbi must, for the time being, be satisfied with the mixed picture that exists. It is better for religious, non-Orthodox Jews than it used to be, and may continue to improve, but non-Orthodox congregations have not attracted large numbers of secular Jews. There are native born Israelis attracted to non-Orthodox congregations, but most of congregants pray with American accents. They are renewed with non-Orthodox immigrants, but more of the immigrants from North America and Western Europe are Orthodox or ultra-Orthodox.

A fundamental weakness of non-Orthodox Judaisms in Israel is that they do not provide the essential links to Jewish culture that they do in the Diaspora. Here, secular Jews are exposed to a richer diet of Judaic thought, tradition, and practice via families, the mass media, and public holidays than is accessible in many Reform and Conservative Temples elsewhere. 

Surveys show that most secular Israeli Jews participate in festive family meals on Friday evening, and celebrate a Passover Seder. Many of them fast on Yom Kippur. Almost all families circumcise their sons, and the large majority follow the requirements of the Orthodox Rabbinate with respect to marriage and burial. However, few visit synagogues, except for the celebrations of a relative's Bar Mitzvah or some other compelling occasion.

Secular Israelis do not need to attend a non-Orthodox synagogue in order to maintain their Jewish ethnicity and culture. 

We enjoy the beauties of Judaism without spending hours, sitting, standing, and reading along with others what we've read many times in the past, and listening to a preacher who may or may not know more about the material than his/her audience.

I seldom visit a synagogue, but I spend time each week, including part of Shabbat morning with a religious friend, studying Talmud. The experience has made me less religious (I find much that is uninspiring and trivial in the Talmud), but more Jewish. I sense that I am taking part in a conversation and arguments that have gone on for at least 2200 years.

The second item that provoked this note came from a college classmate, who sent me a link to a series of articles in the Christian Science Monitor under the heading of complexity science.

As far as I can tell from those articles, the science can be summarized by finding that lots of variables influence people, and that there is continued change. I found no indication of any patterns--other than the multiplicity of influences and fluidity--said to be discovered by the mathematics that the articles say is employed by practitioners of complexity science.

The principal findings seem to stand without the blather or label of complexity science, and they seem to fit just about everything, including the many influences that shape Judaism(s) in Israel, their variations between and within clusters of "ultra-Orthodox," "Orthodox," "Conservative," "Reform," et al, their changes over time, and changes in government policy toward one and all. 

I'm not so sure about applying "complexity science" to Islam. There it comes up against the large number of participants inclined to use swords, firearms, or bombs to advance their own views and limit their competitors. 

What prevails not too far from here are civil wars involving countless militias, casualties in the millions, and streams of refugees in additional millions, and aspirations of several movements to spread their conceptions of Islam, via violence,  everywhere. Practitioners of complexity science may applaud, and conclude that it affirms their view of many variables and constant change. However, it is markedly rougher than the clash of ideas, and changes in practices dealt with by complexity science as described in the Christian Science Monitor.

I find more meaning applicable to Islam in the comments of a friend, a Palestinian Muslim intellectual, with whom I enjoy occasional conversations while walking our mutual neighborhood. He sees Islam as stuck in a condition of religious wars similar to those of Christianity from shortly after its inception through the Middle Ages.

Non-Orthodox Jews shouldn't be surprised by the findings of complexity science. The different traits of the US and Israel make them prominent there, but struggling here.

Complexity science reminds us that things change. Thousands of Non-Orthodox Jews may leave the US for Israel, and tip the balance of politics here.

For the time being, however, don't bet more than you can afford to lose.

Comments welcome

Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
[email protected]