Faith: The Jews’ improbable divider

The religious electromagnetism that once connected distant Jewish communities is gone.

A secular and religious Jew walk arm in arm as a celebration of Jewish unity (photo credit: KAREN ABRAMSON)
A secular and religious Jew walk arm in arm as a celebration of Jewish unity
(photo credit: KAREN ABRAMSON)
OUR NATION is not a nation except in its Torahs,” wrote medieval sage Saadia Gaon, referring to the Pentateuch, Mishna and Talmud.
Just what the concept “nation” meant to the philosopher and exegete who died in 942 CE, ages before the rise of the modern nation, is not fully clear, but what he meant to say was that even while the Jews lacked a common land, government and language, they were united by their common faith.
For centuries, this insight was accurate, as Saadia’s personal biography attests. Born in the Egyptian delta, his career took him to Tiberias and Aleppo before climaxing in Baghdad. Jews could move naturally between such distant and disparate communities because they shared one faith and similar institutions ‒ from the synagogue and yeshiva to the ritual bath and kosher butcher.
It was thanks to this interface that the great jurist Moses Maimonides, who was born and raised in Spain, could ultimately lead the Jews of Egypt; or that a rabbi named Yosef Maman Maghrebi (1752-1829), who was born on the Moroccan side of Gibraltar, could eventually emerge in today’s Uzbekistan, more than 4,000 miles from there, where he arrived as a fundraiser and stayed as the leader of the Jews of Bukhara.
The shared faith of the Jews generated a spiritual electromagnetism that flowed between, and brought closer, their global locations.
That is how the Mishna traveled in the third century CE from the Galilee, where it was written, to Babylonia, Persia, Egypt and Europe, and quickly became the ultimate manual for any Jew’s daily conduct. The subsequent legal codices of Maimonides and Rabbi Yosef Karo, respectively Mishne Torah and Shulhan Aruch, made similar journeys, defying geography and governing Jewish life.
It was thanks to this shared faith that the Talmudic academies along the Euphrates and Tigris functioned for centuries as a collective lighthouse for the rest of the Jewish nation, through a kind of Ivy League system whose version of Harvard – the Yeshiva of Sura some 100 kilometers downstream from today’s Baghdad – enrolled 1,200 students a good seven centuries before Europe established its first university.
The sages of Babylonia conducted a tri-continental correspondence in which they issued legal rulings to rabbis they never met, who lived in lands they never saw. The same global authority was wielded by Maimonides in Egypt, the rabbis of medieval France, and their successors in Poland and Lithuania. As a nation glued by its religion, it came naturally to the Jews to look up to the centers of Judaic scholarship in the Diaspora that gradually succeeded the Judean center that was razed by Rome.
The Jewish nation’s shared religious ground was so solid that it also provided Jewish travelers enough of a common denominator with which to feel at home in far-flung lands where they knew no one, but still could find hospitality by emerging unannounced in a local synagogue.
The same went for commerce. Medieval merchants known as Radhanites transported goods across the Sahara Desert, the Indian Ocean and the Asian steppe while corresponding with distant business partners in the Hebrew they knew thanks to praying and studying as ordinary Jews.
Faith glued the Jews not only in their journeys, enterprises and daily routines, but also in their spiritual imagination and dedication.
THAT IS how news of the false Messiah Shabtai Zvi’s “arrival” in 1666 swept off its feet the entire Jewish world, after traveling from Gaza, Izmir and Amsterdam to Vilnius, Sana and Fez. It was in such a religiously welded Jewish world that a Jew in Mexico chose to be burned alive rather than renounce his faith, just after a Jew in China jumped into floodwaters to save a floating Torah scroll, as happened with Tomás Treviño de Sobremontes in Mexico City in 1649, and with Gao Xuan in Kaifeng in 1642.
Now that unity of faith is history. Challenged by modernity and freedom, the Jews have become a spiritually disjointed nation increasingly beset by a religious rift.
that has come to split the Jewish nation is so deep that it is far more slicing than the iron wall that once loomed between the Jews of oppression and freedom, or the Mediterranean that once sprawled between the Jews of Muslim and Christian worlds.
Just when faith began to divide the Jews can be debated. Philosophically, the origins of crisis begin with Benedict Spinoza, whose denial of the Pentateuch’s divinity in his Theological-Political Treatise (1670) arguably pioneered not only Jewish, but all of modern secularism.
Culturally, the Jewish rupture’s origins might lie in the 1783 publication of philosopher Moses Mendelssohn’s translation of the Pentateuch into German, which both encouraged and helped ordinary Jews embrace the non-Jewish world. Written in Hebrew characters, it taught worshipers German while they used it to follow the Torah reader in the synagogue.
Socially, the Jewish rift was fueled by the spread in Germany of secular schools whose founders, inspired by Mendelssohn’s legacy, believed in the promise of enlightenment as a key to a new harmony between gentile and Jew.
Institutionally, the Jewish schism began in 1818 with the opening of the first Reform synagogue in Hamburg. Located several minutes’ walk from the elegant Jungfernstieg promenade, it was in this cosmopolitan setting that the Israelitischer Tempel’s 65 founding families introduced prayers in German and deleted from the prayer book the pleas for the return to Zion.
Though there were earlier beginnings elsewhere in Germany, this one lasted while reforms proceeded from changing prayers and accompanying them with music to moving the Sabbath to Sunday, as Berlin’s Reform congregation did in the 1840s; canceling circumcision, as the Friends of Reform in Frankfurt did in 1842; abolishing the second day of biblical festivals, as the Breslau rabbinical conference did in 1846; abandoning rabbinical divorces, as a rabbinical conference did in Philadelphia in 1869; or shedding the dietary laws, as America’s Reform rabbis did in a conference in Pittsburgh in 1885.
A comet had fallen in the midst of the Jewish faith, and the shocked rabbis on its crater’s opposite end lost no time regrouping.
“ALL THAT is novel is forbidden from the Torah,” quipped an embattled Rabbi Moshe Sofer (1762-1839), the founder of ultra-Orthodoxy, who in 1811 prevented the establishment of a Jewish school that planned to teach secular subjects in his town, today’s Bratislava.
While that measure was local, his response to the establishment of the Reform Temple in Hamburg bore profound national meaning. Firing the sharpest arrow in his quiver, he ruled: “Had it been up to me, I would remove them [Reform Jews] from our borders… they will be in their realm, and we will be in ours.”
Two centuries on, the psyche of divorce that this ruling sparked has yet to lose its fervor.
Sofer’s marriage ban was but an opening shot in a trench war that steadily pitted premodern Judaism against three bearers of modernity: Reform, secularism and Zionism.
In itself, schism within Judaism was not new.
Ancient Judea’s Sadducee priests were challenged by the Pharisee jurists; East Europe’s emotional Hasidim defied the more intellectual mitnagdim; and medieval Jewry’s Rabbinites, who believed in the oral Torah, were challenged by the Karaites, who believed only in the written Torah. That is why Saadia, who led the rabbinical counterattack in that war, said in the statement with which we opened that the Jews are united by their Torahs, in plural.
What is novel about the current showdown is its duration, scope and depth.
The clash that now enters its third century involves the entire Jewish people while challenging Orthodoxy with two previously unthinkable realities: Most Jews ignore rabbinical law and a critical mass – possibly the majority – is not religious at all.
Judaism’s thinkers, unlike Christianity’s and Islam’s, never cared that the rest of the world did not join their faith. However, they sure did expect all Jews to be observant, and never prepared for wholesale non-observance of the sort that Jewish Orthodoxy has come to face.
That is why the theological response to this transition has been a mixture of denial and missionizing.
The denial has been particularly blunt in the thought of A.I. Kook, British Palestine’s first chief rabbi, who argued that secularism was part of the process of Redemption, a passing phenomenon that would vanish once the Jews complete the return from Exile to Zion.
Today, Shas activists wooing non-observant Israelis like to say that secularism is “a social invention,” part of the European baggage that was imposed by Israel’s Ashkenazi elite on the Middle Eastern Jews who arrived in Israel since the 1950s.
All walks of Jewish Orthodoxy – itself a term that did not exist until the rise of its modern alternatives – saw non-Orthodoxy and secularism as historic aberrations. Practical responses, however, varied.
The ban on marrying Reform Jews was part of a broader attitude of circling the wagons and redoubling the ghetto walls. That is how ultra-Orthodoxy came into being.
That attitude was later modified by the outreaching Menachem Schneerson in America and Ovadia Yosef in Israel, who launched vast educational networks dedicated to drawing secular Jews back to their forebears’ observance.
Kook’s attitude was markedly different because it lent religious meaning to a partnership between secular and observant Jews, as opposed to ultra-Orthodoxy’s dismissal of Zionism as a product of Jewish heresy.
That, along with Kook’s pragmatic attitude toward secular studies – as reflected in his addressing the Hebrew University’s inauguration in 1925 – inspired more than a century of cooperation between modern-Orthodoxy and secular Zionism in building the Jewish state.
It was in this spirit that, after Kook’s death in 1935, the Jewish state enshrined the socalled status quo – the set of arrangements that, for instance, placed marriage and divorce in the hands of an Orthodox bureaucracy; determined which parts of the public domain would operate on the Sabbath, and which would not; and imposed Jewish dietary laws on all military kitchens.
In many ways a work of political art, the deal that for 70 years helped secular and religious Israelis share one national roof now looms as an engine of the great Jewish rift.
The status quo is a paragon of pragmatism and compromise that contrasts with intra-Muslim bloodshed in today’s Middle East, and intra-Christian strife in yesteryear’s Europe.
It took millions of fatalities and a 30-year war for Europe’s Catholics and Protestants to reach the 1648 Peace of Westphalia in which the rival denominations accepted each other’s realms, and thus gave up on the quest to change their adversaries’ beliefs. The Israeli status quo was, for the fractured Jewish faith, that kind of deal, only it involved no violence.
That alone is an accomplishment many fail to appreciate. Such has also been the status quo’s prevention of a nation-splitting marriage ban like Sofer’s in Europe 200 years ago. The legally required Orthodox divorce has made secular Israelis religiously eligible to marry observant Israelis.
Then again, the status quo was never a peace agreement. It was an armistice. The Jewish state bandaged the wounds of Judaism’s great schism, but it did not heal them.
Now it is aggravating them.
HAVING PREVIOUSLY been surprised by mass demand for secularism, Orthodoxy in recent decades was caught off guard by mass demand for conversion. So was the status quo.
Back when David Ben-Gurion devised it, no one foresaw the sudden release of Soviet Jewry, much less its arrival here with some 300,000 children and spouses of intermarriages. Few, therefore, placed much significance in Israel’s early years on the politicians’ placing of conversion, too, in the hands of the Chief Rabbinate, which has since morphed from modern-Orthodox to ultra-Orthodox.
Now, the result of what was arranged in the 1950s is that the Jewish state is effectively helping ultra-Orthodoxy fend off converts by weighing on their conversion process. If anything, it is making the procedure even more demanding than it was anyhow.
In this regard, ultra-Orthodoxy’s harshest critics are modern-Orthodox rabbis such as Haim Drukman and Shlomo Riskin.
As they see it, Israel’s conversion candidates are unique because their flawed Jewishness is the result of Soviet persecution, meaning they are “seeds of Israel” whose admission process should be eased, for instance, by refraining from checking whether a convert lives observantly after converting.
More deeply, the conversion controversy is over Sofer’s vision of a shrunken, but maximally observant Jewish people: ultra-Orthodox rabbis want to uphold his legacy; their modern-Orthodox opponents want to defy it.
Modern-Orthodoxy is in this regard in synch with secular Israel, which embraces the semi-Jewish immigrants in the spirit of Ariel Sharon’s loose definition of “Who is a Jew,” which this series mentioned earlier.
However, the ultra-Orthodox politicians, for now, have the upper hand, and thus deepen the Jewish rift on both its Russian and American ends ‒ on the former, by keeping at arm’s length Israel’s semi-Jews, and on the latter, by delegitimizing Judaism’s Reform and Conservative versions.
This is besides the fact that Israelis are funneled from infancy into separate school systems that define them for life as either religious or secular. This, then, is how faith is splitting the Jewish people in the Jewish state.
The situation in the Diaspora is no better, perhaps worse.
THE DIASPORA’S religious vitality – once its hallmark – is now a fading memory.
With a majority of Diaspora Jews now marrying non-Jews, with more than one in five American Jews saying they are agnostic or atheistic, and with the once dominant Conservative Movement reporting that 95 of its 675 synagogues closed down in less than a decade – it is fair to suspect that the Diaspora’s Judaism is slowly but steadily evaporating.
What is not evaporating is the Diaspora’s observant flank, but it, too, besides being compact, has arguably lost its dynamism.
It has been a generation since the passing of the three great sages produced by the postwar Diaspora: Hasidic leader Menachem Mendel Schneerson, halachic ruler Moshe Feinstein, and modern-Orthodox thinker J.B. Soloveichik. None was followed by a successor of their stature and authority.
Ultra-Orthodoxy’s leading American yeshivot in Lakewood, New Jersey, and in Baltimore, Maryland, and its European flagship in Gateshead, England, graduate hundreds of students annually as does modern-Orthodoxy’s Yeshiva University. However, they are failing to produce leaders whose sway would transcend the local sphere, not to mention the national.
At the same time, Orthodox rabbis in the US – representing an estimated one tenth of American Jewry – are even more distant from non-Orthodox American Jews than Israeli rabbis are from secular Israelis.
The rising class of middle-aged, modern-Orthodox Israeli rabbis such as Yuval Sherlo, David Stav, Re’em Hacohen, Yehuda Brandes or Benny Lau all served in the army with Israelis of every walk and continue interacting with them daily in settings that transcend denominational limits.
Such rabbis can be frequently found officiating at a non-observant Israeli’s wedding or funeral or delivering a lecture in memory of a fallen secular soldier. America’s Orthodox rabbis less frequently have such interactions with their non-Orthodox brethren.
At the same time, Israeli Jews are cultivating from below a non-rabbinical traditionalism.
As mentioned in this magazine recently in a different context (“A messianic hangover,” June 12), polls show 90 percent of Israeli Jews observe the Passover Seder; 60 percent fast on Yom Kippur; 70 percent keep kosher; 94 percent circumcise their boys; and 66 percent hold a Sabbath meal including Friday night’s Kiddush. Theirs is a simple but broadly shared connection with Jewish heritage.
At the same time, a growing number of secular Israelis are studying Jewish texts, while a growing number of observant Israelis are joining new feminist prayer forums, some of which revise texts, and some of which have women giving sermons and even serving as rabbis. Moreover, observant Israeli women increasingly attend special Talmudic colleges whose very existence was once anathema to Orthodoxy.
In short, the spirit of Judaic experimentation that originated in Germany and then traveled to America is now fermenting in an Israeli society that is both courting and changing tradition. The Diaspora, by contrast, appears to be increasingly shrinking in size and religiosity.
It follows that, after having ruptured the Diaspora for 200 years, religion may in several generations loom as a major divider between a largely post-religious Diaspora and a traditionalist Jewish state.
The road from there to religious estrangement might be short, in the spirit of what Ezekiel reported during the brief days when Jerusalem had yet to be leveled, but an early transport of Jewish deportees, including that prophet himself, had already arrived at the rivers of Babylon:
“Keep far from the Lord,” people back in Jerusalem were saying of the Diaspora’s founding inhabitants, “the land [of Israel] has been given as a heritage to us” (Ezekiel 11:15). What they meant was that there was no way of being Jewish while living outside the Land of Israel, and that the Diaspora’s pioneers had better find themselves another faith.
Subsequent history proved that there was a way to be a Jew abroad, a way without which Judaism would not have become the inventive and adaptive faith Saadia described as the Jewish nation’s glue.
The greatest adapter of Judaism to historic change was Yohanan Ben Zakkai, the sage who, following Rome’s destruction of Jerusalem, revised Jewish observance to suit the Temple’s disappearance.
His greatest reform was to relocate the national assembly, the Sanhedrin, to Yavne, south of today’s Tel Aviv, despite the ban on convening that forum outside the Temple.
Less famously, but with no less vision, he also salvaged conversion by canceling the prospective convert’s duty to make a sacrifice at the Temple.
In terms of understanding history’s demands, it was the perfect opposite of the Israeli Rabbinate’s current handling of its own conversion crisis.
Back in 70 CE, the Jewish faith was salvaged by rabbis who grasped history’s menace – in their case, the loss of the center in Jerusalem around which Judaism had revolved. Today’s crisis is not about Judaism losing Jerusalem, but about Jews losing faith, Judaism losing Jews and Israel losing the Diaspora.
Will anything reverse this trend, and if so – what?
This is the third in a five-part series on the five great transitions reshaping the future of the Jewish people.