How have Europe, Egypt influences altered the state of Judaism?

The American way of thinking has had a significant impact on current generations of Israelis.

TODAY'S ISRAELIS draw a not-so-imaginary bridge to Wall Street. (photo credit: htmvalerio/Flickr)
TODAY'S ISRAELIS draw a not-so-imaginary bridge to Wall Street.
(photo credit: htmvalerio/Flickr)

A not-so-obvious theme of the Bible is the extreme power the surrounding environment has on a nation.

So much so that the Hebrews go into 40 years of quarantine in the desert, which blocks any external influence from trickling in. There, left to their own devices and with zero exposure to the outside, the Hebrews shape their authentic true character, centered around the receiving of the Torah.

This episode of insularity was in between two periods of corrupting influences. The Hebrews were subjected to Egyptian pagan influences, and God makes clear that once they arrived in Canaan, they would be subjected to Canaanite pagan influences.

Hence God instructs the Hebrews to take an extreme preventative measure: The elimination of the Canaanites. This cruel and hard-to-digest order is repeated a number of times. God even delineates a path that such corrupting influences will take: the Canaanite women will tempt the Hebrew men, who will then bow to their idols.

Indeed, such a sequence occurred even before the Hebrews arrived in Canaan. In their 39th year in the desert, after years of apparent insularity, the Hebrews get exposed to the Moabite women, who seduce them and invite them to bow to their idols.

 IT IS believed that about 22 million people from Christian backgrounds are expressing a new openness to Torah.  (credit: MENDY HECHTMAN/FLASH90) IT IS believed that about 22 million people from Christian backgrounds are expressing a new openness to Torah. (credit: MENDY HECHTMAN/FLASH90)

Upon arrival in Canaan, the Hebrews do not eliminate the Canaanites and indeed a primary theme of the biblical narrative from there on is the internal battle between full devotion to God vs worship of surrounding idols that were built “on top of every high hill and below any fresh tree.”

While in Egypt, Moab and Canaan, the Hebrews were influenced by the outside environment. When the Hebrews were expelled from Judea, mostly to Europe, a possible miracle occurred. The Europeans insisted on keeping the Jewish refugees confined and insular. For centuries of persecution, Europeans restricted the Jews’ areas of residence, type of employment and degree of interaction they were allowed with the outside. 

Hence the Europeans gifted the Hebrews what the Hebrews themselves failed to achieve during biblical times. Just like Judaism 1.0 was developed in the insularity of the desert, Judaism 2.0 was developed in the insularity of the ghetto: The rituals, religiosity, customs, and Jewish culture. “We are what the ghetto made us,” Theodor Herzl said.

After 18 centuries of “house-arrest” imposed on the Jews by Europe, in the 19th century, a small portion of the world Jewish population was emancipated and invited out of the ghetto (those in Western Europe). This however was met with fierce objection by Europeans. A new movement engulfed Europe in reaction to such emancipation: antisemitism. 

Those two vectors: The European influence on the newly emancipated Jews on the one hand, and antisemitism on the other were put to use by Herzl, who crafted a vision for a more perfect Europe in the Jewish state, and viewed antisemitism as a propelling force that would force those “emancipated” Jews back into their Judaism.

Those who came after him in the Zionist movement leadership were also from Europe, and hence, European influences dominated the early years of the Yishuv and then of Israel. 

Whether it was liberalism brought from Western Europe, or socialism brought from Eastern Europe, as the Israeli was shaping his newly formed identity back home, he did so with eurocentric influences. Key to that was the utter rejection of religiosity. 

Indeed, just as with the influences of the Egyptians, Moabites and Canaanites, such European influences led the Hebrews to distance themselves from God. Unlike Herzl’s original vision, Zionism evolved in the early 20th century to be overly associated with secularism.

Yet, after Israel was founded in 1948, its population changed. In the first two years alone, Israel’s population doubled. More than half of the incoming immigrants of the “mass migration” were religious and traditional Jews from the Middle East – those were observant Jews.

A disconnect quickly emerged in Israel: The secular European-influenced founders who controlled the centers of powers vs the traditional/religious immigrants who wished to integrate into mainstream Israeli society. 

Shift from European to American influences

Yet in recent years as Israel democratizes, there has been a shift of power and Zionist ethos from the secular minority toward the religious/traditional majority. At the same time, there is a shift of cultural influences in Israel from European influences to American influences. 

Indeed, by the turn of the 21st century, Israel has essentially switched the dominant outside contributor to its cultural ecosystem from European to American.

This is a logical process: Israel’s early immigrants who shaped the 20th-century Zionist ethos were raised in Europe. Their children, however, were born in Israel, and they have grown up with American cultural influences. The American way of thinking, American pop culture and American capitalism all have had a significant impact on the current generations of Israelis. 

The young Israeli’s pursuit to join Israel’s thriving hi-tech industry is also a contributor to such a shift from European to American influences. If in the previous generation the Israeli elite would draw an imaginary bridge in their minds to the libraries of Berlin and the concert halls of Vienna, today’s Israelis draw a not-so-imaginary bridge to Silicon Valley and to Wall Street. 

From secular to ‘datlaf’

As European influences in Israel decline, so does the early glorification of secularism. Today’s European “secular religion” is missionary, aggressive and exclusive, e.g. “mono-atheistic,” adapting the concept of the exclusive jealous Lord (El kana) to European secularism and atheism. 

The receding European influence allows Israeli seculars to embrace religious content and experience that in the previous generations were perceived as social taboos. The Israeli secular is evolving to be a datlaf – a Hebrew acronym for “sometimes religious” – on the one hand, he is not on a path of doing teshuva or becoming religious, but on the other, he now consumes religious experiences a la carte that suits him, and he does so without shame – he no longer needs to be “observant at home and secular outside.”

Indeed, unlike in Europe, where religiosity is looked down upon and carries social penalties, in America one can be a successful hi-tech entrepreneur, film producer or hedge-fund manager and still be religious. 

Moreover, faith plays a role in the emerging philosophical divide of the 21st century between Europeanism and Americanism (for expansion, see my Newsweek article: Europeanism vs Americanism). Politically, strategically and now culturally – Israel and the Zionist ethos is squarely on the side of Americanism in this divide. 

The Hebrews are no longer insular as they were during 40 years in the Sinai desert and 2,000 years in the European desert, but the switch of the predominant influencing environment contributes to the rapprochement that secular Israeli Jews have with their faith. 

This in turns removes a hurdle to the transformation of Judaism seeded by Herzl: Zionism is the return to Judaism.■

The writer is author of Judaism 3.0 – Judaism’s transformation to Zionism. For details: Judaism-Zionism.com