Tradition Today: Judaism and religion

What we need is an enlightened Judaism, one that accepts truth wherever it may be found.

Choosing to live in Israel rather than in America is making a choice between being Jewish in a setting in which one’s Judaism is only a part of one’s identity and being Jewish in a place where it is almost all-consuming. It is also the difference between a place in which Judaism is thought of almost exclusively as a matter of religion and a place in which religion is only one of a number of components that make up Jewish identity. Of course for the haredim, religion is what being Jewish is all about, and for the Orthodox or anyone who is observant, the religious component is, to say the least, a major component of their Jewish identity in Israel or anywhere in the world. But what about for those here who do not place themselves in those categories?
I thought about this after spending some considerable time in America recently. Part of this was connected to Conservative synagogues. Over the High Holy Days I was in a very vital and active synagogue in Washington DC, where thousands of people – perhaps as many as 4,000 – gathered at various times on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. It was obvious that the vast majority of these thousands were not to be found in that synagogue or any other on a regular basis during the year. They were what has come to be called pejoratively “three- (or two-) day-a-year Jews.”
And yet they do come to synagogues sometimes. They do feel at home there. On the High Holy Days they are active participants in the prayers. They know what one does in a synagogue, and they are familiar with the language and the thought of religious Judaism, at least on a superficial level. And that is more than can be said of the masses of “secular” Jews in Israel.
At some time they go to a Jewish school and are familiar with the Jewish tradition and the Jewish religion. They have had bar/bat mitzva training and a ceremony that was more than just a party (although all too often the party was overwhelmingly extravagant, it must be admitted) and they have no difficulty identifying themselves with a religious stream within Judaism.
The word “God” is not totally foreign to their lips.
As I considered these people – the typical American Jew – I pondered the thought that these people in essence were not terribly different from my nonreligious neighbors in Israel. Had they been born and educated here, they probably would never have been in a synagogue on Rosh Hashana or any other day.
Why yes in America and no in Israel? That is a complicated question not easy to answer briefly, one that has to do with the history of Zionism and, not least, with the perception of the Jewish religion caused by the intertwining of religion and politics here. Israelis have been trained to see this as a question of black and white – am I observant or not? – and all too often to go to one extreme or the other.
My question is: Is it good for Israel and is it good for the Jews for this to be the case? My answer is that the alienation of Israelis from the religious component of Judaism – not only observance but even understanding and knowledge – is disastrous. Some find Judaism quaint but irrelevant. But among all too many Israelis there is an aversion to religion, sometimes bordering on intense dislike. Yet, like it or not, Judaism throughout its history has been based on religious tradition. Take it away, and the heart of our being has been removed.
I am not expecting all Israelis to suddenly become observant and believing Jews. And I certainly do not want to do anything that would compel anyone to do so. But I am concerned to remove the barriers that stand between Jews and Judaism and to abolish the misapprehension of what the Jewish religion is.
All too many think of religion as riddled with superstition, wonder-working “rabbis,” a negative attitude toward women and suppression of their rights, denial of scientific and historical truth, an attempt to preserve a way of life that was suitable for the ghetto and the Middle Ages but rejects modernity and attempts to force observance upon an unwilling population. What we need is an enlightened Judaism, one that accepts truth wherever it may be found, one that embraces the times in which we live while rejecting those aspects of modernity that contradict morality and the ethical basis of Judaism.
Our tradition is rich and is perfectly capable of bringing us a dimension of holiness and decency that is sorely needed. Unfortunately, that is not the Judaism that seems to dominate the public square and the common discourse.
Until we can replace our religious leadership – of whatever denomination – with enlightened rabbis and thinkers, the situation will not improve. And improve it must if the Jewish state is to be Jewish in any meaningful way.

Rabbi Hammer is the head of the Rabbinical Court of the Masorti Movement and the author of several books, the most recent being Entering Torah.