Forty years ago in New York City, I was dismayed to hear the great Israeli scholar, Adin Steinsaltz, predict that “Israeli Judaism and Diaspora Judaism would evolve in different ways, as the Babylonian Talmud and the Jerusalem Talmud differ.”
As a liberal American Jew trying to build bridges between American and Israeli Jews, I was not happy to hear that the span might be widening and hoped that Steinsaltz was wrong.
But, of course, the great rabbi was not. Like most Americans, I expected non-Orthodox Israelis to embrace an American-style of liberal Judaism similar to our Reform and Conservative movements. The only Israeli alternatives seemed to be Orthodoxy or secularism, there was no other framework.
Only much later when I began going to liberal synagogue services in Israel did I see many of the rabbis and congregants were Anglo-Saxon.
When I asked my Sabra friends about liberal Judaism, they said that Reformit (referring to the Reform and Conservative Movements) was a diaspora import, not authentically Israeli and perhaps not even authentically Jewish.
But the situation has changed dramatically. Today, many Israelis are embracing a liberal Israeli Judaism, expressed through some 200 communities throughout the country. Most are affiliated with the Conservative and Reform Movements but an increasing number are independent, non-affiliated congregations.
Numbers do not even tell the full story. Israeli Jews increasingly understand there is an alternative to the choice of either Orthodoxy or secularism. Nealy 15% of Israeli Jews identify as liberal and many more no longer see the Orthodox synagogue as the one to which they do not go to.
Grassroots Jewish communities are springing up around the country as Israelis seek community. What is emerging is a non-authoritarian, democratic, egalitarian, pluralistic Israeli Judaism, rooted in authentic Jewish tradition and values, celebrating Jewish and Israeli culture and learning, that is infused with passion, social action, spirituality and relevance.
Conservative and Reform leaders are also starting to welcome Israeli Judaism. While they once saw grassroots, independent Israeli congregations through a parochial lens as a potential threat, now they support a broad Israeli Jewish spirituality that embraces, but is not limited to, formal movements.
Today, secular Israelis increasingly identify with an Israeli Judaism that no longer reflects the division and style of the diaspora. Independent congregations are led by Reform and Conservative-trained rabbis, who are ordained in a seminary tailored for Israeli Judaism. Reform and Conservative rabbis are coming together to create new rituals, modern Orthodox institutions give courses in Israeli Judaism and the government is funding non-affiliated communities.
Israelis also see these new communities as communal or cultural, rather than religious organizations. This seems entirely appropriate, as Judaism has never been simply a religion. Judaism is not just about what Jews believe or even what they do, it is also about what Jews believe they should do. There has never been one answer.
In the diaspora, the primary responses to modernity were either the ultra-Orthodox attempt to build a fence around the Torah or the liberal attempt to adapt it. Most Israeli Jews do not feel the need to do either. They do not feel the need to differentiate and define themselves in terms of religion or belief. For them, Judaism is a given, an identity. The individual choice that many make is one of community, of belonging, not of faith or denomination.
It is important that the Diaspora understand and strengthen Israeli Judaism. Israel is a microcosm and a laboratory in which new expressions of Judaism can be more easily explored and developed, and this may show the way forward for all of us.
I am no longer dismayed but encouraged that Diaspora Judaism and Israeli Judaism may evolve distinct forms of community, leadership and worship. If Steinsaltz was right about that, then he was also right when he added, soon after, that the Jewish people is a family and behaves like a family: some members may live at home and some may live away, but Israel is the family home.
The writer is president of the Julius Stulman Foundation, which promotes the Israeli Judaism movement.