iENGAGE: Reimagining the Jewish in ‘Jewish’ state

An engaged and pluralistic Jewish public sphere can enrich life in Israel and across the Jewish world.

Rabbi Hartman funeral (photo credit: Rachel Marder)
Rabbi Hartman funeral
(photo credit: Rachel Marder)
There was something poetic in the fact that in the same week that Rabbi David Hartman (z”l) passed away, one of his students, Ruth Calderon offered a moving lecture in Talmud in her maiden speech in the Knesset as a new MK for the centrist Yesh Atid party.
Hartman, who championed a pluralistic, morally driven and engaged Judaism – a Judaism that informs the public policy of a Jewish state and the private search for meaning of Jews everywhere – did not live to see his ideas expressed so poignantly from the floor of the Knesset.
But his spirit and his philosophy were there in full force.
The power and resonance of Hartman’s thought and life’s work challenged and helped undermine the idea that the Jewish population of Israel can be neatly separated into religious and secular – with religious meaning Orthodox, and secular meaning Israeli as distinct from anything Jewish. He saw the Torah as a living document for all Jews to wrestle with, not the domain of a select stream. And he saw the State of Israel as an opportunity for Jewish values to meet the reality of a sovereign existence, not a purely secular experiment that only seeks to ensure that Jews can live a “normal” life.
The “religious/secular” divide never really reflected the diversity of Jewish expression in Israel.
Today, it should be declared dead.
And David Hartman, years before the idea was popular, led the effort to bury it. Yes, the inadequate language of “religious and secular” still exists and permeates the discourse, but it does not reflect reality.
It obscures more than it reveals about what Jewish Israelis feel about the role of Judaism in the state and in their lives. It confuses both what is agreed and what is disputed about the place of Jewish identity in Israeli society.
Over several decades there has been a renaissance of Jewish life, learning and culture in Israel that is rich and vibrant but does not necessarily regard orthodoxy as the final word on authentic Judaism. It is found, for example, in secular batei midrash study halls and synagogues that have sprouted across the country, in Israeli music’s return to Jewish roots, and in a search to give new meaning and new interpretations to Jewish festivals across non- Orthodox Israeli society.
And, in this recent election, there is a sense that this Jewish revival has finally penetrated Israel’s political realm. It is evident in the language of the Knesset where “secular” (or, perhaps, “post-secular”) MKs remind us that our Jewish tradition is a shared heritage, where the monopoly of the Chief Rabbinate is being ever-more challenged, and where claims for social justice, lowering the cost of living, “burden sharing” and more, are advanced not only in terms of a liberal, democratic social contract, but on the basis of Jewish ideas and values.
It is too early to assess the scope and impact of this phenomenon.
But here are some areas where it promises to bring change. First, there is now a clear and growing non-Orthodox, non-traditional constituency in Israeli society that cares about how Judaism is given meaning in Israeli public life. For too long, secular Israelis left this question to the exclusive treatment of the national-religious and ultra- Orthodox parties. Even if they looked for new ways to be Jewish privately, or within their own communities, they did not challenge the dominion of Orthodoxy.
Reform and Conservative Jews outside of Israel found few political allies within Israeli in their battles for legitimacy and equality.
Today, one can hear a rising Israeli political voice that questions the power of the Orthodox rabbinate, that doubts the wisdom of Orthodox control over personal status issues such as marriage and divorce, and that is willing to challenge the preference given to one form of Jewish practice over other denominations.
But what is especially significant is that this voice is not necessarily driven by a desire for the state to be more secular, but rather by a demand that it be more inclusively and equitably Jewish.
Second, the rising place of Jewish content in non-Orthodox political circles creates an opportunity to reimagine the very meaning of the word Jewish in “Jewish state.”
For a long time, secular Israel conceived of the Jewishness of the state in the shallow terms of a Jewish majority, the Law of Return, and of public symbols and days of rest that have Jewish origin. But, increasingly, one hears debate about how Jewish values and our experience as a people should shape our public policy, from social welfare, to the treatment of minorities, to national security issues. It is a debate not about how Israel can be a “normal” state, but about how we create a society that gives public expression to the unique history, ideas and diverse traditions of the Jewish people.
Third, an Israel that is perceived as divided along religious/secular lines is an Israel that can often feel distant and alien to the thriving multidenominational and pluralistic Jewish communities outside the country, particularly in North America. In this construct, Diaspora Jews can feel that Judaism in Israel is radically different from their own, and offers them little by way of a sense of belonging and connection. By breaking down that false paradigm and realizing that the religious/secular divide just does not describe contemporary Israel, we also create multiple points of connection and interrelationship between Jews inside and outside Israel that will strengthen us as a people.
In all these ways, and others, the deepening and broadening of our conception of Jewish in the Jewish state offers new opportunities, whose full potential cannot yet be clearly mapped out. The empowerment of an engaged and pluralistic Jewish public sphere carries the possibility of enriching the life, culture and public discourse in Israeli society and across the Jewish world. This growing power, however, is not without its dangers. If used as a blunt instrument, it will alienate and produce backlash among the Orthodox, whose legitimate interests and needs are no less deserving of respect. It should be wielded with sensitivity, with determination and with hope.Dr. Tal Becker is a Senior Fellow of the iEngage Project at the Shalom Hartman Institute. Learn more about iENGAGE at