By Rabbi Dow Marmur.
Not all Zionist pioneers came to Eretz Yisrael to till the soil as a way of building a new society where Jews would be like all other nations. There were those who came in the belief that only in the Land of Israel could Judaism be renewed. It was their way of celebrating the return of the modern Jew to the Zion of old. Some were religious, others were not, but they all saw the potential for a spiritual centre that would revitalize all of Judaism, not least fundamentalist Orthodoxy.
Those who tilled the soil succeeded: Israel is today a modern democratic state with all the advantages and problems of other states – plus some of its own. Those who came to bring about spiritual renewal haven’t done as well, at least not yet. Despite the obvious danger of assimilation in the Diaspora, Judaism there seems to be more varied and richer than in the Jewish state.
Some Reform, Conservative and Orthodox rabbis did settle in Israel in the belief that only here could authentic Judaism become real. But their impact has been very modest. Ironically, the prominent among them have become much more influential abroad than at home.
The kind of religion that has clout in the Jewish state today, Ashkenazi and Sephardi, has been imported unchanged from the old countries. Its Orthodox exponents are doing their utmost to imitate their Diaspora past. Having formed themselves into political parties they’ve been able impose their obsolete versions of Judaism on Israel. Their leaders will spare no vulgar invective to attack those who challenge them while making common cause with cynical and indifferent secularists.
That’s how the Orthodox rabbinate retains its hold over Israeli society. And it’s gaining adherents. For all the women and men who leave strict Orthodoxy in Israel, there seem to be more who join it. It’s small comfort that this may be a reflection of the trend in the world at large where many feel betrayed by modernity and seek comfort in fundamentalist creeds.
Whatever the reasons, non-Orthodox Jewish movements and the pockets of progressive Orthodoxy that challenge the rabbinic establishment aren’t doing well in Israel. Thus for example, the reason why the prime minister authorized an egalitarian section for prayer at the Western Wall in Jerusalem and contemplated to support legislation that would allow non-Orthodox converts to use state-sponsored ritual baths is his regard for American Jewry, not for liberal religious Israelis
By all accounts, even that won’t happen now. His Orthodox cabinet colleagues and their fellow-travellers in the government are about to stop the prime minister from implementing his stated intention. They threaten to break up the coalition if they don’t get their way.
This is another indication that those who came to Israel to renew Judaism, not only to provide a safe haven for Jews, haven’t made much progress, The Zionist dream of a spiritual centre isn’t materializing yet. But without such a centre Israel may become yet another state that excels in technology, science and warfare but does very little for Judaism.
Israel is in danger of becoming like all other nation states at the expense of being Jewish. This may turn out to be too high a price to pay for sovereignty and independence. The revival of Judaism as envisaged by the cultural and religious pioneers remains our only hope for God’s work to be done.