Part VI: Language and Religion in Israel and the Jewish Diaspora

Meir Shamgar, an old Likudnik, died on 18 October 2019. After he had been a member of the Supreme Court for 8 years, he was appointed president of the Supreme Court in 1983 and held that position for 12 years. A champion of rights, he kept pushing for an Israeli constitution all his late professional life. Because he viewed protection of the law as a basic human right, he was responsible for writing the decision allowing Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza to appeal directly to the Supreme Court when they had grievances against the state and the army for, in his mind, they were and are entitled to Israeli justice as long as they are governed by the State of Israel. (See Politics – October 2019 – In Memoriam: Meir Shamgar 13 August 1925 – 18 October 2019) Today, the Likud Party is identified with ethnic nationalism rather than individual rights. How did this happen?

Thus far, I have insisted on equality as a basic principle for Jews, in particular equality before the law. It is a principle that should and did unite both progressives and traditional conservatives. Canada and Israel are both wedded to such a principle, even though sometimes differing on its interpretation and application. I now want to extend the principle of equality to Jews, both those living in Israel and in the diaspora, by complementing equality of rights with equality of responsibilities. I believe that equality of responsibility applies to the cultural, especially the linguistic, and religious spheres, to state membership, security and the economic spheres. I will examine language and religion in this blog and the remaining themes in the next blog. Further, I will argue that any diaspora organization, whether progressive or rightist, should take a stand on each of these areas of equality and responsibility.

I begin with culture because it is most basic. Further, language is the most important ingredient of culture. Currently, the commonest linguistic link between Jews in the diaspora and Jews in Israel is English, not Hebrew. The vast majority of Jews in the diaspora do not speak and many cannot even read Hebrew. Yet Hebrew is central to Israel and the core historical language of religion that united Jews in the diaspora during exile.

My first proposition is that diaspora Jews, and particularly progressive diaspora Jews, should adopt as a goal that all Jews in the diaspora master Hebrew. I say this even though I have periodically tried; I am a total failure in mastering Hebrew. But I believe it should be an obligation and a central plank in any progressive Zionist program. There are deeper reasons than convenience and superficial identity.

I have had many political disagreements with Noam Chomsky over the years. However, my disagreements over his linguistic theories are even more basic, that is his conviction about a universal grammar that is built into the human DNA. The Torah has a different position, namely that linguistic categories are created and communicated by humans and do not have an a priori status even if the capacity to use language and to construct that language into communicable propositions may be inborn. I accept the latter, but also the former, the rootedness of culture in linguistic categories, not because the Torah presumes it, but because I believe it has been verified by science. I refer readers to Daniel Everett’s book Language: The Cultural Tool based on thirty years of study of Amazonian tribes.

Why is this important? Because I believe that the Torah happens to be scientifically correct on this issue, that language creates the categories in terms of which we understand the world and, as that understanding shifts, language must shift as well. Thus, there is a critical dialectic at work between language and culture, between the way in which we classify and understand the world and the way in which our experiences in the world and with other cultures forces modifications to a language and culture. To the extent languages differ among groups of people, they have somewhat different cultural views of the world. 

If Jews are to share a common culture, they must share a common language. That language is Hebrew and ALL Jews should be expected and taught to master the language. This is a cultural statement rather than a political one, though it undoubtedly will have an impact on countering the increasing chasm between diaspora and Israeli Jews. Further, it also takes the lesson of the Tower of Babel, that pluralism should be supported rather than envisioning a common cosmopolitan culture even as we aspire towards universal rights. More specifically, responsibilities must be founded initially and continuously within specific cultures.

That offers a natural segue into religion. Generally, debates over religion between the diaspora and Israel tend to focus on the differences between Humanitarian, Reconstructionist, Reform and Conservative brands of Jewish observance and the orthodox and ultra-orthodox brands officially endorsed by the Israeli state – though non-orthodox movements have made significant progress over the last decades. Further, there is a division over the role of women. Both issues are played out in the political realm in discussions about controlling religious worshipers at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. However, there are other even deeper divisions which divide Israelis over questions of who is a Jew, over control of core institutions such as marriage and divorce, and between secular and religious Jews.

This deeper and more profound problem undergirds all of these divisions and relates to individual and institutional obligations and responsibilities. For in both the diaspora and in Israel, there has been a dramatic fall off in synagogue attendance among younger families. Why is this important? Because in my studies of refugees, I learned that whatever secular Jews offered in support of refugees, religious institutional support was critical for numbers and for continuity.

Now religious beliefs and practices have been declining at a precipitous pace, particularly in non-evangelical Christian congregations, but in Jewish ones as well. Further, although the fall-off may not be as large as in non-evangelical Christianity, it reverberates through Judaism’s central institution in the diaspora, the synagogue. Its effects are felt in voluntarism (time) and charitable commitments (money). Further, not only does communal support suffer, so do communal relationships, particularly in the ability of men and women to meet and mate after they have left the educational period in their personal trajectory. The opportunity to be part of something bigger than oneself – a family, a congregation, a community – is less available as religious institutions decline. Though rites are a terrible substitute for rights, there is a sense in which responsibilities tend to diminish in the absence of some rites.

Why should progressive Zionists take a stand on this issue? Not just because of equality in the treatment of different Jewish religious expressions, not just because of discrimination when it comes to rites of passage, but because religion is as much at the core of what it is to be Jewish, perhaps as much or even more than mastery of Hebrew. Being a Jew means to embed oneself in a community with all of the inherent responsibilities of joining with others in shared joys and sadness, expectations and regrets. Being a Jew means accepting not just a cultural background but some degree of commitment of cultural continuity. And religious participation. Personal relationships leading to the formation of families will likely decline without such participation. I feel that the responsibility to support individuals, particularly young people, to form families will also decline.

I believe that Zionism was developed to ensure a Jewish future. As Jews continue to live throughout the world, Zionism can only ensure that continuity and coherence if Jews also have a language and religion in common. For, in future, I expect Israelis to move out into the diaspora as Jews move from the diaspora to Israel. But the exodus will exceed the influx if Jews in the diaspora fail to develop deeper ties to Israel. Progressive Jews should actively promote and encourage Jewish affiliation through synagogues and other mechanisms of community affiliation.

I recognize that one factor that makes many wary of religion is its history of dogmatism. On the other hand, as membership and participation in religious institutions has fallen away, relatively cheap substitutes – varying from astrology to followers of self-help health care fads – have tended to fill the void. (Cf. the story by Matthew Schultz in the 9 October 2019 issue of Haaretz entitled, “Of Tao and Torah: New Age Beliefs Are Making Serious Inroads in U.S. Jewish Life.”) At the same time, the universal institutionalized practice of charitable giving has been replaced by a system dominated by the wealthy. To avoid faddism and enhance charitable giving amongst all of us, religion is a valuable tool.

However, is it just instrumental? What about God’s role in our ongoing Jewish struggle for justice and law in Israel and in the diaspora? The study of Torah and core practices of Judaism are not just instrumental. However, one’s interpretation of Torah or the collective practices of Judaism need not be determined by the whole community. Different groups of Jews will have their own interpretations of whether even faith in God is a requirement. Some may even argue that the issue is really God’s faith in us. Jews as a collective will have various expectations of God or, for many, none.

However, is not the covenantal relationship to God at the core of Judaism? Yes. But constitutions are also characterized by covenantal relationships; covenantal relations are neither exclusive to Judaism nor is the interpretation of a divine spirit with whom one may share a covenantal relationship uniform. For some, faith in God is equivalent to expectations of God’s intervention in human history. For others, God has withdrawn from any interventionist role and has transferred full responsibility to humans for their future. Some will engage in prayer, both personal and communal, before making decisions and determining actions. Others see prayers as rites rather than as substantive dialogues. If one asserts that a minimal uniformity of practice is required for one to be a Jew, the question arises – where do we draw the line? Perhaps, more importantly, can a line even be drawn that is effective? A respect for pluralism insists that uniform requirements should be minimalized and each community of Jews, whether through their religious institutions or their social substitutes, should be and will be free to determine that for their own group.

Clearly, this is not a position that will be endorsed by the ethnic nationalist right that emerged triumphant in Israel over the last three decades. But it is a position consistent with the new emerging majority on the centre-left or the civic-centre in Israel. These Jews, both in the diaspora and in Israel, share a common approach to their Jewish identity and Judaism, though in the diaspora, the abyss between the secular and religious is both far more pronounced as many of the secular even abandon traditionalism in increasing numbers, and, hence, the last remnant of their Jewish identity.

This week, Tomer Persico, a research fellow at Jerusalem’s Hartman Institute and a visiting professor in Jewish and Israeli Studies at Berkeley, wrote an article in Haaretz entitled, “In Israel: A New Consensus on What Being Jewish Really Means ( Jewish identity in Israel has evolved as a sort of privatized traditionalism dependent on the right of the individual to customize Jewish religion by insisting on retaining a Jewish identity while resisting religious coercion. In the diaspora, that has only taken place for Jews determined to retain their Jewish identity. The rest leave Judaism and, eventually, their Jewish identity behind.

In Israel, the religious right married ethnic nationalism to halachic observance rather than individualistic liberalism. “The processes of liberalization and globalization that the West is experiencing have made it more homogenous. The rules of the market and consumer culture, the discussion of human and civil rights, even popular culture in all its channels constitute a fixed framework that molds local societies into similar patterns. On the one hand, privatization and liberalization have turned people into individuals who scrupulously cultivate their own autonomy; on the other hand, these same individuals also develop anxiety about their identity. Most of them don’t want to be swallowed up into the liberal shredder and spit out as a generic Western individual. Strengthening national or ethnic identity provides a solution in this respect: The individual feels part of a unique collective while making minimal lifestyle changes.” (Tomer Persico) Out of panic, the right in Israel sacrificed an adherence to individual rights for an identity based on ethnic nationalism.

The National Religious Party, instead of being the link between the secular and religious worlds, evolved into various versions of the political right dominated by the Haredi minority. On the centre-left, the central-civic bloc, Jewish tradition and a stress on individual rights emerged triumphant. The result – on the right, Halacha + ethnic nationalism; on the left of centre, traditionalism + individual liberalism without Halacha. From both sides, there has been a loss of any identity based on Israeli citizenship married to Halacha. The prevailing trend, in spite of the greater reproductivity on the right, has been the growth of a central-civic bloc that marries traditionalism to civic rights and responsibilities.

Progressive Zionists to save themselves from complete secularism on the one hand and, hence, a falling away from any Jewish identity, and a Halachic Judaism that in Israel increasingly identifies itself with ethnic nationalism, need to identify with this new relationship of religion and state, of traditionalism and civic responsibility, by supporting a Jewish state, but not a halachically Jewish religious state while respecting entirely those who interpret their Jewish tradition in halachic terms to meet their cultural, social and spiritual needs. For Jews, this is a new form of privatized Judaism in a communal dress and one with which most Jews in the diaspora can identify.


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