What is Judaism It’s not a race, nor is it just a religion. Ethnicity doesn’t capture the religious elements, nor does nation. The Mordechai Kaplan idea that Judaism is a civilization is sufficiently expansive, but not really specific enough.
The best paradigm for defining Judaism to date is the three-pronged approach. Judaism is a civilization that expresses commitments to the land of Israel, the Jewish people and their culture, and the God of Israel as worshipped through Jewish religion.
Speaking broadly, we can say that throughout history, strong expression of any two of these three prongs has been sufficient to create a Jewish society. Expressing all three, however, requires an intetgrative vision that has proven elusive.
We can divide Judaism, with exceptions, into three time periods. Ancient Judaism, from the Exodus through the destruction of the Second Temple, can largely be seen as Judaism built on Land and God, but not on the people of Israel. The people lived in the Land of Israel and defined themselves around that reality. They also worshipped the Jewish God. What they lacked was a sense of cohesive identity. Tribal identities, local loyalties, and ethnic differences all stood in the way of a sense of united peoplehood.
Over many hundreds of years, Jewish identity emerged, but it took the volution of many new institutions and new ideas. The move from tribal judges to a monarchy, and from decentralized worship to Temple worship were important steps, but progress did not happen in a straight line. The split of the monarchy into Judah and Israel, the establishment of alternate sites of worship , and the evolution of separate holy texts rmained significant obstacles to unity.
The Babylonian exlie and the reforms of Ezra helped create a single sacred text and a shared sense of identity, but Jewish sectarianism of a non-tribal nature replaced the previous tribal splits. Hellenists, Essenes, Baithusians, Samaraitans, Sadduccess, Pharisees, and Christians were only some of the sects that divided Judaism and defeated any sense of common purpose or identity.
The destruction of the Second Temple and the seconf Exile posed an enormous challenge to Judaism, forcing it to reorganize. The Land of Israel was gone, and Judaism reformed around Nation and God. Over the next few hundred years, Judaism would shed most of its sects, divorce decisively from Christianity, abandon Jewish Europe and its Greek coonnections, and recenter itself around a new set of leaders whose authority flowed from their mastery of religious matters. The central institutions of synagogue and study hall brought regular religious practice into a communal space; so different from the Temple in Jerusalem. The cohesiveness of these new communities was such that the lack of a land or polity could be overcome through a strong sense of peoplehood.
This strong sense of peoplehood was reinforced throughout the Middle Ages by the outside. It was very difficult for a Jew to be anything other than a Jew. Full conversion to Christianity was possible, but it carried with it the cost of leaving your entire old life behind. Similarly, there was little social or economic mobility for most of the period.
The Enlightenment changed all that. Among its revolutionary ideas was the notion of history as a tale of human progress. Economic and social mobility, along with a borad redefinition of human rights and a rejection of class and caste systems, birthed the possibility of a person selecting an idenitity rather than being born into one. Religious ideas like predestination were rejected, religious institutions were subject to withering attacks, and the concept of national identity was forwarded to replace religion as a means of uniting people and creating common cause.
Zionism was born in this era. It represents a Judaism of People and Land, wiith no God. The Zionist concept was the Jews were a people like any other, and needed to redeem themselves, retake their land, and live their national destiny on the soil of their ancestors. Religious opposition to Zionism as a forbidden hastening of the Messianic era was deemed archaic – an expression of a Jew so imprinted by the ghetto that he no longer wanted to be free.
Conceptually, Zionism was very attractive,and following the Holocaust, it was seen as proven correct and desparately necessary. So long as the Jewish people felt an existential crisis, Zionism represented an ideology of survival that encompassed and sheltered all that was destroyed in Europe, from the cosmopolitan Jewery of Berlin to the Jews of the shtetls.
Each of the above representations of Judaism is missing something, and is therefor uniquely vulnerable. Thought the State of Israel has been through trying times, by 1973 it was clear that Israel did not face an existential threat to its existence from its Arab neighbors, and its nuclear deterrent capabilities drew the period of widescale, open conflict in Israel to a close.
With survival no longer the only issue, but with Israelis continuing to pay a high cost to live in Israel, it was inevitable that the question would arise – why? Why live in Israel? America had a thriving, secure, robust Diaspora community. Life was easy, there was no army service, or violent neighbors, or random acts of terror. Zionism had not really considered any ongoing role of Diaspora Jewish communities, even as it depended on their ongoing financial and political support. Suddenly though, many young Israelis began to abandon the Zionist dream in favor of personal salvation from the burdens of being an Israeli, and of living in Israel. Theodore Herzl said ‘Im Tirtzu, Ein zo Agadah’ – if you will it/desire it, it is not a dream. Modern Israeli graffiti today attributes a different statement to Herzl – ‘Lo Rotztim? Lo Tazrich!’ – You don’t want it? Fine, we don’t need to have it.’
Some might say that this view is short-sighted, and that the American Jewish experience is unique in history, or unlikely to last. One day, America will become hostile to Jews, and Israel will be needed as a refuge. While this analysis may prove true, its power as an ideology is waning. Israel cannot just be a place to run to, not for those who live there and often feel they’d raather run somewhere else, or those who live elsewhere and will not excuse Israel’s conduct in exchange for a promise of haven that they will likely never need.
And that leaves us where we are today. We need a new vision for Judaism, that can integrate, to some extent, our land, our people and our faith. It must give purpose to our presence in Israel as well as in the Diaspora. It must cast a broad net over all of us, a Sukkah under which we can all shelter, that gives us a sense of commonality and peoplehood. And it must mediate our varied relationships to God and faith. We can’t pick two out of three – we have to integrate all three.
In the next post, I’ll look at the rise of denominationalism as a response to Enlightenment, and the ways in which denominations responded to the Zionist rejection of God by attempting to articulate Godly philosophies of Zionism.