A View from the Bleachers: The nature of 21st century Judaism

I witnessed an unusual event in early December. An Orthodox Rabbi stood in a Reform Temple and reviewed a book about the life of Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, the last Lubavitcher rebbe.

The audience included members of many synagogues in Ottawa. As the presentation ended and the questions began, one sensed that there was a serious conversation taking place that Sunday morning concerning the very nature of 21st century Judaism.

It was not a conversation between secularists and religious Jews, but between religious Jews striving to understand the religious nuances that both united them and divided them. It struck me that perhaps this type of conversation last took place in pre-war Berlin when Rabbi Schneerson, philosopher Martin Buber, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Rabbi Joseph B. Saloveitchick had coffee between classes. Or perhaps this was the kind of conversation that took place in first century Judea between the Pharisees, Sadducees and Essences when they were not trying to invalidate each other.


So what has changed that we have so little experience with reasonable dialogue between adherents of Judaism? What made that Sunday in December feel as if it was the “first flowering of our redemption.”

When the Israeli Declaration of Independence was signed in 1948 a particular phrase was added to the text: “Rock of Israel.” It was an unusually religious phrase which seemed grafted onto a thoroughly secular political document. The most commonly accepted understanding is that its inclusion allowed for at least one rabbi to affix his signature to the document. The conversation between the secularists representing Mapam and Rabbis Haim-Moshe Shapira and Yehuda Leib Maimon was intense.

In addition, there was a conversation about the phrase, “Age old dream – the redemption of Israel.” As was to be expected, each of the phrases, “Rock of Israel” and “Age old dream – the redemption of Israel,” were interpreted by the secularists and the religious leadership according to their own world view. The secularists interpreted “Rock of Israel” to mean Eretz Yisrael while the religious adherents understood it to refer to God. The notion of redemption was equally ambiguous. Secularists believed that human beings were the instruments of the Jewish people’s redemption while equally ardent religious Zionists believed that redemption was in the hands of the Divine.

This divide between secular and religious Zionists did not begin in 1948. It had its origins long before the creation of the State. Yet 70 years of statehood has intensified the divide. Today there is an ongoing struggle within the State to define the very character of the State between secular Zionists and religious Zionists. The upcoming Israeli election will provide an opportunity for Israelis to have their say about the nature of the State.

Today, more than at any other period of history since the first millennium, Jews confront each other about the nature of Judaism. The battleground seems to be between the Orthodox religious establishment in Israel and the non-Orthodox religious perspectives whose numbers continue to grow. But it is no longer simply about who has the authority to dictate terms of marriage, divorce and burial. It has evolved into a not so simple conversation about who has the ‘right’ to define Judaism. The State-supported Orthodox Rabbinate claims it has not only have the right to declare who is a Jew, but what is Judaism. It claims the moral authority to define what the word ‘Jew’ means religiously.

This is more than just a struggle between political parties jockeying for cabinet positions and money. This is a struggle for the very soul of Jewish religious life – both in Israel and in the Diaspora. The greater the intensity of this struggle in Israel, the more it overflows into the Diaspora. The more that women are pushed to the back of the public bus system, the more that modern Orthodox woman are called out for inappropriate dress, the more that El Al flights are delayed when haredi Orthodox men refuse their assigned seats next to a woman, the more that woman are insulted and denigrated for wishing to publicly read or teach Torah, the more that army deferrals for yeshiva students becomes the defining debate in a country whose security is still not assured, the more that Diaspora Jewry is likely to say “a plague on your heads.”

The inability of the religious establishment in Israel to acknowledge that there are alternative religious paths both within and without the country does not feel as if it is the “first flowering of our redemption.” That Sunday at Temple Israel felt much more messianic.


By Rabbi Steven Garten