Yehezkel Dror

By Yehezkel Dror

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It is not difficult to propose ostensibly “practical” steps to strengthen the Jewish nature of the State of Israel. More class hours devoted to Jewish tradition and history, more media programs on the Jewish people, more laws in support of important Jewish traditions, more exhibits on Jewish themes—such are examples of the various possibilities. But focusing on such measures is like prescribing aspirin when one suspects cancer: Certainly the patient should take the aspirin to relieve pain and help overcome a disease that is probably not malignant, but leaving it at that may prove fatally reckless. There is ample reason to believe that the problem of the Jewish nature of Israel goes deep and therefore requires a very different treatment, alongside the various superficial treatments that may prove minimally helpful.
A relevant historical analogy is the rupture to Jewish history that occurred with the destruction of the Second Temple, the Jews’ failed revolt against the Romans, and the massacres and exile which ended the Jewish people’s continued existence as a political and social entity in the Land of Israel. A break in historic continuity of this magnitude invariably causes a people and its culture to come to an end. Indeed, nearly all peoples who have experienced such a rupture have disappeared from the stage of history, and for many of them no trace remains of their existence. But the Jews overcame this rupture: They continued as a people in exile and even enjoyed periods of thriving and creativity, despite unremitting persecution. The explanation for this exceptional historical phenomenon is the “Yavneh mode”: In response to the challenges of exile, religious-cultural creativity at peak levels succeeded in adjusting the Jewish people’s beliefs and behavior to the very different conditions of living outside the Land of Israel. (An important discussion of this subject can be found in Avraham Aderet’s From Destruction to Restoration: The Mode of Yavneh in the Re-establishment of the Jewish People.)
Over the last two hundred years, the Jewish people has experienced another profound break in its historical continuity as a result of four developments, each of them radical in implication: The Enlightenment and associated political and social changes; Zionism, leading to the establishment of Israel and its development into a successful modern state; the Holocaust; and the flourishing of a completely new type of diaspora.
Until the time of the Enlightenment, religion was the center of Jewish culture and the main framework for the Jewish people’s existence. It was the glue that held the people together, while erecting barriers against their leaving the fold; it gave moral meaning to the Jews’ suffering in exile and assured them that the age of the Messiah would indeed come, although he might tarry. The Enlightenment, along with its political, economic and social transformations, eroded religious beliefs, ultimately breaking the chain that had linked generations of Jews in exile.
Since the Enlightenment, no convincing answer has ever been found to the question of how the majority of Jews who are not religious define their Jewish identity. On the face of it, however, political Zionism supplied a substitute for religious identity in the idea of the Jews’ becoming “a nation like all other nations,” in offering the Jewish people partnership in the meta-project of returning to the land of the Patriarchs and there re-establishing Jewish statehood. The achievements of Zionism were heroic, culminating in the establishment of Israel and its survival and continuing development. But this episode has proved to be another rupture in Jewish history, framing the question of the nature of Judaism even more starkly now that much of the Jewish people and a majority of its youth are again concentrated in the Land of Israel. The Jewish religion, too, must cope with this transformation, because the existence of a modern Jewish state raises unprecedented questions, such as the relationship between halacha and democracy.
The central problem is that Israel’s existence offers the non-religious public, as well as segments of the religious public, the new option of belonging to a “normal state.” To understand the full implications of this, one must consider that the very fact of national life within the framework of a state drives normalization forward, unless strong countermeasures are taken to prevent this. Thus, after succeeding in ending its political enslavement to other nations—and, paradoxically, as a result of this success—the Jewish people now is in great danger of becoming culturally enslaved to other value systems.
That the Holocaust constituted an extreme break in Jewish continuity, both demographically and in terms of the meaning of Jewish existence, requires little elaboration. Moreover, the Holocaust devastated a huge reservoir of Jewish creative potential, a loss for which no true substitute has emerged, even with the passage of more than fifty years.
The fourth break in continuity stems from the rise of a new type of exile, mainly in the United States, where the majority of Jews outside Israel are concentrated. This “benevolent exile” is unprecedented in the options it opens to all Jews: It offers assimilation and marrying out, on the one hand, and, on the other, adherence to a Judaism that is a kind of religion combined with community activity, similar to non-Jewish religious groups.
Diagnosing the illness teaches us how to deal with it. Once again, what is imperative for the Jewish people is a transcendent, peak-level creativity, like the Yavneh mode, aimed at developing anew the main elements of Jewish culture while maintaining continuity with what went before. At first glance this may seem banal, but phrasing this idea in the negative shows how existentially significant it is: Without such a creative surge, it is doubtful whether Judaism and the Jewish people can have a meaningful future in the long term; nor will there be any real basis for maintaining and strengthening the Jewish nature of the State of Israel. The command to “remember” is important, but by itself memory cannot ensure meaningful existence in a rapidly changing world. And, while familiarity with the Jewish bookshelf is not only desirable but essential, it cannot guarantee that the younger generations will be happy about being Jewish, will be faithful to Judaism, and will regard themselves as Jews first, and only then as Israelis.
Hence, my recommendation, which may seem impractical but, by my reading of current realities, offers the only path capable of promoting over the long run a Jewish State of Israel, and a thriving Judaism and Jewish people: The encouragement, stimulation and strengthening of a transcendent Jewish creativity that is pluralistic, multifaceted and active in all cultural and religious domains, in their various dimensions and forms. Without substantial new-old content, it will be impossible to maintain the Jewish (as distinct from the “Israeli-Hebrew”) uniqueness of the State of Israel for very long—and the Jewish people, too, will go into decline. Translating this idea into concrete measures is a matter of life and death, even though it may be difficult to do: Cultural creativity does not exactly lend itself to being engineered. Still, there are many ways to encourage and support creative activity, through public and state-sponsored initiatives, and privately at the level of communities, voluntary societies and individuals.
What is needed initially is an accurate, in-depth diagnosis of what is wrong, so that we may arrive at effective principles for dealing with it. The fundamental problem is that some parts of Judaism, and even more so some elements of Zionism, have become obsolete in light of these recent breaks in the flow of Jewish history and, as a result, the radically new situations the Jewish people find themselves in. A transcendent, pluralistic creativity capable of adjusting the meaning of Judaism to the people’s situation in a world in transformation, while preserving continuity with the essence of the religion, is the only remedial principle that can make Judaism meaningful again to individual Jews and to the people as a whole, and strengthen the Jewish nature of the State of Israel.

Yehezkel Dror is a professor of political science at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and the author of Refounding Zionism (Hasifria Hatzionit, 1997).

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