“Who is a Jew”
To the Editor:
The article by Edward Norden, “Behind ‘Who Is a Jew’” [April], is—for me, at least—the most illuminating I have ever read in COMMENTARY. One of its merits is, when speaking of such concepts as sinat hinam [motiveless hatred] and ahavat yisrael [love of Israel], to avoid the usual psychoanalytical stuff: ambivalence, etc. We Diaspora Jews indulge only too easily in these perfectly useless comments.
To the Editor:
. . . Edward Norden writes that the Orthodox (dati’im) and the ultra-Orthodox (haredim) “observe the same 613 commandments.” I doubt it. An examination of Maimonides’ enumeration of the commandments will show that, of the 248 positive commandments, at least 160 could be observed only at the time of the Temple and of the Sanhedrin, but not now. And at least 132 of the 365 negative commandments would find no application today. This editorial slip lessens the impact of an otherwise searing essay.
David H. Fax
To the Editor:
Edward Norden’s perceptive article on the current religious-secular strife in Israel is flawed in part by a failure common to most analyses of this subject—a lack of understanding of the Orthodox position vis-à-vis the nature of a Jewish state today. This is not unexpected, as the Orthodox themselves have no clear understanding of their own position, either.
While there is no doubt in this observer’s mind that the committed secularist, . . . if only he held the power, would de-Judaize the state of Israel and create an entity thoroughly steeped in Western humanism, the opposite cannot be said for his adversaries in the religious camp. The latter, if presented with a similar opportunity, would be singularly incapable of converting the state of Israel into a theocracy.
The platform normally ascribed to Orthodox Jewry (be it Zionist/ Mizrahi or non-Zionist/Aguda) has usually been summarized by the motto, “the land of Israel for the people of Israel according to the Torah of Israel.” To the general public, this would seem to commit Orthodoxy to creating a state run strictly according to the principles of religious law, Halakhah (with the rabidly secular group delightedly conjuring up the image of Iran under Khomeini in explaining Orthodox objectives). But any real attempt to achieve this goal (“a Jewish polity of the Law,” as Mr. Norden puts it), . . . would show up this definition for what it is, . . . a fatuous slogan completely divorced from contemporary halakhic reality.
Yeshayahu Leibowitz, Israel’s curmudgeon-at-large, especially in matters of religion and the state, is fond of citing the above argument in contesting the Orthodox position. His objection is based on unimpeachable halakhic opinion, accepted by all elements of the Orthodox community, that with the destruction of the Second Temple and its Chamber of Hewn Stones (which served as the seat of the Sanhedrin) and with the subsequent disappearance of ancient semikhah [ordination], the various laws that deal with the governing of a sovereign Jewish state . . . are no longer halakhically applicable, and it is, moreover, halakhically forbidden to reinstate them in any age other than a messianic one.
It is for this reason that Joseph Caro, compiler of the Shulhan Arukh, the code of Jewish law upon which most of contemporary halakhic practice is based, does not even deal with this subject. Apparently he felt that governance would forever remain in the hands of non-Jews—at least until the coming of the messiah. The stark reality, therefore, is that in spite of utopian slogans, a halakhic Jewish state in the ancient mold is unachievable today because . . . the laws by which it would ostensibly be governed simply do not exist.
It is ironic that the Orthodox establishment, whose incontestable province is halakhic law, has never grappled with the basic inconsistency of its own program to the point of attempting to provide a practical alternative in its place. Were Orthodoxy to do so, it would certainly be able, in the course of time and without compromising its standards, to develop a platform which would at the same time reflect Torah values, be consistent with contemporary halakhic norms, and very likely be acceptable to a great majority of non-Orthodox, non-secular (but traditional) Israelis.
The failure of Orthodoxy up until now to meet this challenge is perhaps indicative that it is resigned to remaining a minority in the state of Israel forever. Such inertia is unfortunate, for it severely undermines the Orthodox position by associating it mainly with coercive “religious” laws. More importantly, it serves to perpetuate the present Kulturkampf by denying Israeli society a bona-fide option which might prove to be the key toward resolving the conflict.
Norman A. Bloom
North Miami Beach, Florida
To the Editor:
Edward Norden’s article is so faulty at the rudimentary level that his wider-ranging analyses and conclusions do not merit serious consideration. For example, he refers to “black-coated commandos who spend their Sabbaths throwing rocks at cars. . . .” If these charges were accurate, the attacks described by Mr. Norden would be constant and ongoing instead of being confined to some sporadic incidents during a few months in 1987-88, carried out by a relatively few young men within a small area of Jerusalem. In any case, the haredi “rocks” must be special since they rarely hit, and when they do, they cause far less damage than . . . those “nonviolent” pebbles which are being thrown so effectively these days by David-like Arabs against Goliath Israel. . . .
Then there is the new Keshet group (the Non-Compromisers) whose members, according to Mr. Norden, have been planting bombs and daubing swastikas on BenGurion’s grave. Are they really significant? Evidently they have gone so far underground that there is nothing further to report. The same goes for the arsonists. Why these phenomena are so short-lived is vital to understanding Israel. I have no firm explanantion to offer except to suggest that authorities in the diverse haredi communities ultimately have effective control. Perhaps they have increased their reliance on politics. Why these episodes get so much media attention is another important question. Remember the worldwide coverage of those bus-stop arsonists a few years ago?
Mr. Norden’s sketch of the changing character and extent of haredi power gives the impression that they have been winning the Kulturkampf, but in fact they have lost on almost every issue they have taken to the street. . . . Recently, the Jerusalem Post Magazine gave major coverage to the expansion of Sabbath entertainment and non-kosher dining in Jerusalem. Nowadays you don’t have to go to Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff Street on Friday night for music, food, Arab waiters, and pork. They are to be found on Shamai Street in Jerusalem, five minutes by foot from the Great Synagogue and even closer by cab from a stand half a minute from the Great Synagogue. The Jerusalem soccer stadium is also beyond the haredi grip, though work on the $24 million project has been stopped temporarily because the government has not kept its promise of half the funding, and the first installment of an $8 million donation will not be made until 1990. . . .
Finally, there are contradictions in Mr. Norden’s own report. For example, he says that the Sephardi “has lately come to realize that if the dati’im and haredim get their way, he will be deprived of his soccer match on the day of rest. . . .” But in fact the most spectacular voting gains in the recent election were made by the new haredi party, Shas, which Mr. Norden describes in his article as “supported mainly by Jews of Moroccan extraction. . . .”
To the Editor:
As a “bareheaded” American Jew, I found the article by Edward Norden very enlightening, especially his review of the events leading up to the “Who Is a Jew” controversy. However, my major concern, probably snared by a number of other non-Orthodox Jews, was not mentioned, . . . to wit: if the amended Law of Return were adopted, would the Orthodox view—which regards the offspring of Jewish parents who were married by Conservative or Reform rabbis as bastards—become legal doctrine in Israel?
Martin I. Selling
Fair Lawn, New Jersey
To the Editor:
Edward Norden’s article gives an excellent overview of Israel’s religious-cultural problem. However, I found it hard to see why he magnified the religious issue over all others, calling this question “the crucial one,” and claiming that “how we Israelis finally answer it will determine how we allocate the wealth we make or are granted and how we pursue . . . peace with the Palestinians.” If Mr. Norden means by this that the religious issue is not only crucial to Israel’s unity, but will also determine both the nature of Israel’s economy and its relations with the Arabs, I believe he is overstating the case. Certainly his subsequent account of the religious struggle in Israel since 1948 does not prove that particular point.
I do not quarrel with either the accuracy or the troubling aspect of Mr. Norden’s charge of the systematic looting of Israel’s treasury by the Orthodox. Nor do I deny that the religious issue affects the economic one. Still, it is a far cry from this to Mr. Norden’s conclusion that religion is more responsible for the current situation than any other factor. Is the total subvention by the state of the budgetary needs of the Orthodox more important, for example, than the purely economic fact that Israelis spend more than they save? Is the exemption of yeshiva students from military service equal in importance to Syria’s ambition to achieve military parity with Israel? Is religion really a more important factor in the morale of the military than the pressure of the continual state of war or the continuing necessity of serving in the reserves or—lately—in the occupied territories? Finally, I simply do not understand . . . how religion affects relations with the Palestinians, as Mr. Norden maintains.
So far from proving his point that religion is the crucial issue, Mr. Norden, it seems to me, proves almost exactly the opposite. If we find both religious Zionists and anti-religious Zionists, if we find observant Jews who serve, and observant Jews who shun the army, if we find haredim who are against the state itself and traditional (masorti) Jews who immigrate more and emigrate less, are we not forced to the conclusion that the religious element more or less cancels itself out with respect to Zionism, with respect to the Jewish nature of the state, with respect to the question of retention or surrender of territories? . . .
A final question that puzzles me in Mr. Norden’s fine article is the following: if, as he states, 45 percent of Israeli Jews are neither ultra-Orthodox nor secular, but rather traditional, why are they so averse to non-Orthodox forms of Judaism? Even Mr. Norden himself, from his supposedly dispassionate authorial viewpoint, seems less than enthusiatic about non-Orthodox Judaism as shown in the following passage:
. . . To more than a few of us, the real issue—who shall be an authentic rabbi for the Jews who remain in exile—was remote . . . even our most devoted hilonim [secularists] would say that as far as rabbis are concerned, only what the foreign press calls the Orthodox are the genuine article. These Reform and Conservative padres . . . look and sound more like college professors. . . .
In a curious way, then, perhaps religion is the crucial issue. Not in the way Mr. Norden sees it, as a struggle between the secularists and the ultra-Orthodox, but rather in terms of their mutual refusal (in which they are joined even by the traditionalist, middle-of-the-road masorti Jews), to recognize non-Orthodox forms of Judaism. To be sure, both Reform and Conservatism are represented in Israel in more than token form. Both have seminaries in Jerusalem, kibbutzim in the hinterland, rabbinic bodies, and a total of almost one hundred congregations. But both Mr. Norden and the Israelis seem to be saying: we refuse to be Orthodox because we do not believe and are not prepared to observe all the commandments. But we also refuse to accept a version of Judaism in which we could believe, and a code of observance possible of fulfillment, because these are not the genuine article. We prefer the extremes. . . .
[Rabbi] Jacob Chinitz
Halifax, Nova Scotia
Edward Norden writes:
Of course David H. Fax is correct—only some of the 613 commandments are now observable. They have not been annulled, however, but simply placed on hold, until the simultaneous arrival of the messiah and the reconstruction of the Temple. What I should have written is that both the dati’im and haredim would observe them all if they could, and will when they can. There are schools in the Old City of Jerusalem today, close to the Temple Mount, where devout young Jews are studying those laws of purification and sacrifice for the priests, not to hurry the messiah along, but to be prepared if he comes along tomorrow.
Though such goings-on may seem esoteric, downright weird to some readers, they go to the heart of the observant Jew’s problem with Zionism, a problem which dates back to before Herzl and is touched on in Norman A. Bloom’s letter—how is one to found and rule a Jewish state worthy of the name on any except halakhic lines? On the other hand, how is one to apply all the laws associated with sovereignty in Zion without running the risk of hastening the messiah, a terrible sin? As I recalled in my article, most of the so-called Orthodox (not to mention Reform and Conservative) rabbis and their flocks handled this problematic dilemma until after Hitler by staying well away from Zionism and its works. Following the Holocaust and the establishment of Israel, and especially after the conquest of the rest of Jerusalem in 1967, this ceased to be possible. “Stark reality,” as Mr. Bloom puts it, has forced the Orthodox, even the hare-dim, to come to some kind of grips with Israel, if only in their day-today dealings with the state and its institutions.
As I also showed, this pragmatism has gone far indeed, to the point where, for example, some haredi parties, still refusing to acknowledge the state’s legitimacy, have, due to politics, actually taken custody of several of its institutions and budgets. Out of the ideological nettle of Israel some handsome flowers can be plucked. “The Orthodox themselves,” Mr. Bloom observes, continue to “have no clear understanding of their own position . . . vis-à-vis the nature of a Jewish state.” He is only partly right. If their great dilemma is being lived, instead of ignored or resolved, this does not mean that among observant Jews both in and outside of Israel there is not a clear, sincere consensus of hope, not to say determination, that someday, somehow, all Jews will live according to the Law, and the Law will be the only law of the Jewish land.
The fact that “various laws that deal with the governing of a sovereign Jewish state. . . . are no longer halakhically applicable” in no way prevents anyone from cherishing that hope. Nor does it stop some from periodically attempting to push regulations through the Knesset which the nonobservant believe are coercive. This is because Israeli reality is less neat than Mr. Bloom suspects. No one here has the last word on anything, not even the learned, logic-chopping Professor Leibowitz. The rabbis themselves disagree on tactics, strategy, and timing. If most of them say that it is forbidden for the time being for Jews to tread on the Temple Mount, others say it is permitted. It may be true, as Mr. Bloom says, that the Orthodox, given the opportunity, “would be singularly incapable of converting the state of Israel into a theocracy.” But their failure would not be thanks to any lack of readiness to undertake such a revolution as a natural continuation of today’s secular-religious contest.
There are several reasons why a small-scale Kulturkampf is already under way in Israel. One is that some dati’im and haredim, unclear as they may be about many things, are ready as part of the political game to try to dictate cultural terms to the secular majority of Jews in and outside of the country. Mr. Bloom is of the opinion that the “Orthodox establishment” would do better to drop the machinations and concentrate on framing a new program, “a practical alternative . . . consistent with contemporary halakhic norms.” Maybe it would. It is doubtful, however, that the establishment “certainly would be able” to produce such a program if only it put its mind to it, and that when it was published “a great majority of non-Orthodox” would see the light, thus bringing the culture-war to a peaceful, happy conclusion.
My sixth sense tells me Mr. Bloom has a dati agenda drawn up for his fellow Jews. Joseph Lerner, on the other hand, seems to be a haredi sympathizer. The plain sense of my article has escaped him.
Nowhere did I say that the hare-dim “have been winning the Kulturkampf.” Nor did I say they were losing it, since it is much too early to know. What has happened so far is that they have won some fights, and lost others. The score is roughly even. Item: A secular attempt to get some of the 20,000 yeshiva boys who are now exempt from the army drafted has been shelved in committee. Item: El Al no longer flies on the Sabbath. Item: The main food-processing companies have given in, and now display special kashrut certificates on their wares together with those of the Chief Rabbinate. Item: At taxpayers’ expense, and after yeshiva boys stoned traffic to the Ramot suburb of Jerusalem on the Sabbath, an alternate road was built.
In other battles in what is shaping up as a long war, the haredim have lost. Their loss over the Jerusalem soccer stadium I noted. And their loss, possibly temporary, over “Who Is a Jew” was nothing less than my dramatic centerpiece. It is also true that as a function of the sharpening culture-war and of the growing size and wealth of Israel’s capital, you don’t have to drive down to Tel Aviv anymore, but can, if you wish, dine out on shrimp in Jerusalem on Friday night, despite the anger of other Jews who would keep it impossible. I could have added other losing efforts overlooked by Mr. Lerner, such as the one by an alliance of haredim and dati’im to squelch the Mormon college in Jerusalem. In short, the warriors in the “religious” and “secular” camps can both cite good reasons for feeling surrounded. This does not alter the fact, which Mr. Lerner does not deny, that the haredim in Israel have more political and economic clout today than they have ever had before. Under the circumstances, violence would seem unnecessary. And indeed, haredi violence has its ups and downs. There has been less of it in Jerusalem since the Ramot bypass was built and the Palestinians started throwing rocks of their own.
Even when it is down, however, it is always there below the surface, liable to break out. For example, there was brawling between rival haredi parties during the last Knesset elections. When the haredim are violent, they are, well, violent—I don’t understand why Mr. Lerner puts “rocks” in quotation marks when they’re thrown by yeshiva boys.
Rather than ask “why these phenomena are short-lived,” he should ask why they are chronic. Why, in a community which professes to honor learning and piety, and to despise force, do inter- and intramural disagreements chronically lead to beatings and arson? The answer would take cognizance of the general state of the world and then go back a couple of thousand years, to when the Sicarii (whose name has been adopted by a new haredi-dati terrorist group), were active in Jerusalem. The original Sicarii did some fighting against the Romans, but their specialty was killing other Jews. Haredi violence has traditionally been directed against other Jews.
Now, however, from that zone where the border between haredi and dati is blurred, where Rabbi Meir Kahane is cheered and the anti-Zionist metamorphoses into the hyper-Zionist, both Jews and Arabs are threatened by what may be, in Mr. Lerner’s words, “a relatively few young men.” These have firebombed the apartments of left-wing Jewish members of the Knesset. They have also set out from the Joseph’s Tomb yeshiva in Nablus/Shechem, where they were supposed to be studying, and invaded a Palestinian village, shooting at everything in sight and killing a girl. Their rabbi later explained to the press that the blood of Gentiles is of less value than that of Jews.
Martin I. Selling is probably under a misapprehension. The “Orthodox view” has never held that “the offspring of Jewish parents who were married by Conservative or Reform rabbis” are “bastards.” Halakhah, unlike church and Anglo-Saxon law, is uninterested in wedlock when it comes to illegitimacy (mamzerut)—on this the rabbis are, for once, agreed. A mamzer is a Jewish child conceived in a forbidden, that is, an incestuous or adulterous, relationship. Children conceived by an unmarried Jewish woman and a Jewish man not closely related to her, or an unmarried Jewish woman and a Gentile, or a Jewish woman married to a Jew or Gentile by a Reconstructionist rabbi or for that matter by a Buddhist priest, will all be full, equal, and unconditional Jews for the strictest rabbis in Jerusalem and Williamsburg. This is all very clear and humane. The practical problem arises with divorce, since a woman divorced through a non-Orthodox rabbi is considered to have an illegal get (bill of divorcement) and therefore remains married. If she has children with a man other than her husband before obtaining a genuine get, she will be thought to have committed adultery, and her children wil be mamzerim, that is, Jews who may marry only other mamzerim or converts.
This is a painful problem for a number of mainly North American women who have come to live in Israel. Typically, they were married and divorced by non-Orthodox rabbis. Now one can ask, “If non-Orthodox divorces are invalid, aren’t non-Orthodox marriage rites as well? And in that case, wasn’t the supposed adulteress unmarried all along, making a get irrelevant?” To which no Orthodox rabbi will give an unambiguous answer, especially not for the record.
At any rate, there is nothing in the language of the proposed “Who Is a Jew” amendment to the Law of Return which would change halakhic practice on mamzerim. Of course, since appetite comes with eating, it is conceivable, though unlikely, that if the amendment were passed, it would be followed by Who Is a Jew, Part Two, in which not only non-Orthodox conversions, but marriages also, would be solemnly disqualified by the Knesset. Instead of worrying about this eventuality, however, Mr. Selling might ponder the wisdom of a saying from Jewish lore: “Mamzer talmid hacham kodem lecohen gadol am ha’aretz” (“A scholarly bastard is better than an ignorant high priest”).
Rabbi Jacob Chinitz has put his finger on the nub of my article—my assertion that the religious-cultural crisis is the most important one for Israel. It is, I admit, a breathtaking assertion, and Rabbi Chinitz does not buy it, but I think I’ll stick to my guns, defining culture as the anthropologist-journalist Richard Critchfield does, as that which “provides human beings with a design for living, with a ready-made set of solutions to problems so that individuals in each new generation do not have to start again from scratch.” The secular “set of solutions” to Israel’s host of problems, which more or less worked for a generation, has broken down, and the religious set has yet to take its place. Maybe Rabbi Chinitz would see it my way if he remembered that in my article I talked always about a religious-cultural crisis, and not just about “the religious issue,” to which he almost immediately reduces it.
There is, of course, also a religious issue, one of whose aspects is the second-class status in Israel of non-Orthodox rabbis. I cannot echo his complaint that the majority of Israelis condone this discrimination because they “prefer the extremes.” To be sure, extremism is gaining here, but most Israelis, incredibly enough, are still pretty open-minded and curious, ready to try anything if it looks like it might profit, please, or improve them. I would suggest to Rabbi Chinitz that the Reform and Conservative movements have failed to make a big dent for other reasons, one minor, the other major. The minor one is that the non-Orthodox in their North American bastions always seem to be the first to go on TV to trash Israeli policy vis-à-vis the Arabs—this is seen to reflect badly. The major reason is that, their admirable kibbutzim and seminaries notwithstanding, the number of non-Orthodox Americans and Canadians who move to Israel and stay here, serving in the army, contending with the heat and the red tape, having sabra children, voting for the Knesset, and offering an example of another variety of Judaism, is pitiful. Why then should the man in the street, let alone the politician, take them seriously?