Commentary Magazine


The Wild Goats of Ein Gedi, by Herbert Weiner

Religious Life in the Land of Israel1

When Theodor Herzl first jotted down the notes for his Judenstaat, he envisioned Europe’s Jews voyaging to the Promised Land by communities, each guided by its own rabbi. “Our Jewish faith is what we have in common,” he wrote, picturing his state as a place where that faith would be practiced in devout yet enlightened fashion by one and all.

Most of those who made Herzl’s dream a reality came to the Land not only without their rabbis but also without their Jewish faith. The society they built was a secular one; religion belonged to the galut which they had left behind. Thus Israel came to be the one country outside the Communist bloc where Jews preached and practiced a militant secularism, glowering at the rigid Orthodoxy at the opposite pole across a vast no man’s land of indifference.

For a number of years now Rabbi Herbert Weiner, known to COMMENTARY readers as an astute interpreter of the Israeli scene, has been on the lookout for the signs that would point to a new dynamism in the country’s religious life, other than the slow drift from the extremities into the gray center. This book is a result of his quest. While it does not have the answer to what is known in some Christian circles as the Mystery of Israel—whether the rebirth of a Jewish commonwealth has any religious significance—it must be welcomed as a sensitive and intelligent attempt to deal with the one aspect of Israel’s existence that has been buried under the avalanche of comment on its economics, politics, and sociology.

As essential background to an understanding of subsequent developments, Weiner offers an excellent popular exposition of the millet, the system of communal religious autonomy prevalent under the Turks and taken over by the Mandatory administration. It is this heritage rather than the Western ideal of separation between church and state which still governs the underlying relationship. Although sovereign political organization has now replaced the millet for Israel’s Jewish community, it is inevitable that the vestiges of the former system should come into conflict with the machinery of the polity. When there is enough human interest in these controversies, then “religious” news from Israel makes the world’s headlines: Who (or what) is a Jew? . . . Who can marry whom and under what auspices? . . . Who should bury whom and in what plot of ground? Rabbi Weiner takes us behind the scenes of one of these widely publicized episodes, and in doing so places all of them in their proper perspective as rear-guard engagements in a struggle whose outcome is quite predetermined, and which can hardly affect the true religious issue in Israel: namely, the ultimate fate of Judaism as a faith in a homogeneous Jewish society enjoying political sovereignty.

If here a price is being paid, it is because Orthodoxy, while unable or unwilling to stimulate evolution from within, is in a position to put obstacles in the way of attempts at change from without. As one of the centers of power in the state, it uses that power first of all to maintain and consolidate its own status within a wider status quo. While secularism too is part of that status quo, new religious forms by definition are not, and the Orthodox establishment is bound to oppose them. Any innovating movement is thereby faced with a handicap which is absent, for instance, in the United States. The handicap could no doubt be overcome by a sufficient dose of genuine fervor, but that is a commodity hard to come by these days, in Israel as elsewhere. The “Progressive” Sabbath services in Jerusalem are poorly attended, and the congregation’s leaders complain that the resident “Anglo-Saxons” stay away, even though the services presumably offer what they are looking for: intelligible ritual of reasonable duration in an aesthetic frame-work, with enough of the traditional to satisfy the nostalgic.

It can be argued that the price has been well worth paying if the gain has been avoidance or even postponement of a Kulturkampf. Had there been a numerically weightier core of fundamentalists, à la Naturei Karta, to whom Zionism’s messianic claims are pure anathema, it is conceivable that secular leadership might have been goaded into the kind of repressive measures by which Kemal Ataturk counteracted the anti-nationalist tendencies of Islam. As it is, the willingness (or eagerness) of Israel’s “modern” Orthodoxy to take part in political life moves the conflict to a plane where compromise is attainable—and is constantly being attained.

It comes as no surprise against this background that Rabbi Werner’s gleanings in the field of new religious experiments remained scanty. The organized groups he came across were either fringe phenomena—interesting in themselves but having little more impact on the country’s religious life than the Amish have on that of the U. S.; or else their motivation for the collective adventure was scarcely religious at all. The late Chief Rabbi Kook’s benign dictum—recalled by his son in the interview which the author first published in COMMENTARY—that the Marxist kibbutzniks were being religious without knowing it, overtaxes the concept of religion, as shown up by the wag who asked if it also applied to the atheists in a Soviet collective.

On the other hand, Weiner makes only passing mention of the existing Orthodox kibbutzim. It is true that there is nothing new about the Judaism practiced in the Kibbutz Dati, but the fact that there are a dozen or so communities which have succeeded in adapting an Orthodox way of life to the demands of the agricultural collective is worth the telling. The same could be said of the Bnei Akiva movement’s yeshivot, where many of the young farmers spend a year or two studying before going back to the plow.

As part of his “field trip” through the religious landscape of Israel, Weiner introduces the reader to some of the personalities, Jewish and Christian, whose views might bear on the Mystery. In an otherwise inconclusive session, Buber expresses himself sharply on the Arab-Israel problem; Rabbi Kook fils criticizes both Ben Gurion and Ahad Ha’am for using the Bible as a means for serving man and the state rather than for its own sake or as revelation of divine will; and the peppery Dr. Yehoshua Leibowitz pursues his familiar role as the chief Orthodox critic of Orthodoxy, berating the rabbinate for not daring to adapt Halacha to the needs of a modern state.

A visit to Degania provides an opportunity for communing with the ghost of A. D. Gordon, that Tolstoyan figure whose memory is being kept alive in the neat little kibbutz museum, while mention of his “religion of labor” brings puzzlement to the faces of the third-generation kibbutzniks. The latter’s ersatz religious celebrations struck Weiner as artificial and spiritless.

Yigal Yadin, taking time out from his dig at Hatzor, told the American rabbi that if there was to be a vital Jewish religion in the future it must again have some special association with the Land. This fits in with Weiner’s own preoccupation throughout the book with the particular quality of the countryside and its effect on the spiritual development of the people that dwell in it. He finds that Yehuda Halevi had already said much the same thing: “This land will receive and give root only to a particular kind of religious seed,” one characterized by “allness” and total commitment.

That there is a potent mystique about the landscape of Palestine no one can deny. But no one can assert either that it was the main catalyst in the emergence of homo religiosus, or that the repeated encounters between human destiny and divine inspiration took place in it simply because the locale was propitious. And if it was so, on what basis may one expect a recurrence? Since when does the immutability of the setting make for cyclical human history? The impact of natural phenomena on the imagination has itself become greatly attenuated: a man listening to the radio in his centrally heated Jerusalem flat takes only casual notice, if any, of the majestic cloud formations of the late rainy season, and few except tourists still pause to watch the magnificent sunsets over the mountains of Moab.

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This is but another way of saying that the influences which have been dissolving the religious basis of society in the West are present in Israel as well. Israel, moreover, is still riding the crest of a successful nationalism, which is hardly ever a receptive seedbed for new forms of religion. It is true that in Israel as elsewhere there is a vague yearning, among the young in particular, for something more satisfying to the soul than the middle-class comforts incipient prosperity has put within reach. But whether the road from this starting point to true religiosity is shortened by the religiously-charged natural environment is open to question.

Perhaps Rabbi Weiner’s most perceptive observation is that “the Israeli is probably religious and irreligious in the same proportion as can be found in any Western land.” Yet he is not on such sure footing—unlike the wild goats of the title, whose relevance to the main theme, incidentally, remains the minor mystery of this book—when he attributes the absence of the kind of “hothouse religion” that flourishes in suburban America to the conditions of life in present-day Israel which “make it difficult to find time or energy for anything except the absolutely vital and necessary.” It is by now axiomatic that much of the Jewish religious revival in the U. S. is a function of the role of Jewishness within the Herbergian triptych. Israel, on the other hand, is to all intents and purposes monolithic in its Jewishness, and the dominant Jewish group is neither competing with nor influenced by the minority Muslim and Christian segments. Nor is this organic self-sufficiency simply a product of political sovereignty: the millet system effectively impregnated each group against religious or cultural cross-fertilization, obviating the need for a common denominator.

Since the millennial element in Christianity is by far the stronger, the Christian religious functionaries whom Weiner sought out are on the whole firmer believers in the Mystery of Israel than the Jews are themselves. Being convinced that the physical return has some metaphysical significance, they chose to be on-the-spot observers and, perhaps, lend a hand. This, however, does not make them soul-snatching missionaries; on the contrary, Weiner felt that quite a few of them were being “Judaized”—at least in externals—through their immersion in Israeli life. It is probably significant that most of these men are of Jewish origin. Their stories, and their views about the state of Judaism as Rabbi Weiner reports them, make absorbing reading; none more so than the tale of the young Protestant nuns from Darmstadt in Germany, who came to atone for their people’s collective sin. Speaking Hebrew and working cheerfully as nurses in hospitals, they are being accepted by their Israeli colleagues as fellow workers rather than as do-gooders motivated by an alien religion.

As against such isolated efforts at a Christian-Jewish symbiosis, Weiner notes a general absence of dialogue between the two faiths in Israel. He finds the mainstream of Christian religious life in the land of its origin depressingly barren and dry, as though the presence of the concrete reminders of its birth and the long history of bickering over their possession had drained it of vitality. Dwelling only cursorily on the state of Islam, Weiner found it vegetating almost lifelessly in the inhospitable soil. There is a strong hint in these pages that in this age religion may be better nourished by the thought of a mythical Zion than by a real one; and that the Zion of the heart shrinks away before the authenticity of the mound of earth and stone.

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Footnotes

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1 A review of The Wild Goats of Ein Gedi: A Journal of Religious Encounters in the Holy Land, by Herbert Weiner (Doubleday, 312 pp., $4.50).

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