A thoughtful post by Donniel Hartman published yesterday on the Shalom Hartman Institute’s blog and eJewishPhilanthropy deserves serious consideration by all concerned about the impact of Haredi extremism in Israel.
Rather than casting all the blame on the Haredi minority or imagining there are facile solutions to the current problems, Hartman rightly casts his eye on the Israeli Jewish majority’s inability to articulate a coherent and compelling idea of Jewishness.
“The source of the challenge posed by Haredim to Israel as a Jewish and democratic state lies first and foremost in the failure of the larger Israeli society to define for itself the meaning and limits of the Jewishness of the Jewish state…We must recognize that being a Jewish and democratic state will not be the result of a declaration but the consequence of a well thought-out policy and public discourse. Being a sovereign people means that instead of ascribing blame one takes responsibility.”
The Haredi challenge to the standards of the Israeli public square seems so fierce today when they are still a relatively small minority of the population precisely because the Jewishness of that public square is so ill-defined. Israelis may declare Israel’s Jewish character in 1,000 different ways, but the state’s true Jewish content continues to derive mostly from the public authority granted to rabbinic bodies. Maintaining the state’s Jewish identity while simultaneously freeing the public square for greater expressions of religious pluralism (to say nothing of what is to happen for major life-cycle events like birth and death) is therefore a far more difficult problem than many would like it to be.
This, however, as Hartman points to, is one stirring reason why it is so extraordinary to live in a world with a reborn Jewish state. For the question of what it means to be a Jew is now fully in the hands of the Jewish people living as a free people in their homeland for the first time in 2,000 years.
Rather than capitulating to the Haredi positions on these matters or avoiding the question with an embrace of every possible contemporary definition of Jewishness so large that it is empty, we should finally grasp the opportunity to articulate a new standard broad enough to encompass the wide center of the Jewish people but that nevertheless resonates deeply with the tradition.
Efforts of this nature are afoot, perhaps most notably in the work of Haim Amsalem, who, among other things, is attempting to promote a solution to the conversion crisis of hundreds of thousands Russian-speaking Jews in Israel that is both moderate and firmly rooted in traditional halachah. The Jewish world desperately needs more rabbinic leaders of this kind who are able to stand against the most extreme interpretations of halachah in a way that nevertheless is authentic to Jewish tradition.
Some might claim the Jewish people has today simply grown too diffuse, with too many mutually exclusive definitions of Jewishness for there to be any chance to today unify them around a single idea. But that again is just another articulation of the importance of the Jewish state, for if a majority of its people are able to find a public discourse about Judaism they can all subscribe to, “the spirit of Judaism,” as Ahad Ha’am wrote long ago, “will radiate to the great circumference, to all the communities of the Diaspora, to inspire them with new life and to preserve the overall unity of our people.”