Commentary Magazine

Perpetual Dilemma: Jewish Religion in the Jewish State, by S. Zalman Abramov

Zionism & Orthodoxy

Perpetual Dilemma: Jewish Religion in the Jewish State.
by S. Zalman Abramov.
Fairleigh Dickinson Press/World Union for Progressive Judaism. 459 pp. $15.00.

The phrase has become part of the Western vernacular: “Israel is the bastion of democracy in the Middle East.” Not untrue in its description of Israel’s leading national institutions, to be sure, its electoral processes, its Knesset, its secular judiciary. Yet often unobserved by foreign admirers of the Jewish state is a granitic Orthodox subculture that, in the intensity of its obsession with a “Torah-true society,” and in its legal and political powers of coercion, offers a noteworthy counterpoint to the nation’s vaunted democratic achievements. Immigrants to Israel may find it a source of inconvenience at worst that interurban transportation comes to a halt on the Sabbath, that kosher food alone is available in common carriers and officially-licensed hotels. Irritation turns to chagrin, however, when marriage or divorce proves impossible except under Orthodox auspices—indeed, when endless legal obstacles and public pressure must be overcome to find so much as a meeting place for non-Orthodox religious services. Moreover, for non-Jewish wives of Soviet or Western immigrants, chagrin becomes despair when, upon reaching adulthood, the progeny of these mixed marriages are obliged to undergo the Orthodox rite of conversion for the privilege of marriage in Israel (not infrequently, those rites are gratuitously delayed by suspicious rabbis). Restrictions on personal status that would be given short shrift in the most traditionalist southern European country are perpetuated in Zion: among them, levirate marriage, injunctions against marriages between Kohanim and divorced women, or between illegitimate and legitimate offspring.

The phenomenon of Israel’s secular processes entwined in the embrace of a shadow Orthodox government defies the experience of Western social scientists; and as a result, few have managed to decipher, let alone to translate, its complexities. For that accomplishment, an author ideally should combine the talents of a juridical scholar and of a learned historian of Jewish and Zionist history, as well as a temperament of exceptional dispassion. By good fortune, these are precisely the qualities evinced by S. Zalman Abramov. A distinguished attorney and parliamentarian, a former deputy speaker of the Knesset and a member of its Committee on Law and Constitution, Abramov is known for his numerous scholarly monographs on the history of the Yishuv and modern Israel. He is, not least of all, a writer in whom objectivity of approach and precision of style are blended virtually to perfection. This volume, accordingly, is a masterpiece of its genre, a historical analysis of Israel’s “perpetual dilemma” wrought with such piercing lucidity that it illumines the entire winding corridor of modern Zionism itself.

In his opening chapters, Abramov provides us with a succinct account of the “Old” Yishuv, the agglomeration of religionists who journeyed to the Holy Land in the 19th and early 20th centuries to live out their days in pious semi-mendicancy near the Western Wall. The intricate and fascinating sociology of halukkah—charitable remittances for the devout—is explored, together with the origins of the Mizrachi and Agudat Israel movements, and the latter’s unique amalgam of German anti-pluralism and hasidic evangelism. As a legal scholar, Abramov is particularly well qualified to dissect the “constitutional” basis of the Ottoman millet system that established the framework for rabbinical jurisdiction over Jewish personal status, a monopoly preserved intact during the British mandate, and ultimately in the state of Israel. At the same time, Abramov incisively ascribes the “New” Yishuv’s capitulation to the “Old” (in matters of personal status) not only to an inherited “constitutional” tradition in the Holy Land, but to the political compliancy of Theodor Herzl. By rejecting the appeal (associated with the name of Ahad Ha-am) for a pan-sectarian Zionist educational and cultural program, and by agreeing to leave such “non-diplomatic” issues to the specialized attention of the various trends within the Zionist movement, Herzl set the pattern for an “accommodation” with the Orthodox in the cultural-religious sphere that ultimately became a far-reaching political surrender. Its denouement occurred in June 1947, on the eve of Partition, when the Yishuv‘s Labor and other secular parties acquiesced in the continuation of the status quo—that is, of rabbinical jurisdiction over personal status, and Sabbath and kashrut observance in the nation’s public institutions—as the price for Orthodox support of Jewish statehood.



Yet, as Abramov makes clear, that status quo has been systematically weighted in the Jewish republic, and principally as a consequence of the religionists’ shrewd application of political muscle. Admittedly, the combined voting strength of Mafdal (the Mizrachi and Poalei Mizrachi parties) and Agudat Israel has never exceeded 15 per cent in Issaeli elections. Nevertheless, the vagaries of coalition politics have invested the religionists with decisive bargaining strength in the formation of secularist-dominated cabinets. So, by the same token, has competition for loyalties within the religious community itself, as the ultra-Orthodox Agudat Israel (which has generally remained outside the government) chivvies the somewhat more moderate Mafdal (a perennial member of Israel’s cabinets) to toe the straight and narrow line of Orthodox propriety on all legislative issues. For Israel’s underpopulated and militarily-beleaguered society, the consequences of this accelerating relay-system of pressure tactics have been the exemption of thousands of Orthodox girls both from military conscription and from alternative civilian national-welfare service; the fragmentation of the nation’s overburdened educational facilities into covens of state-supported and frequently submarginal Orthodox primary and secondary schools; the evisceration of medical care and medical training by ironclad limitations on post-mortem examinations.

Capping the elaborate Orthodox superstructure of vested party interests, finally, Israel’s Chief Rabbinate, institutionalized and subsidized by the state treasury, lays down an extensive grillwork of doctrinal guidelines for the nation’s “Torah-true” community. Although not all religionists are prepared to adhere reflexively to its edicts, the Chief Rabbinate exerts enough leverage through its monopoly over Jewish personal status to insure that halakhah, traditional Jewish law in its narrowest (for Israel) Orthodox application, has remained the immutable criterion for “legitimate” Jewish behavior in a Jewish state. As it happens, halakhah, like the formerly stateless Jewish people itself, for centuries had been divorced from a practical relationship to a functioning body politic. In Israel, therefore, the Rabbinate’s halakhic dicta have been preoccupied essentially with the legal minutiae of personal and public observance, and have not been related primarily to the overriding crises of national survival in a modern world and amid a sea of Arab enemies. More significantly yet, fixated by issues of rite and ritual, the Rabbinate has taken no initiative whatever in drawing attention to social or economic evils. Matters of ethics have fallen entirely beyond the ambit of Israeli Orthodoxy.

Abramov maintains his austere objectivity even throughout his concluding evaluative chapters. If he describes Orthodoxy’s failure to infuse modern Israel with the unique and historic ethos of prophetic Judaism, so, evenhandedly, he provides an exceptionally original critique of secularism’s parallel failure to offer a meaningful alternative to the nation’s spiritual vacuum. And in a summary balance-sheet on the church-state quandary, he ventures the observation that, by scrupulously observing the status-quo bargain, Israel’s Labor governments did achieve their transcending purpose of avoiding a Kulturkampf. “This policy was in the nature of a delaying action,” he writes, “and the time gained enabled the new state to consolidate itself and strengthen its social cohesion. It has also afforded an opportunity for the development of a Jewish culture within a climate of broad national consensus.”

It is a possibly sanguine conclusion for an otherwise masterly study, and one that lends itself to some reserve. We may conceivably acknowledge without prejudice the author’s restraint in sidestepping acquisitiveness as a factor in Orthodoxy’s drive (as in the drive of other political parties) to consolidate and enlarge its prerogatives in Israel. Disclaiming expertise in psychology, Abramov should perhaps also be held blameless for not applying to Jerusalem’s and B’nai Brak’s tightly disciplined hasidic armies the analytical techniques first suggested in Adorno and Frankel’s classic essay, The Authoritarian Personality. But “social cohesion” strengthened “within a climate of broad national consensus”? The numbers of Israelis whose lives have been seriously constrained by the ideological rigidity of the Chief Rabbinate are surely not insignificant. Presumably they draw their own analogies between Israel’s “social cohesion” and that of avowedly non-democratic regimes elsewhere that envisage individual human rights as an expendable commodity in the quest for a higher “national consensus.” When the day comes, moreover, that even the triumphant Likud bloc recognizes the bargaining advantage of a partial withdrawal from the West Bank, Israel’s non-Orthodox majority may well learn what it has achieved by its earlier unwillingness to accept a painful confrontation with the doctrinal fundamentalism in the nation’s midst.

About the Author

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.