Commentary Magazine

The Jewish State and the Jewish People(s)

Is the Jewish people, 50 years after the establishment of its state, about to become the Jewish peoples?

History may be an inadequate basis for predicting the future, but, being the sum of our experience up to the future, it is all we have to go on. And so, thinking of the charges of destroying Jewish unity now being hurled at each other by the Orthodox and Reform (and, to a lesser extent, Conservative) rabbinates and their supporters over the who-is-or-who-can-become-a-Jew-in-Israel debate, I recently found myself asking a second, historical question. Given Orthodoxy’s profound abhorrence of Reform Judaism from the outset, why, I wondered, did it not read Reform out of the Jewish fold when it first appeared on the scene in early 19th-century Germany?

Precedent would not have been lacking for such a step. On the contrary: it was close at hand. In the summer of 1781 an assembly of Jews in the town of Zelva, today in western Belarus near the Polish and Lithuanian borders, gathered to hear local rabbis read a ban on a new sect that called its members “Hasidim.” After violently denouncing the sectaries, the ban enjoined the listeners and all other Jews, in the words of a contemporary chronicler, “to bar them [the Hasidim] from public prayer; deny them lodging; abstain from eating of their ritual slaughtering; transact no business with them; make no marriages with them; and refuse them a Jewish burial.”

This excommunication—for such in effect it was—was a more explicitly worded version of a proclamation delivered that same summer by the great rabbinic scholar, the Gaon of Vilna (1720-97), under whose influence Lithuania had become the center of the “misnagdic” or anti-hasidic campaign. (An earlier prohibition on fraternizing, with the Hasidim had already been issued by the Gaon in 1772.) Itself framed in the sharpest of terms, the Vilna proclamation called on all Jews

to ally themselves . . . against those who have publicly profaned the name of the Lord; exclude and isolate them in all possible ways; banish them from the boundaries of the community of Israel . . . and prevent them from congregating as is their wont and practicing their abominations until they hearken and accept all the commandments, injunctions, and circumventions placed upon them by the sages of our age.

From Lithuania the ban spread to eastern Poland, western Russia, Galicia, and other regions; in some places, Hasidim were attacked physically and forcibly driven from synagogues and communities. A renewed drive against them in 1796-98 led to the arrest and imprisonment of the hasidic master, Rabbi Shneour Zalman of Lyadi (1745-1813), on a trumped-up charge of plotting against the Russian government. Only with Shneour Zalman’s release, which was followed by an 1804 czarist edict granting the Hasidim full freedom of worship, and with the passing of the spiritual leadership of Lithuanian Jewry to the more moderate Rabbi Haim of Volozhin (1749-1821), did the threat of a full-fledged schism within East European Jewry abate. Even then the rift closed slowly. For the next century or more, Hasidim and Misnagdim lived in parallel societies, rarely praying or performing rituals together, intermarrying infrequently, and socializing little.



And what were the doctrinal issues that led to this near schism? According to the 1772 ban, the most serious charges against the Hasidim were that they “form prayer groups among themselves, . . . shout the shemoneh esreh prayer aloud, act wildly, claim that their thoughts ascend to the highest heavens, . . . make light of study, . . . and make strange noises when they pray, so that their prayers are like a town square.” The Hasidim were also castigated for using the Sephardi rather than the Ashkenazi prayer book; sharpening their slaughtering knives by untraditional methods; and—although this was not particularly stressed in the early struggle against them—putting their faith in charismatic wonder-workers.

One can imagine, then, what the rabbinic reaction must have been to Reform, the new religion of “Germans of the Mosaic faith,” even the more moderate wing of which soon repudiated the authority of the Talmud, did away with prayer in Hebrew, and deleted all references to Zion and the messiah from its liturgy. But one would be wrong. Apart from heaping invective upon it, nowhere did Orthodoxy deal with Reform as the Vilna Gaon had dealt with Hasidism. Not even the decision of the radical Reformists to eliminate circumcision and redeploy the Jewish Sabbath to the Christian Sunday provoked such an action. Reform Judaism was allowed to go its parallel way from the start.

This puzzle has its explanations. Hasidism’s rabbinic opponents overreacted both because they correctly perceived it as an immediate threat to their authority and because they incorrectly associated it with the 17th-century false-messianic movement of Sabbatianism, the traumatic effects of which on Jewish life had not yet faded away. Reform, on the other hand, never took root in Eastern Europe, where Orthodoxy was strongest; was rarely in direct competition with it, since those Jews who joined it had generally deserted the Orthodox camp beforehand and were not vulnerable to Orthodox sanctions; and enjoyed the benefit of the rabbinic principle of yisra’el af-al-pi she-hata yisra’el hu, “a Jew remains a Jew despite his sins.” Even in America, until well after World War II, the legal or halakhic Jewishness of Reform congregants was not, from the Orthodox point of view, in question. In the unlikely eventuality of parallel lines meeting, Reform Jews could be married and included in Jewish rituals.

But the non-anathematization of Reform may have stemmed from a deeper historical disposition, too. For, short-lived though it was, it was the ban on Hasidism that was the anomaly. Indeed, when one looks at each of the great religious schisms that actually took place in the Jewish past, one observes that the Jewish establishment of its day, and of many years and even centuries afterward, was generally reluctant to press things to the breaking point.

This was true of the first such break, the 5th-century B.C.E. split with the Samaritans, who were unequivocally declared non-Jews by the rabbis only 800 years later. It was true of the rupture with Christianity, which parted ways with Judaism before Judaism parted ways with it. It was true of the 9th-century C.E. breach with Karaism that never passed the point of no return; although the halakhic status of the Karaites remained ambiguous in Jewish law for a millennium, the Israeli rabbinate has ruled that the small number of them living in Israel today are Jewish in every respect. It was true of the Sabbatians, the great majority of whom never left, or quietly rejoined, Jewish ranks. And it was true of renegades like Iberian conversos in the 15th and 16th centuries and assimilated Jews of later times who, when choosing to return, were usually welcomed back with no questions asked.

As a rule, Jews have been quick to quarrel with each other and extremely slow to cut their ties beyond repair. On the basis of the evidence, one might speculate that, of their four-ply connection to each other—religious, ethno-cultural, political, and biological—all four strands must be badly frayed for the breaking point to be reached. One might even, indulging in a bit of pseudo-sociological whimsy, attempt to quantify that breaking point—putting it, say, at 0.8 or below on a four-point scale of connectedness.

With Reform, it was not the religious strand that snapped first. The cultural one had preceded it: even before the new movement’s emergence, freshly emancipated German Jews inhabited a material and mental universe vastly different from that of a Jew in Vilna or in Zelva. Then came the severing of the political link. Not only was Reform’s bourgeois liberalism sharply at odds with the sentiments of East European rabbis, but, as the century progressed, its German patriotism and fierce opposition to both Zionism and Diaspora Jewish nationalism—to international Jewish solidarity of almost any kind—estranged it from East European Jewry even more. Among the four strands, the biological link of Jewish endogamy alone remained intact between the two communities.

At bottom, then, may not the current dispute over non-Orthodox conversions in Israel be simply an expression of the fact that this final, biological link is now belatedly giving way as well? For, to put the case differently, Reform Judaism, once a last sociological barrier before the exit point from Jewish life, has become in recent decades a point of entry as well. For the first time in modern history, significant numbers of Gentiles, particularly in the United States, are seeking to become Jews, their route of preference being a Reform conversion whose validity Orthodox Jews reject. Combined with Reform’s acceptance of unconverted Gentile congregants and its un-halakhic recognition of patrilineal Jewish descent, the result is a growing number of Reform Jews who are no longer even in theory endogamous with Orthodox ones.

This does not mean that Reform is about to go the way of Samaritanism or Karaism. Even were our four-ply model correct, certain Jewish bonds can strengthen as others weaken—the political one, for instance, which during the present century has gradually brought the Reform movement around to an active participation in collective Jewish affairs and a positive identification with its old bugbear of Zionism. And in any case, our model is not correct.



One obvious reason why it is not is its unipolarity, which posits a particular form, x, of Jewish life—the Second Temple society of Judea, or the medieval Geonic Judaism of Babylonia, or the 18th-century Misnagdism of Eastern Europe—as a universal norm against which deviations a, b, c, and d are to be measured. In reality, however, no such Jewish norm has ever existed, and it is not only x but also a that must be compared with b and c, just as b must be compared with c, c with d, and so forth. It is not enough, that is, to observe that the Reform Jew in Berlin and the Orthodox Jew in Vilna were culturally far apart; one must add that the same Reform Jew and his Orthodox Jewish neighbor on the Spandaustrasse or the Friedrichstrasse may have been culturally quite close.

Or look at the 500-year period of the Geonim, stretching roughly from the 6th to the 11th centuries, in which centralized rabbinic authority, exercised by the Babylonian exilarchate and the heads of the great Babylonian yeshivas, reached a peak never previously or subsequently attained. Apart from the Karaites, who rejected this authority entirely, Jewish communities only partially or not at all subject to it included such other groups living under Islam as the Maghariyyans, who may have been related to the Dead Sea Scroll sectaries, and the Isawiyyas of Persia, who believed that Jesus and Muhammad were true prophets; the Jews of Spain, about to embark on their golden age; the new Ashkenazi Jewry of France and the Rhineland; the mysterious Jewish kingdom of Khazaria; and remote and isolated Jewish communities like the Falashas of Ethiopia and the Bene Israel of India. And while the overall correlation of Isawiyyism with Geonic Judaism, for example, may have been 1.8 on a four-point scale, the correlation may have dropped to 0.7 with Ashkenazi Jewry and risen to 2.5 with Karaism. Furthermore, while, in a conflict like the one between the “Rabbanites” and the Karaites, it is the winners who appear to us in historical retrospect the “real Jews” and the losers the doomed defectors, we must not forget that the losers once were sure that the eventual winners and real Jews were themselves.

In a word, the Jewish people has always been an aggregate, geographically dispersed and linguistically and culturally diverse; some parts of it closer to one another than other parts; some mediating among other parts; many holding different beliefs, practicing different rituals, and impelled by different social and economic interests; few connected to or divided from the rest by the identical things; most aiding one another in some areas while competing in others and more or less living and letting live—which, the Jews being everywhere a minority without the coercive means of government or established church, was something they had little choice about. The very notion of what was or who was a Jew was never anything but relative. Were the Isawiyyas Jews? For a Karaite, probably; for a Jew of Ashkenaz (had he heard of them), probably not.

Jewish unity cannot be destroyed because it never existed: such is the lesson of Jewish history.




So what else, one might ask, is new? The illusion of Jewish unity, it would seem.

But is it? Jews in the past had this illusion, too. A Jew in 9th-century Baghdad or 12th-century Cordoba knew the Judaism of Baghdad or of Cordoba; if he thought about Jews elsewhere, he imagined them to be like himself. The occasional traveler may have brought tales of distant and exotic Jews elsewhere, but these were forgotten or transformed into legend, into lost tribes beyond the mountains of darkness and the river Sambatyon. The real Jew was the familiar one.

To be accurate, moreover, it is rather the sense of Jewish unity in our own time that has not been entirely an illusion. Compared with most, perhaps even all, of the Jewish past, and especially with the first half of this century, the last 50 years have witnessed an unusual degree of solidarity. There has been enough time to get used to this condition and even to come to regard it as normal.

Two things have created it: the Holocaust and the state of Israel. And it is Israel especially that has been the focal point of Jewish unity in our time. But it has also become the foundering point, since while Jewish communities can live peacefully side by side with differing standards of Jewishness, it is impossible to administer a Jewish state without a single standard, and no such criterion can be agreed upon. Nor would it be workable if it could.

Let us suppose for a moment that, by government decision or (as is more likely) court order, Reform and Conservative Judaism were to be fully enfranchised in Israel tomorrow. Assuming that the synagogue-state relationship in Israel remained otherwise unchanged, this would enable non-Orthodox rabbis to perform officially recognized conversions, marriages, and divorces; to serve as chaplains in the armed forces, hospitals, and prisons; to receive a share of government funds for salaries, religious schools, and synagogues; and to participate in the local religious councils that are responsible for channeling and supervising such allocations. Would this be an equitable or convenient solution for all Israelis? For all Jews? For all Gentiles wishing to become Jews?

It would not be. To begin with, the approximately one million Orthodox Jews of Israel would no longer be able to rely on official records of Jewishness. They would have to stop automatically thinking of their fellow Israelis as fellow Jews, privately investigate the family trees of prospective marriage partners, and so forth. The social walls between them and other Israelis, already high, would rise higher.

Of course, this might be considered a fair price to pay for rectifying an injustice to non-Orthodox Israeli Jews. But some of these Jews, in the name of justice, might demand to have recourse to civil marriage and divorce as well. The great majority of them, after all, are not only non-Orthodox but non-Conservative and non-Reform. Although some might find a Conservative marriage ceremony or a Reform divorce proceeding less alien or onerous than its Orthodox counterpart, the wholly secular among them would still be forced to undergo an imposed religious ritual in order to mark a change of personal status; in essence they would be no freer of religious coercion than before. And would not secular Jews in the Diaspora be justified in complaining, just as Reform and Conservative Jews do now, that Israel discriminates against their kind?

And what about Gentiles in Israel, such as the large number of non-Jewish immigrants from the ex-Soviet Union, or the even larger number of foreign workers from countries in Asia, Africa, and Eastern Europe, many of whom might wish to become Jews for non-religious reasons—out of an identification with the Jewish people, perhaps, or simply because they wish to acquire Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return? Are they to be told with a wink that there are now non-Orthodox rabbis who will quickly convert them to Judaism if only they pretend to see the light of Torah? Or will these rabbis be required to adopt more stringent standards and turn such applicants down, as their Orthodox colleagues do?



Consistency would seem to demand that once Israel makes a start toward religious evenhandedness, the road be followed to its ultimate destination in the separation of church and state, as is the practice in the United States and other Western democracies. Let there be religious marriages, divorces, and conversions of all types and denominations for those who want them, and civil procedures for those who do not.

But this too turns out to be a nonsolution, particularly in regard to the Law of Return, which guarantees citizenship in Israel to all Jewish applicants. What civil procedure can there be for declaring a Gentile a Jew? The most one could imagine would be some bureaucratic process at the end of which Jewishness would be acquired like a fishing license.

Well, then, a logical mind might propose, why not do away with the Law of Return, too? Let Israel adopt a policy of origin-blind immigration like America’s, which would give Jews no special preference. Let the Jew from New York, the Christian from Ukraine, and the Buddhist from Thailand compete for Israeli citizenship on equal terms.

This would indeed be logical. It would also, so one might think, mean the end of Israel as a Jewish state.

Or would it? After all, if secular Zionism sought from the outset to “normalize” the Jews by remaking them into a people defined by national territory, language, and culture like any other, why is the Tel-Aviv-born-and-raised child of Thai parents who speaks Hebrew as his native language and relates to Israeli culture as his own not a Jew by nationality in the same sense that he would have been an American had he grown up in New York? Because he does not practice Judaism? But neither do many other Israeli Jews; and besides, to be an American one does not have to practice Christianity—or even decorate a Christmas tree.

Because he is not circumcised? That is absurd: what “normal” people can be joined only by having a prepucectomy?

But absurdity is where this whole line of argument, which started with the seemingly rational premise of legal equality for non-Orthodox Judaism in Israel, has apparently led us, although there has been nothing illogical about any of the individual points along the way. Little wonder, then, that a long succession of Israeli governments, and not just for reasons of coalition politics, has struggled mightily against doing the seemingly rational thing.




Absurd or not, however, the prospect of hundreds of thousands of native-born, non-Arab, Hebrew-speaking Israelis who are not Jews by halakhic standards is not merely a possibility; it is a near certainty. When it comes to the foreign workers in its midst today, indeed, Israel is currently in the same stage of denial as was Germany about its Gastarbeiter, or France about immigrant labor from Algeria, in the 1960’s.

Too struck by the novelty of cheap servants from abroad to grasp the fact of their permanence in the household, most Israelis still believe that when all the dishes are washed, the scaffolds dismantled, and the oranges picked, the last Ghanaian, Romanian, and Thai will board an airplane and head home. But all the dishes are never washed, and the Ghanaian or Thai child born this year in Tel Aviv may already be at home. Either he will become relegated there to perpetual second-class status; or Israel really will cease to be a Jewish state; or he will become a Jew—if not by formally converting, then by acculturating like immigrants everywhere and forcing Israeli notions of Jewishness to include him, just as the Algerian has been reshaping the notion of francité and the Turk or the Kurd of Deutschtum.

This will not happen more easily in Israel than in France or Germany. It will be a long and wrenching process. But happen it may. And if it does, it will be in a very real sense the logical culmination of secular Zionism—a culmination toward which a large portion of Israeli reality has been moving for close to a century as the specifically religious element of Jewish identity has become progressively attenuated in it.

Indeed, secular Zionism, which set out to create a Jewish national culture independent of religion, and Reform Judaism, which set out to free Judaism of all ethno-cultural specificity, have curiously converged on this point: for each has theoretically, and in no small measure practically, eliminated not one strand but two from the traditional four of Jewish identity—the second being the biological tie of endogamy. And each is now faced with a massive increment of non-Jews such as the Jewish people has probably not known since its rapid spread around the Mediterranean in the early days of the Roman empire. But the result of this convergence, involving transformations and cultural and intellectual adventures that can only be guessed at, will also be a divergence, since the coefficient of Jewish identity between, say, the child of a Jewish-Protestant intermarriage raised in a Reform home in California and feeling little or no ethnic connectedness to other Jews, and the child of an Israeli-Thai intermarriage raised in a secular home in Tel Aviv and feeling little or no religious connectedness to other Jews, will be low.

The Jews, it might thus seem, are on their way to becoming three peoples. One will be traditionally Orthodox and spread all over the world, with its principal concentrations in Israel and the United States. One will be a new Jewish-Gentile hybrid, situated largely in America, in which will flourish, besides more conventional forms of non-Orthodox Judaism, a partly serious and partly zany array of New Age communities, groups, and cults—communal Jews, Buddhist Jews, eco-Jews, femo-Jews, gay Jews, Jesus Jews, neo-hasidic Jews, neo-kabbalistic Jews, pneumatic Jews of all kinds and shapes. And one will consist of secular Israeli Jews, whose already eclectic make-up will absorb the genomes and cultures of Slavs, Thais, Ethiopian Jews, Filipinos, Nigerians, Columbians, Ghanaians, and various self-invented or ostensibly lost-and-found Jewish tribes from remoter parts of the world.

The first of these peoples will live in physical proximity to the other two but will not intermarry or interact Jewishly with either. The second and third will be miscible in principle but will rarely come into contact. Without bans or schisms—Jews, we have said, do not go in for them—all three will slowly drift apart like the tectonic plates of continents.



An accurate forecast? Probably not. It again ignores the multivalence of things. There are always enough subtrends (for example, secular Israelis seeking to explore their religious roots); subgroups (like Conservative Jews continuing to straddle a middle ground); and crosscurrents (such as Orthodox Jews, the great commuters of the Jewish world), to gum up the works. The more chaotic the Jewish future becomes—and it is likely to be chaotic in the extreme—the more, so chaos theory tells us, small developments will lead to large surprises.

On the face of it, in any case, as ethno-cultural and religious ties among large sectors of the Jewish world decline, and endogamy ceases to be a defining Jewish characteristic, the slack will have to be taken up by politics. Already in our times politics alone has mobilized the solidarity that exists, bringing together disparate groups of Jews with no common cultural or religious agenda.

But Jewish politics need not only be unifying. It can just as easily be divisive, as was the case up to and even for a short while after World War II, when in Europe and Palestine, and to a lesser extent in the United States, right-wing Zionists, left-wing Zionists, anti-Zionists, Hebraists, Yiddishists, Jewish socialists, Jewish Communists, Jewish liberals, Orthodox Jews, ultra-Orthodox Jews, and anti-Orthodox Jews were continually at one another’s throats. It is hard for Jews today, brought up in a very different atmosphere, to conceive of the passionate hatreds of those years, although thinking about Israel in the period right before and after the Rabin assassination is a help.

The particular intensity of such arguments stemmed from their being en famille—sometimes quite literally, since it was not unusual to find Jewish families in the Poland or Germany of the 1920’s or 30’s in which every brother and sister argued the case for a different political party or position. And even when the family table was a metaphorical one, it was no less real: the ties of yiddishkayt binding a Warsaw Communist to a New York Zionist in those years were in most cases strong enough to feel like—ultimately to be—blood ties.

It is this that will most be missing from much Jewish life in the future. Call such life in its past forms tribal, if you will; anthropologically, that is what endogamy is. And this has always been the scandal of Judaism in the eyes of the world, ancient no less than modern: a religious culture pretending to universality yet irrationally clinging to the importance of lineage. It has also been an embarrassment to many ancient and modern Jews, who when they have not simply walked out on their people in indignation or despair have sought some way of undoing its fundamental illogic—even if, as I have pointed out, logically dissolving the paradox of Jewishness results in absurdities of its own.

A secular Zionist myself, I plead guilty to the charge of being one such Jew: I honestly look forward to all that added DNA. But there will be a thinning-out. It was Robert Frost, I believe, who wrote that family is what has to take you in when you have nowhere else to go. It is also that to which you never have to explain yourself. Many Jews in the world today—Orthodox, non-Orthodox, and even sometimes, mysteriously enough, converts—still know what this means in terms of their Jewish identity. They know that although it is irrational for a great religion or culture to be also a caste or a tribe, precisely such foolishness—as hilarious or repugnant as this may seem to others to whom Jewish fate seems far from enviable—is what makes them feel like aristocrats among the nations.

In the future, I would guess, Jews will have a great deal of explaining to do to one another. There will be many different kinds of them out there, all peddling their own version of Jewishness, and the family table will be gone. Meeting in distant places, Jews will not ask each other vus makht a yid, the old Yiddish greeting that means “What is a Jew up to?” and that implies unmistakably that the answer, whatever it is, will be understood. They will ask, “Who are you?” and the answer, “A Jew,” will tell them little or nothing at all.


About the Author

Hillel Halkin is a columnist for the New York Sun and a veteran contributor to COMMENTARY. Portions of the present essay were delivered at Northwestern University in March as the Klutznick Lecture in Jewish Civilization.

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