Whither Masorti?

Whither Masorti?

Michael Graetz

                                                                                                  ana anachu olim?



On the Eve of the Seventh Decade

As it enters its seventh decade, the state of Israel is in dire need of a vision which negates the Jew as victim, affirms the Jew as hero, and reads Jewish religion as an instrument to enable both of those ends while maintaining a sense of deep and abiding fidelity to the twin conceptions that constitute the beating heart of authentic Judaism: that God so profoundly believed in the potential worth of human destiny that all humanity was created in the divine image, and that it is the mission of Israel to make manifest the reasonableness and correctness of God’s faith in humanity.

Masorti Judaism is, I believe, especially well suited to this task. It is not the only group I can imagine playing this role in Israeli society, but it would disgrace its existence if it did not take this challenge seriously. The catch is that, in order to actually be part of the enterprise to grant these notions reality in Israeli society, Masorti must form a political party. No other framework will work permanently or effectively. I have come to this conclusion after well over half a lifetime devoted to considering the issue. And I write today specifically to explain what has led me to this vision of our denominational destiny, a vision I find neither impractically quixotic nor unappealingly and unattainably utopian.

What were the philosophical goals of Zionism? The main concept of all early Zionist thought was the need for there to be a revolution in all areas of Jewish life and culture, including in the economic and political spheres.   Some even thought in terms of revolution in Jewish identity and put forth the goal of creating a “new Jew” through the process of Zionism.

There was one glaring exception to this revolutionary mindset and it was in the area of Jewish religion. What were the goals of the founders vis-à-vis religion? It’s interesting how difficult it is to answer that question wholly cogently. For one thing, only a few dared to think of a revolution in Judaism. Foremost among those who did was Hayim Hirshenson, and there were indeed others who did as well, including Rav Kook (at least to some extent) and Mordecai Kaplan. But even among those who waded into those waters, there was no real parallel of a “new Judaism” to match the idea of a “new Jew.”  Indeed, some—or rather, most—could only conceive of transplanting the very same religious life style and outlook, not to mention dress code, that flourished in the diaspora to the new state.

Non-religious Zionist leaders from Herzl to Ben Gurion accepted this anomaly. Indeed, the only real thought most appear to have had about religious authority was that fear that, given too wide a berth, religious leaders lacking any real commitment to the state itself might some day nevertheless attempt to exert control over the state’s secular institutions. Unique among this group were Achad Ha-Am and particularly Hayyim Nachman Bialik, both of whom wrote openly about ways to infuse the culture of the nascent state with values from Jewish tradition and, particularly, from Jewish texts. Still, even they did not write openly about altering Judaism as it had developed in Europe, but merely about utilizing the sources of Judaism for creating a “Hebrew” culture that would be essentially secular.

An essential part of Zionism was thus missing. While I agree with the need for revolutionary thinking in all of the areas noted above, I personally believe that, above all, such thinking was and is necessary vis-à-vis Judaism itself. No return of the Jewish people to its homeland and to its sovereign self would be complete or meaningful without a vision of renewed religious creativity. After all, each time there was a renewed covenant between the land and the nation of Israel, a great religious revolution had been the outcome.  The first time resulted in the Genesis. The second time, after the Exodus, the result was the rest of the Bible. The third time resulted in the Mishnah, in the great works of halakhah and aggadah, and in the Talmudim themselves.  So we are justified, therefore, in formulating my question in a slightly different, more than slightly more provocative way, by asking what will the fourth aliyah, the great return of the Jews to their land in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, produce in the way of a great religious revolution?

One Zionist challenge to the psychology of the Jewish diaspora is to accept that the Jews are possessed of a destiny that is as intricately involved with the fate of all nations, just as it is distinct from the destinies of those same other nations. Another challenge is to be able to step aside from our own traditions when those traditions have been used to justify evils we hate and which we now wish to disavow. These are the two challenges which haunt me. They can also be expressed as two parts of a greater whole: the challenge to develop, then maintain, a universal vision of the potential of divinity within humanity acquires practical meaning solely when focused through honest self-criticism when our own traditions unexpectedly depart from the core values of that vision. Thus by fusing a worldview rooted simultaneously in the valorization of the Jewish mission to serve as a light unto the Gentiles and in the refusal to subjugate the rule of the moral self to mindless fidelity to the religious standards of antiquity, we will ensure Jewish survival and spiritual vibrancy.

The premise of much of Zionist thought was that we have it within our power to formulate and control our political destiny. I believe that the same applies, or should apply, to our religion. We, the Jewish people, have both the mandate and the capability, the ability and the boundless creativity to formulate ideas that will impact not only upon ourselves but also upon all humanity. Thus, the true revelation of the image of God to ourselves and to others is within our grasp. And, indeed, the State of Israel itself constitutes an arena in which it is possible to work out the precise set of ideas which will be capable effectively of effecting the renaissance of Jewish religion in terms of the challenges mentioned above, which are also  challenges laid down by all of Israel’s prophets. (See, for example, the comments of Jeremiah preserved at Jeremiah 34:5-18.) Such a revolution cannot take place in exile because of external, not internal, factors: nervousness about what non-Jews will say and the precariousness of being a persecuted minority work subtly to curtail freedom of expression.

To say this all more clearly, let me assert that in order to negotiate between the fear of destruction and the yearning for redemption, we need to connect to religious tradition from a radical position that demands that we design our religious beliefs, ideas, and practices, as it were,  from God’s perspective. This is a perspective that does not lead to chaos, but to order, and which demands that we love our fellow Jews, and that we trust in our own, God-given ability to reveal the divine dimension in existence by allowing Jewish tradition to unfold naturally, morally, and with the greatest fidelity to, and respect for, ancient tradition.

Stating the Obvious

The first point to consider is that a Jewish state is bound to be different from any Jewish settlement in the diaspora precisely because it perforce includes the full range of societal life, none of it being attenuated or ignorable. Bialik reportedly was overjoyed when the first Hebrew speaking thief was caught. Perhaps he should have been a bit less jubilant, but still the point of the condition of statehood is that we cannot deny or sweep things under the rug. For better or for worse, all—and I do mean all, or surely almost all—of the opinions expressed in Jewish history are supported by someone in the State of Israel. There are groups promoting the primacy of prophetic justice, the importance of social justice as set forth in the laws of the Torah, the sanctity of priestly groups, and the centrality of ritual, while other groups strive to rebuild the Temple exactly as it is described in the Mishnah, and still other groups are made up of members who feel that Jews are a breed apart and that it is justified to kill both non-Jews and any “apostate” Jews who get in their way. Of course, there are also politicians, rabbis, criminals, and all sorts of others who feel that wisdom is the most important path for a society to tread, and artists, musicians, playwrights, film makers, workers at all sorts of trades, generals and soldiers who see things at least slightly differently.

Most Jews and Jewish organizations tend to focus on one or a few of these groups. (There are, by the way, many others.) But, as we embark on the seventh decade of Israeli statehood, I want to return to my fantasy question. Can we look at the whole picture and dream of what spiritual greatness might yet emerge from this amazing human enterprise?

The second significant point is that each of the aliyot to the land of Israel was from a status of exile. The first from Mesopotamia, the second from Egypt, the third from Babylon, Egypt and Rome, but the present aliyah, the fourth, is from everywhere in the world. This is unique in Jewish and in human history. Furthermore, the spiritual accomplishments of each period reveal at the same time, a degree of assimilation to (and thus tacit acceptance of) certain features of the culture from which the Jews came and a kind of simultaneous resistance to (or even protest against) other features of those same societies. We thus discern a process of amalgamation between ideas from the diaspora and revolutionary religious ideas that developed, as it were, almost parthenogenetically from the unique belief system and ideology of the Jewish nation.

Bible scholars make much of the legal religious influences of surrounding cultures on the growth of Israelite religion, but even more is made of the indigenous effort to step away from parts of Mesopotamian and Canaanite cultures. These are all an outcome of the monotheistic position unique to the nation Israel in that period that proclaims there to be  one God who is the creator of all humans, who has power over the history of all nations, and who presents an agenda of social justice and compassion in legal codes.  This dual approach of assimilation and rejection is a feature of later books as well. The Mishnah has affinities with Roman law, but is an antithesis to it in many other ways.  The aggadah is unique to Jewish culture, and its emergence is dependent on the idea that revelation continues through the vehicle of exegesis of the Bible, but it also develops many ideas that derive directly from other cultures, notably the culture of the late Roman antiquity.

The third significant point has to do with the nature of the state experience as opposed to the diaspora one. In every human society there is a dominant cultural ethos. This ethos is made up of language, literature, history, customs, social values, political culture, and a whole host of lesser things. It is this ethos that members of society tend to acculturate. And it is the ethos into which immigrant and other newcomers attempt as best they can to assimilate. In all diaspora societies, Jews assimilated towards the dominant ethos of where they lived, thus acculturating as “Jewish” ideas with firm roots in Islam and Christianity, in dictatorship and democracy, and in many other kinds of things as well. In Israel society the natural ethos to which everything naturally assimilates is “Jewish civilization” itself.

This is a major change. The late professor Pinhas Pelli taught that, to the extent that the destruction of the Temple has now been, so to speak, undone and a new Jewish commonwealth proclaimed, the religious postures rooted in regret for absent holiness and lamentation for defunct ritual need to be set aside. Instead, our great teacher taught, we now need to seek out the divine in all areas, not just in the narrow domain of religious ritual.

For this to happen we need a strong and profound Masorti Jewish presence in Israel. The reason is that Masorti developed out of the fact of a State of Israel in Jewish history. It emerged from the reaction of those Conservative rabbis living in the Jewish state struggling to answer the questions posed above. It was thus, first and foremost, a consequence of the awesome experience of the return of the Jewish people to itself; a return to living as an honorable state. It grew out of freedom from exile, which to me means having the potential to contribute to and support each other, to live lives of mishpat utzedakah. And it also means having the potential to contribute to and support humanity, to engage in deeds of tikkun olam not only because these are good and right and righteous goals, but also because we recognize them to be divine imperatives.

Above all, the need for Masorti Judaism arose out of the joy of living as a free Jew in a free Jewish society. There is such pure joy just in conversing with your children and grandchildren in Hebrew. There is spiritual exhilaration in talking with your children about Jewish history, while feeling strongly that they and you are within it together. There is manifold happiness in celebrating a holiday when all of society celebrates with you, or in developing friendships along avenues of the exploration of different Jewish customs and traditions from around the world. No one who does not live with this awareness can appreciate even one ten-thousandth of a part of the love of country and satisfaction of Jewish existence that is so tangible for us Israelis.

It is true that there are myriad problems, tensions and conflicts within Israeli society. But there are still many times when we catch a glimpse of the vision, moments during which windows are opened onto our fondest dreamscape, opportunities for us to remember that we have tasted the possibility of redemption, that with God all truly is possible. I concentrate on the people, on my friends on the wonderful human potential, on the free flowing compassion that is so available in people here. I see my job as a prospector looking for ways to mine the compassion, to bring it out of people and give them Jewish religious ways to express it in deeds. I see my task as getting as many Israelis as possible to care more about each other and about helping others to live lives grounded in religious demand. This is my attempt to contribute to the redemption that Yehuda Amihai talks about, to getting ourselves to see the glory and the transcendence in the most banal tasks of daily life. Truly, to sense redemption in the prosaic act of buying some fruit for the family in the shuk is the key to the whole: this is a society suffused with redemptive potential.

The Jewish Self-Image

The experience of living in Israel is quite different from the experience of living in the country of my birth, in the United States and this is true in countless different ways, but the most profound of them are how people conceive of themselves truly to be, and how imagination enables people to see themselves in their perfected, idealized states. Most American Jews can easily imagine themselves as victims of the Holocaust, but they find it very hard to imagine themselves as victorious soldiers. Israelis on the other hand, see themselves in exactly the opposite way. This gap of imagination is very great, and thus the psychological gap is large as well.

Another profound gap is one of connection to Jewish identity through knowledge of Jewish texts and history. If one lacks Hebrew language as a comfortable language, one will lack proficiency in Hebrew texts. Hebrew is the DNA of Judaism. The growing study of Jewish texts by Israelis, and their concomitant knowledge and familiarity with the ideas and language of Judaism is widening the gap with Diaspora Jews in another way. It is a mistake to underestimate the profundity of these differences, the psychological and the knowledge gaps.

As to the reality in Israel, we all need to remember that people have inner lives that are not really quantifiable in polls, and it is those inner lives which are the true soul and ultimately the true “stuff” out of which the cohesion of society evolves. It is that cohesion which makes possible the ability to withstand tragedy and disaster.

Let me offer one story to illustrate my optimism about our Masorti religious future and its potential power in shaping the future of Israel. I asked each family in the Magen Avraham bnai mitzvah program to bring from home some object connected to Jewish practice for show-and-tell at a Shabbat dinner and one family said that they had nothing, that their parents had forsaken religion and provided them no contact with Judaism at all. After the dinner, as we were cleaning up, this father came to me and said: “You know, as I said, I never had a bar mitzvah. My father had become so anti-religious that he wanted to guard me from any exposure to it. So, I have no Jewish objects to show at the dinner. But, I am giving you my son. He wants a Bar Mitzvah, and I can only conceive of having him learn here. So consider my son my contribution to the evening.”

Within this brief exchange lies the great akeidah, the great challenge. Israelis want their children to be proud Jews, but as the “assimilation” process continues they want them to be not only proud upright Jews, but also knowledgable Jews with an emotional and perhaps even a religious connection and commitment to Jewish history and life. What great spiritual and religious contribution will emerge from this? I do not know, but it will reflect the wide experiences of almost all of the world’s humanities because Jews in Israel come from just about everywhere. But, at the same time it will be grounded in Jewish tradition with the intellectual excitement, the spiritual depth and the religious profundity which are the hallmarks of Jewish creation from the Bible to the present day. Israel may yet become “a house of prayer for all peoples”.  But the more pressing question is whether it can become one for the Jews of the world as well.

The Need For a Masorti Political Entity

Much of what has been said about society applies to Israel’s political culture. Its origins are in the parties that made up the Zionist movement. But, the process of “assimilation” continues there as well. Almost none of the parties that began the country are still in existence, and those that remain have reformed in different alliances from when they began. Today there are seventy-nine registered political parties in Israel.  Twenty parties currently sit in the Knesset. Nineteen ran in the last election but failed to get enough votes to seat a single member, while another ten recognized (and funded) parties did not run at all. From the beginning of the State until the present Knesset, ninety-two political parties had MK’s elected to one or more terms. By any account, this must be a world record. To say that Israel is a highly politicized society is not just an understatement, but it even subverts the depth of that politicization. Israeli society revolves around its political parties, and this has been its traditional structure from the beginning.

Why is this the case? Does it have anything to do with the Jewish nature of Israel? Yes, in that the nature of Judaism, at least as witnessed by the Bible and the Mishnah, was and is pluralistic and acknowledges the inherent drive within humans to have different views on the most basic of issues. But, even more so did it allow for the fact that any group committed to the idea of the Jewish people would strive to have their particular vision be influential in the public sphere. A political organization is considered a badge of commitment to and responsibility for the welfare of the state. The proliferation of political parties is because any group of people who is not involved in the political process through a party has little or no ability to:

  1. a) Promulgate ideas and positions in general,
  2. b) Acquire standing and “legitimacy” in the eyes of the public,
  3. c) Have guaranteed access to public funds, and
  4. d) Be able to influence public policy.

Therefore, despite the difficulties and potential spiritual dangers that accrue to being part of a political system, I believe that the Masorti Movement has no choice but to found a political party and become engaged in the central arena of Israeli society’s civilization.

To Squander or To Seize

Once a party has been registered it can receive funds for operation and for promulgating its platform as part of the political parties law. In an election year, any party running for Knesset automatically receives an enlarged stipend for advertising and radio and television time to promulgate its ideas to the public. The advantages are clear. The disadvantages are also clear, but in Israel society the slogan is “I am political, therefore I exist”. Not to enter the political arena is to declare yourself peripheral to Israeli society.  Furthermore, the political culture in present day Israel is a fairly narrow-minded “victim” mentality. Parties are created mostly on the basis of the existence of a population who wants something material, generally cash, from the public coffers. The vision for a future based on decent, honest and compassionate relationships between all citizens is minor, non-existent, or used as a fig leaf to cover up real goals. There is no party whose platform clearly reflects the optimistic cooperation and sense of cohesion of the creation of the state.

My vision is that of a “Zionist” approach to religion. That is, I propose an approach which, while grounded in knowledge of and commitment to the past, takes clearly and forthrightly the present into account that is the lives, customs and experiences of all Jews living now. Add to this a vision of the future based upon the most essential ultimate values of Jewish tradition from the Bible to the present day. Our religion will be a product of the interaction of these three, past present and future, and to that extent it will be a kind of “revolution”. The central platform in a Masorti political entity will be the vision of Judaism revitalized through a process of Zionist revolution.

Part of that vision will be a clear separation of state and religious legislation. No longer will the law allow state established religion. This does not mean that the state will not openly support religious groups or activities, but the state will not fix religious practices for individuals. The consequences for both religion and democracy in Israel will be far reaching and very healthy. In addition a Masorti party will combine specific halakhic innovations, such as a systematic renewal of the takkanah process, midrashic exposition of past texts to ferret modern meaning out of them, and the education for social and ethical values which are the core of Jewish religious texts from the beginning of our religion.

Another “halakhic plank” in our platform would be a measured yet very encouraging and open attitude to conversion to Judaism. People whose desire is to live as Jewish citizens of the State of Israel and take part in the defending and building of the state would be encouraged and helped to become converts. We would perhaps institute a review and reformulation of the halakhah as regards conversion in order to achieve the desired goal. Our party’s platform would also emphasize Jewish education as we understand it. That is, we would stress how classic Jewish texts and traditions cultivate divergent views in order to enlarge perspective, inculcate the ability to deal with complex issues, develop an awareness of the mystery of existence, and develop a sense of living with infinite possibility. We would also stress social justice as an inherent and central pillar of Judaism’s conception of society. Achieving social justice in practice in society is clearly a special task for leadership, and social justice is seen as a personal responsibility as well. Social justice, in the sense of cultivating a common good and creating conditions whereby each individual can make the most of their talents, is part of the common obligations of government and individual citizens, each group aiding and encouraging the other to succeed at it.

This will not be an easy task. The intensive study, thought and discussion needed to just begin to formulate platforms and visions is formidable. Still, in my view, ein bereirah, there is no choice. By creating Mifleget Hayahadut Hamasortit (MHH) we have entered into the covenant, the covenant of building the Jewish state. Entering a covenant, like entering marriage, automatically carries a concomitant agreement to be responsive to the commands of the face of the partner, to the covenant itself. We would be violators of this covenant if we were not to respond to the commands heard at Sinai: “love Me, study My Torah, and find ways to implement your understandings of My Torah in a viable society”. There is no choice. We will at the same time obey and learn. Na’aseh ve-Nishma.  And, really, we have no choice. In my opinion, none at all.