A few weeks ago I penned an essay, An Ambivalent Jew (The Times of Israel July 1, 2012) in which I shared some concerns about the orthodox establishment in Israel as well as with the liberal denominations, including Conservative or Masorati Judaism. I should have articulated the issues by first framing them within the purview of Peoplehood. Contextualizing Jewish religious practice, within the broader tapestry of Peoplehood or Amiut will present a sharper picture of the conflict between the establishment and the liberal denominations seeking a place at the table and the wisdom in wanting this recognition.
Western European enlightenment in the late18th century caused modern Jewish thinkers then to reinvent Judaism as a religion. Prior to that Judaism was a corporate entity that had authority over its people and recognized as such by the state. The community (kehilah) collected taxes, adjudicated civil disputes as well as criminal cases with the authority of punishment through fines, corporal punishments, imprisonment as well as excommunication. Jewish life had a rhythm of its own, creating music, literature, language, theatre and its own economy. Religious ritual practice happened to have been a small piece of the pie also known as Judaism or Peoplehood. The glue that held it all together was a concept going back to the Tanach in which we were referred to as a People (Am kohanim v’Goy kaddosh), and later reinforced by the Talmudic dictum that kol yisrael arevim zeh lezeh. A sense of personal responsibility one for the other, a sense of the collective: united we stand. This had been the template for Judaism for nearly two thousand years interrupted unfortunately by the misguided handiwork of Moses Mendelsohn on the liberal end and Samson Raphael Hirsch on the orthodox side. Both were vying for recognition and acceptance within the greater European culture and in the process they threw out the baby with the bathwater. The harm they caused was enormous in that they stripped away Peoplehood from Judaism reducing it to a set of ritual and rules placing it on par with European Protestantism.
Israel’s emergence in the mid twentieth century threw a monkey wrench into this paradigm and we are still in the process of sorting it out. Israel’s reemergence reestablished once again that Judaism has all the elements it used to have in pre modernity plus one more thing, its own independent state. In framing the states’ apparatus Israel granted religions the one thing it had in the past: the ability to serve as clerics, functionaries for life cycle events. Jewish clerics weren’t perceived as the spiritual or intellectual beacon of the Jewish people; for that there were the modern day prophets, self appointed and buttressed through the will of the people. People like A.B. Yehoshua and Y. Leibowitz have become our modern day prophets, because the people will it. If a rabbi happens to reach that level it will be because the nation respects him as a moral voice not because of his title or political affiliation.
How a person practices ritual Judaism, if at all, really isn’t important and shouldn’t be to anyone but that individual. Judaism isn’t about ritual, and practice: that the prophets established long ago. Judaism collectively is greater than that because it happens to be greater than the sum total of its parts. Judaism is a complex web of factors that together create a matrix called Bnei Yisrael or Am Yisrael. It is about the collective moral conscience and leadership.
Men like Amar and Metzger, have state titles but they have no standing within the broader community: they are the recipients of a bankrupt legacy that placed ritual and practice as the sum total of Judaism. It would have been disappointing had Amar not claimed that the liberal movements were corrupt and corrupted Judaism. This was the language and strategy of their antecedents who fought tooth and nail against the encroachment of the haskalah and Zionism. Their intent then as is now is to preserve their power base as all corrupt systems seek to do. I cannot fathom why the liberal movements would want to have a seat at a table that is serving tainted food.