Implicit in most discussions of the controversy over the future path of Israeli society is a characterization of religious and secular Jews, one that presumes that the former are better, more authentic Jews. That presumption is unfounded. Quite apart from the presumptuousness of determining who is an “authentic” Jew, if we examine intelligently the Jewish tradition, we see that it is the so-called “secular” or “progressive” Jews, those who advocate both the use of universal reason and an autonomous morality, who follow Jewish principles, who are the genuine representatives of the long Jewish tradition, not those who adhere to a traditional, hierarchical, particularistic, rigid, and external morality grounded in ritualized precepts.
We may characterize the logic of religious commitment in terms of three fundamental building blocks of religiosity. First, are they grounded in a notion of natural law or are they morally voluntaristic; is God understood to act justly, in terms of a notion of justice available to believers and nonbelievers alike apart from revelation, or do God’s actions and expectations constitute what is just? Second, do humans have the capacity to act righteously? Is “human nature” akin to original sin in Christianity, where no one can act in a way that merits salvation, or, as in Islam, where fitra, our natural inclination to God, enables us to both understand the straight path God lays out for us and to act in accordance with it, in a way that merits salvation. Third, is God immanent in some organization or person on earth or is God transcendent. If the former (e.g., the Roman Catholic Church or the original Shi’a Imams), some organization or person has God’s authority to tell us how to act morally.
Judaism assumes, if only implicitly, a natural law theology. In the Hebrew Bible, Jews chastise God for acting unjustly. This implies the possibility of understanding justice apart from revelation. The long history of Jewish persecution constitutes Judaism as a reflection on evil in the world. After the Holocaust, it is no longer possible to see God punishing Jews for their transgressions; instead, the morality that blamed the victim is no longer, if it ever was, tenable. In contrast to a morality grounded in precepts, humans must grasp justice through the use of reason.
Understanding justice independently from revelation is embedded in Maimonides’ The Guide of the Perplexed, where, for example, we learn that if scripture contradicts reason, we must interpret scripture metaphorically. Implicit here, if not fully articulated by Maimonides, is a tendency to prioritize reason in constituting moral standards. For some, this constitutes a Jewish tradition where God is marginalized; for others, even if the notion of God retains its centrality, it results in an outcome where discourse to determine how one ought to act is prioritized, where the tradition of argumentation within Judaism is more fully realized, and where reasoned principles may problematize traditional precepts.
Judaism assumes that we have the capacity to act morally. There is nothing akin to the notion of original sin in the Jewish tradition, but unlike in Islam, this capacity to act morally is not subsumed under revelation. Instead, as we see in Maimonides, human reason has the capacity to regulate our understanding of revelation, to constitute an orientation to revelation that subordinates it to moral principles derived rationally. This means that Jews are expected to seek out what is reasonable both within and outside the tradition. Any image of Jewish education that is rooted only in the Jewish tradition, that precludes a liberal arts education, is counterfeit.
While, at times, Judaism appeared to subordinate everyday people to scholars, over time those scholars have been understood to articulate what Jürgen Habermas calls validity claims, claims to truth and moral rightness redeemable through reason in discourse, and, as in Maimonides, that discourse includes not only all Jews, but all persons. Women were previously excluded from such dialogue, but this was clearly a violation of reasoned principles fundamental to Judaism, the sanctity of all persons, persons of all races, ethnicities, and genders, Jew and non-Jew, in God’s eyes. The full inclusion of women is an example of principles trumping precepts.
In Judaism, God is not immanent in any group or person and the subordination in practice of some ultra-orthodox sects to a “charismatic leader” is a perversion of the Jewish tradition, one that leads to the social isolation of the sects, one that may, if the situation is auspicious, lead to those sects endeavoring to impose their narrow understanding of morality on the entire society.
These three characteristics of Judaism, the understanding of justice through reason, people having the capacity to act righteously, and the transcendence of God, mean that Jews must and are able to reason together (and with non-Jews) to come to an understanding of how to act justly. After the Enlightenment, the idea that Jews are bound by a heteronomous, a rigid, nonrational tradition was a fundamentalist reaction to the emergence of an autonomous morality grounded in reason in Judaism. It is the genuine Jewish tradition that constitutes this autonomy, that fosters the development of a democratic civil religion grounded in reasoned principles, in which all citizens make reasoned arguments about public policy and participate actively in sustaining democratic institutions. Understandings of Judaism that reduce it to traditional-hierarchical, particularistic, exclusionary precepts, need to be tolerated in a democratic state, but they do not comprise authentic Judaism, and they must not be understood to constitute the shared values in Israel. The heirs of the Jewish tradition are those who use discursive reason to regulate their actions; they are the ones who recognize that Judaism fosters moral obligations grounded in reason; these are the values that emerge out of the Jewish tradition, values that are inclusive of all peoples.