Jewish Identity: A Conversation (via Ariel Sharon)

“…. After World War One came the Third Aliyah – our parents. And that was a generation of true rebels. But for all their revolutionary fire, they knew in their bones what it means to be Jewish. They knew their culture, they spoke Hebrew. If I had mastered the richness of this language as my father did, I would be exceptionally proud. So that was a generation of rebels, but rebels with deep roots in Judaism.


“The problem started with our generation. Because we were the sons and daughters of rebels, we had no Judaism in our upbringing whatsoever. The result was that our generation in a way lost its roots, the first to have done so. What did we know about Jewish wisdom? What did we know about Jewish contributions to the world or about the Jewish presence here in Israel? Very little. Were we taught to be proud that we were Jews, descendants of those Jews who through the ages had fought to the death for their beliefs? No, we were not taught these things. Instead, with our generation there was an attempt to create not Jews but New Israeli Men and Women. In the process we were disconnected from those earlier generations whose Jewishness was inscribed in their hearts.


“And the outside world saw this too. I remember back in the 1950s and ’60s when I was traveling abroad I felt the desire by others to consider me not a Jew but as an Israeli, to draw the distinction. You are an Israeli, they seemed to say. They, those people over there with strange clothes and strange ways – they are Jews. And in a way it felt easy to be accepted like that. But it was also dangerous. It was a signal that we had lost our Jewishness. And I for one, even then, never believed we would really be able to survive here if we were nothing more than Israelis. For our attachment to the land of Israel, our identity with it, comes through out Jewishness. I am a Jew, I thought then, as I think now. That does not mean I am a religious man. I am not. When it comes to practicing Judaism, there is much I do not know. But I do know for certain that above everything I am a Jew and only afterwards an Israeli and the rest.”

Ariel Sharon is perhaps an unlikely commentator on Jewish identity, but this excerpt from his autobiography, Warrior, reveals a clear discomfort at the serious estrangement from the Jewish religion of his generation of Zionist pioneers. His concerns are decidedly relevant in today’s discussions on the nature of religion and state in Israel, and what it means to be a Jewish democracy.

What follows is an exchange between me and Avram Piha, who brought this text to my attention. Both of us have spent a lot of time thinking about this issue.

First, some introductory words on our religious backgrounds:

Avram: I grew up in a Sefardi shomer masoret home and become more religious since making Aliyah. I don’t define myself as Dati Leumi though I am religious and Zionist. I find myself very much thinking according to R’ Ovadia Yosef’s ‘kocha de heter adif thinking (“the power of leniency is greater”) and feel that R’ Haim Amsalem is a Rabbi who I can relate to.

Paul: I don’t see myself as fitting into a denomination. I’m also Zionist and religious (at least according to my own definition) but not part of the Dati Leumi camp. The Jewish thinkers I connect to the most are Rabbis David Hartman and Eliezer Berkovits, particularly their teachings that pluralism is legitimately Jewish, and that halacha has to be essentially moral.


Avram:  When I first read this quote in Warrior, I just couldn’t believe it.  He had explained in three short paragraphs something that has been bothering me for years.  I spent my high school and university years in New York, and this ‘loss of Jewishness’ Sharon describes in the 1950s and 60s was something I was seeing amongst most of the non-religious Jews I was associating with. As most of my friends began intermarrying, I made aliyah and found that many Israelis were as detached from their Jewish identity as the Jews in New York were.

Though the ramifications here are far less serious – ~80% of Israelis are Jews, Hebrew is the national language, Jewish holidays are national holidays etc – it begged the question, what was continuing to drive this loss amongst Jews in Israel and abroad? What can Israel and Diaspora Jewry do to improve the current situation, and reverse the worrying trends we’re seeing?

I’ve always found this subject extremely important to discuss.  I look forward to hearing your analysis and your thoughts on how things can be bettered.

Paul: I share your interest and concern with this issue. But while I take the point that the ramifications of this are clearly less serious in Israel if we’re simply talking quantity – that is: “how many Jews will there be in the next generation”; if we’re talking quality – that is: “what kind of Jews will there be in the next generation”, I’d argue that this is an even more crucial issue in Israel than in the diaspora.

For me, it leads to the questions of: “What was Zionism for?” and “What kind of Jewish state is Israel supposed to be?”

Ahad Ha’am’s critique of Herzl was that his ‘Jewish State’ was really nothing more than ‘a state for the Jews’, that is, a state where a majority of the population happens to be Jewish. Leaving aside for now whether or not that critique was fair, it basically describes the Israel that Sharon laments has come to pass; a place where, for many, ‘Jewish identity’ is indistinguishable from ‘Israeli identity’: “I’m Jewish because I’m part of the Jewish state and speak Hebrew”.

To connect to your diaspora point, one consequence of this is that (non-religious) Israeli Jews often feel no connection whatsoever to Jews living outside of the country. There’s a well-documented phenomenon for instance, of Israelis living in cities in the US with little desire to be part of the local Jewish community – centered around the synagogue and Jewish holidays.

In my view, responsibility for this state of affairs lies both with the secularists who believed that Zionism should now replace the no-longer-needed old customs and traditional texts; and the religious Zionist establishment who’ve insisted on a one-size-fits-all, increasingly right-wing Orthodoxy as the only legitimate expression of Jewish religion.

I’d love to hear to what extent you agree or disagree with my thoughts so far.

Avram:  I think you make an excellent point about quality, though I would include longevity under the definition – there’s no point in it stopping after one generation. I do agree that it’s far more important in Israel than the Diaspora because – unfortunately – quality in the Diaspora doesn’t slow down our disappearing act, as the recent Pew Center Research Report about American Jews sadly showed. What were your thoughts on the report?

I believe Zionism’s only goal was a state. The successful formation (and survival) of Israel made us a ‘normal people,’ whose identity no longer needed Jewishness to survive. We needed to re-define Zionism to protect ourselves from this normalcy and develop into the Jewish State we wanted to be. Generally speaking, this wasn’t done. As I do agree with Sharon’s warning – we cannot survive here if we’re not Jews first – I think it’s imperative we face this issue. The solution is education – but the question is how to do it in a way that doesn’t play on the fear we often see here between the secular and religious.

Have you ever read Matti Golan’s With Friends Like You: What Israelis Really Think About American Jews? It discusses – back in the 90s – the widening gap between the Israeli and American Jews. His book touches on the issues you raised. I do think some of the issues have arisen because of what we’re discussing now.

Unlike you, I think the responsibility lies with all the parties in Israel. I strongly believe the Haredim need to play an active role in solving this problem. I don’t expect them to become Zionist – and that’s ok – but I think they must make Judaism a warmer, more inclusive faith as we see more often in the Religious Zionist communities. This doesn’t mean becoming less religious or depriving their world of their ways, but adjusting how they deal with klal Yisrael to ensure we don’t continue the current path of internal strife.

Paul: The paradox of American Jewry is that it is probably the most Jewishly illiterate Diaspora community in history. Yet, some of the most fascinating and important Jewish religious figures have emerged in the US, precisely because there has been a need to ask questions about the relevance of the Jewish religion to modern American life. Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan for example, who – despite what his detractors said – was a deeply religious man, established Reconstructionist Judaism because he was desperate to find a way to keep Jewish tradition meaningful for a community who had largely abandoned the notion of an interventionist God.

Even in Orthodoxy, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik was the ‘Rav’ of modern Orthodoxy because he felt compelled to make the halachic discourse as intellectually rigorous as the secular philosophy that so many thinking Jews were studying and absorbing.

American Jewry has been an abysmal failure in terms of widespread Jewish education and ‘keeping Jews Jewish’, and at the same time the most incredibly exciting laboratory for the development of ways to keep Judaism relevant in our generation.

Moving back to Israel, I agree that the solution to the malaise Ariel Sharon refers to is education, but I also think we need official – that is state-sanctioned – support for non-Orthodox expressions of Judaism. Or alternatively, the disbanding of a state Rabbinate so at least there would a level playing field. I’m talking about a situation where the state supports secular yeshivot run along the lines that Ruth Calderon has advocated, where Jews learn Talmud without religious coercion or the expectation that they will become shomer mitzvot.

I’m in favor, of course, of the Haredim being involved but I really see them as a major part of the problem right now. They essentially run the Rabbinate and present the most uncompromising and humra-ridden version of Judaism imaginable to the Israeli masses. If I was a secular Jew, and I thought that the Israeli Rabbinate’s definition of the Jewish religion was the only authentic definition, I’d be running very fast in the opposite direction.

Avram: There’s a lot of interesting points to discuss in this response. I’ll focus on a few and let you have the closing remarks. While I can understand the short term benefits of R’ Kaplan’s move – I am more concerned about the long term. Reconstructionist Jews may be more attached to their Jewish identity now – a definite positive – but how many intermarry? How many of them will have Jewish grandchildren? It seems that more and more non-Orthodox Jews are asking these questions in light of the Pew survey, and that has given me hope that they’ll succeed in finding avenues to stress a stronger attachment to their Jewish identity and hopefully a more successful track record in Jewish continuity.

You’ve raised the issue of the Rabbinate.  I think their monopoly does need to be broken in favor of varying Orthodox options in matters of personal status. Let the non-Orthodox streams flourish here – if it’s what the Israeli population wants (I’m not sure it does – but that’s a discussion for another day). However, I am very torn on opening divorce, conversions and marriage to non-Orthodox denominations. I understand your logic, however doing so could cause a major schism here or something even worse. I can’t see Haredim, or the bulk of National Religious and Sephardi/Mizrachi Jewry accepting this. Yes it needs to be moderated – something along the lines of what is being pushed by R’ Stav or R’ Amsalem – but abolishing it could create an even worse situation than what we have now.

Lastly, your last sentence bothers me as I’ve heard it before many times … I just think it’s an excuse. If people are open to Jewishness – be it as an identity or religious observance – the Rabbinate’s influence (even if you get stuck in their world for life events) can be overcome. It’s not always pleasant, and at times can be extremely cold and difficult, but it can be overcome. I think the issue is very much linked to how the religion was presented in the State’s early years (the ‘rebellion’ of the halutzim), the confrontation with the Mizrachi shomer masoret worldview and how non-religious schools presented its importance. This constant reaction by both sides (It’s not relevant who started) is to push to the extreme – and that is a big a part in the issues we see today … Both sides need to take a step back, realize how working together and finding compromises is the only way forward … or just take the “path of the middle” as Rambam said (Hilchot De’ot 1:4).

Paul: Your point about intermarriage and whether the grandchildren of Reconstructionist Jews will be Jewish is both a fair and important comment. It seems to me an inescapable conclusion of the Pew Survey that all of the American non-Orthodox movements are quite simply failing to ensure Jewish continuity among those who cannot accept, or connect, to the doctrines of Orthodoxy. For me that’s a real sadness. I think the Jewish world is infinitely richer and more interesting for the variety of expressions of its theology.

Regarding the Israeli Rabbinate, the approach of Rabbis Stav and Amsalem would improve things but would also likely further entrench the Orthodox monopoly on marriage. For me, it’s unacceptable that Israel is the only country with a significant Jewish population where Jews cannot be married by a Rabbi of their choosing – or no Rabbi if they wish. It’s unacceptable that in a democratic country the rules of who can marry whom are according to halacha rather than the civil legal system. There should be a civil marriage option plain and simple. Rabbi Stav has argued that this would be deviating from halacha. This is nonsense, as . Tomer Persico argued very succinctly:

“… halacha is completely unconnected to the issue of civil marriage. After all, no one is asking the rabbi to exceed the boundaries of halacha as he understands it. No one is asking him to annul religious marriages for whoever wants them. What is being asked about is allowing registration of civil marriage for those who do not want a religious ceremony. All that is being asked of him is not to force those boundaries on all of Israel’s Jewish citizens.

“Does the Orthodox halacha prohibit the registration of a spousal relationship through the state’s civil authorities, or even through a private contract rather than via the Chief Rabbinate? Of course not.”

As ever, the problem lies not with the halacha itself, but with the coercion of Israel’s rabbinical authorities.

On conversion I agree we need to tread more carefully to avoid ending up with different ‘classes’ of Jews. However, the Orthodox (mainly Haredi) establishment that runs the show needs to accept the fact that their standard of conversion is not the only authentic Jewish standard. Daniel Gordis’s and David Ellenson’s recent book on the subject demonstrates that there have been massive variations in what is required of a convert in different times and in different places depending on the situation of the Jewish community. It should be obvious that, in our modern Jewish state, the adherence of converts to a rigorous observance of the mitzvot is not of overriding importance. Particularly when we are trying to solve problems such as ‘non-Jewish’ immigrants from Russia fighting and dying for the country and not being able to be buried alongside their brothers-in-arms.

Your parenthetical suggestion that Israelis are largely uninterested in the Reform and Conservative movements is unarguable. However, there are growing numbers of ostensibly ‘secular’ Israelis who are interested in the traditional Jewish bookshelf, studying Talmud in ‘secular betei midrash‘, attending non-traditional minyanim for Kabbalat Shabbat. For me, this is the half-full glass to counter Sharon’s pessimism.

I’m hoping for religious leaders that understand that Israel is currently not living up to its own Declaration of Independence which promises “freedom of religion” and see the beauty of pluralist expressions of Jewish faith and identity. And I’m hoping for secular leaders that understand the importance and value of educating all Jews about the religion and tradition of our people. 

About the Author
Before moving to Israel from the UK, Paul worked at the Embassy of Israel to the UK in the Public Affairs department, and as the Ambassador's speechwriter. He has a Masters degree in Middle East Politics from the University of London. He is currently a Senior Fellow at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem - though he writes this blog in a personal capacity. He has lectured to a variety of groups on Israeli history and politics and his articles have been published in a variety of media outlets in Israel, the UK, the US and Canada.
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