January/February 2000

A Changing Jewish Perspective

By Moshe Halbertal

(January 4) -- Moshe Halbertal examines how the establishment of a Jewish state has changed, and will continue to change, how Jews perceive themselves and their history.

That one would even consider an essay on "Jews and Judaism as we approach the millennium" demonstrates the change in the Jewish people's situation since the start of the last millennium. This is because from a purely Jewish perspective, the approaching "millennium" is irrelevant. While the thousand-year unit has had various enticing messianic characteristics ascribed to it by certain streams of Jewish thought, on the Jewish calendar the current millennium ends in another 240 years.

But from time immemorial Jews have conducted themselves in two different time dimensions - that of the wider political culture in which they lived, and that of the traditional Jewish calendar. But there has been a definite change over the centuries in the Jews' relationship to the general calendar.

For the Jewish communities in Baghdad or Kairouan in north Africa, and for the bulk of the Jewish people who lived in Moslem cultures at the end of the last millennium, the end of that first Christian millennium meant nothing. Our incessant attention to "millennium" issues in our day thus reveals a facet about us that will apparently become even more pronounced in the coming thousand years.

Today, Jews relate to the particular Jewish time dimension in a complex fashion, if at all. For most Jews - both in Israel and the Diaspora - the Christian-Western time dimension has become the one in which they operate exclusively. The near total immigration of Jews from Arab countries to Israel, which sees itself as disconnected from the Arab cultural milieu in whose geographic environment it is located, and the existence of a Diaspora only in the Christian-Western areas of Europe and the US, has helped establish the Christian calendar as the primary frame of reference.

BUT there is another, deeper dimension in which the concept of time in the Jewish consciousness is undergoing a substantive change.

Jewish time has always been a dynamic between two axes - exile and redemption. But the rise of Jewish nationalism at the end of the last century and the success of the large Jewish community in the US has undermined this existential concept of time.

The establishment of a Jewish state, which fits none of the classic definitions of either exile or redemption, presented those who uphold Jewish tradition with a completely new reality that could not be fit into previously accepted categories.

Moreover, Zionism posed another problem for traditional Jewry, in that it provided an alternative nationalist and secular identity for Jews: Until the emergence of Zionism, Jewish identity had been defined by traditional Jews in terms of loyalty to Torah and the commandments.

The appearance of a Jewish collective that did not define itself in terms of Halacha, yet at the same time wanted to maintain a particularist Jewish identity, was a totally new concept for halachic Jewry, which was used to battling the assimilationist movements that had emerged during the 19th century. The accepted categories of "apostate" or "convert," which referred to Jews who had changed their religion, or at least their national identification, could not be applied to members of this new nationalist movement who had abandoned the commandments.

Moreover, the establishment of a sovereign Jewish state put halachic Jews in a situation that was essentially the opposite of the crises of the 19th century. During the early 19th century, the centralized European states began offering more opportunities for Jews to integrate into larger society, but the price was the loss of autonomy for the local Jewish communities - and the loss of their coercive power. The state's establishment put into the hands of Jews coercive powers far greater than those ever enjoyed by Jewish community structures during the Middle Ages.

Thus the Zionist movement, created over the anger and objection of many Torah sages, actually provided the rabbinic authorities with a potential tool that they had never had before: The power of a modern state. But a state in the modern sense, even a halachic state, was not a concept that Halacha recognized; it was a totally new reality.

AT THE beginning, Orthodoxy split in its relationship to the Zionist movement along the classical lines of time reference - exile or redemption. Religious Zionists largely saw the establishment of the State of Israel as the dawn of the redemption, while the haredim saw it as a continuation of the exile, albeit under Jewish rule in the Holy Land.

To the question of how redemption could possibly be realized by Jews who had rejected Torah and mitzvot, messianic religious Zionism replied in dialectic terms: Unconsciously, secular Zionist Jews were advancing a historic process of religious, eschatological dimensions.

In the perception of Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Kook, the secular Zionist rebellion was a necessary stage with deep spiritual value, in that it took Jewry out of its narrow boundaries of exile. The end of the process, he felt, would be a synthesis at a higher level of both the Zionist rebellion and the haredi "exilic" Judaism.

The haredim, in contrast, related to the state as yet another place of exile. In that vein, one Agudah-affiliated Torah sage said that one must accept the authority of the State of Israel, since it says in the Talmud that one must not "rebel against the nations," and the State of Israel is, after all, a nation like the other nations.

But these two opposing concepts - one that sees the state as part of the redemption process, the other which sees it a continuation of the exile - are both eroding before our very eyes.

The haredi community is undergoing a process of deep integration into the state and its structures. The community's dependence on the financial largesse of the state is certainly helping to push it in this direction.

But in addition to this, it has proven to be difficult, over time, for the haredi "street" to internalize a sense of exile in the midst of a sovereign Jewish state. Most haredim - perhaps to the disappointment of their leaders - see Israel as their home, and identify with many of the nationalist elements of the Zionist perspective.

Jewish nationalism has proven too tempting to resist. And while a typical haredi may not see the state as an element of the ultimate redemption, it is still not exile; it is a home, or even a homeland.

For this reason, the question of the normative content of the state and the legitimacy of its institutions is going to become more and more of an issue in the haredi community. As long as the haredim viewed the state as a foreign entity, they had no interest in trying to influence its image, its government or its judicial institutions. Did Agudat Yisrael, for all its activity in prewar Poland, ever try to turn Poland into a halachic state?

But now that they have identified and become involved with the state, its judicial system, for example, has become an ideological enemy, and the content of many of the state's laws and legal procedures have turned into points of conflict. In this sense, Zionism may have proven itself a victim of its own success.

A CONTRADICTORY trend, but with similar ramifications, has been taking place in the religious-Zionist camp. The messianic approach to Zionist history has begun to lose its power. The developments of recent years, particularly the Oslo Accords and the emergence of a liberal middle class, have drained the messianic concept of its internal energy.

The great military achievement of the Six Day War, which ignited the imaginations of so many, is slipping away with the excruciatingly slow and emotionally exhausting redeployments in the territories. And the secular Zionists are not fulfilling the dialectic role "assigned" to them in Rabbi Kook's scenario; they are not forging the heroic political dramas necessary to fulfill his eschatological ideals.

There may be some fringe religious Zionist elements who might want to force the messianic drama on a public that is seeking simply to be normal; blowing up the mosques on the Temple Mount, for example, might serve to ignite a history that is slowly fading. But for most religious Zionists, the messianic scenario is wearying, and history is ceasing to be a focus of immediate religious significance.

So, for this community, too, the normative content of the state's institutions will start to demand more attention. For as long as its members saw the state as the dawn of the redemption, its religious focus was in the political and diplomatic realms where the messianic drama was being played out; its legal and constitutional arrangements were seen as something temporary, to be superseded by the dialectic messianic process. Now, these institutions are going to be more closely evaluated in their real-life, day-to-day terms.

THUS, Zionist and non-Zionist Orthodoxy are slowly converging in their relationship to the State of Israel, approaching a common point from two different poles. The two groups are beginning to relate to the state as a homeland, which is neither an exile nor part of the redemption.

As a result, the dividing lines within the Orthodox community are changing, and new coalitions are being formed. The distinction between the Zionist and non-Zionist Orthodox is fast becoming obsolete; a new line is being drawn between those observant Jews who accept in principle the legitimacy and authority of the regime's secular institutions, and those - including much of religious Zionism's rabbinic leadership - who accept the haredi model of authority, which gives those steeped in Halacha a broad and absolute status.

In more general terms, one can say that Orthodoxy is being split into modern and non-modern camps.

The axiom of non-modern Orthodoxy is that Jewish tradition has a monopoly on everything that is of ultimate value. In the world outside the fortified walls of Judaism there may well be useful things, like computers and refrigerators, but the surrounding culture does not establish binding or valuable norms.

Modern Orthodoxy, by contrast, believes that outside the tradition there can be truths that have religious and moral value, and that tradition's interaction with them will eventually enrich the Jewish world.

Apart from the theological and educational ramifications of this conflict - for example, on the question of the status of "secular" studies - this dispute has far-reaching political ramifications. At its root is the question of whether authority systems that are not anchored directly in Jewish tradition, like the State of Israel's secular legal and judicial systems, can establish binding norms or a standard of justice.

Thus, the erasing of the poles of exile and redemption have diverted the tensions within the Orthodox community in a different direction, with the fault line running through a totally different place.

SO, AS we face the next millennium, we can describe the following paradox: The basic Jewish historical dynamic between exile and redemption has been stalled at a point that is neither exile nor redemption. It isn't exile, because one is talking about a sovereign Jewish entity in the Holy Land; and it isn't redemption, because this entity, as anyone can see, hasn't realized the messianic hopes invested in it.

The Jewish world is thus now facing a totally new situation, in which the basic element of its historic drama has ended in a totally unexpected place. In a sense, it is an "end of history," not because this history has ended at a desirable point, but because it has stabilized at a point outside the circle that runs through the points of exile and redemption.

As a result of Zionism's success, Judaism has lost its basic time structure, in the deepest sense.

It should be noted that this is true also with regard to Jewish existence in what is termed the "Diaspora." The great waves of immigration to the US, coupled with the destruction of the Jews of Europe, created a historic situation that is far different from the Jewish existence during hundreds of years under European rule.

From a Jewish perspective, a liberal nation of immigrants like the US, which denies the concept of a nationalist state and which scrupulously avoids linking the state and its institutions with Christianity, provides a satisfactory alternative to the traditional state of exile, almost in the same measure as the sovereign Jewish state provides one.

The "emergence from exile" of the American Jew is not simply a function of his standard or quality of life. It is not merely the fact that after centuries of pogroms Jews finally found a safe haven.

The fading of an "exile mentality" in the American Diaspora is linked to a feeling of being at home and belonging which does not require him in any way to abandon his self-definition as a Jew.

The title "French Jew" has within it a contradiction that is far deeper than the title "American Jew" - not because the French Jew is any less comfortable or because the French establishment persecutes him, but because next to the American Jew we find the Greek-American, the Italian-American and the Afro-American. In many ways, the American Jew sees this combination of identities as even more natural than that of "Israeli Jew."

Thus, the US, like Israel, has stopped Jewish time in a state of non-exile, non-redemption.

WHILE traditional Judaism faces a challenge in dealing with these extreme changes in the basic structure of Jewish time-awareness, these developments have also affected the nature of secular Jewishness and its relationship to general culture.

The major secular Jewish movements of the 19th century had clear historical elements. The Enlightenment, the Bund, and the Zionist movement all placed the individual in a broad general context and infused his life with significance in the framework of a process of historical liberation: The Enlightenment waved the banner of progress, socialism the awareness of the proletarian revolution, while Zionism identified itself as a national liberation movement that would cause a dramatic change in the cultural and political status of the Jewish people.

Because these movements established an alternative, quasi-religious time and ideological framework for their adherents, they proved to be serious threats to Jewish tradition. Those among the Orthodox elite that were captivated by them were, in essence, substituting one religious structure for a quasi-religious one.

But in the progress from modernism to post-modernism, secular existence has lost its historic character. Post-modern secularism does not have an ideology that places the individual squarely in a broad time continuum.

For this reason, today's haredi world doesn't feel threatened by the secular movements around it. While there are and always will be people who "drop out" of Orthodoxy, the haredi elite in yeshivot like Mir or Ponovezh doesn't feel threatened in the way the Lithuanian yeshivot in the late 19th and early 20th century were badly shaken by the Enlightenment, the Bund and Zionism. The next Bialik or Berdyczewski is not hiding among the outstanding scholars in Mir or Ponovezh.

Religion is threatened primarily by quasi-religious ideologies that establish some mythical alternative dimension for the relationship between the individual and time. The power of religion is drawn from, among other things, its ability to expand man's horizons beyond the individual's physical existence, by building up both his memory and his expectations for the future. For this reason, as Benedict Anderson notes, nationalism developed a religion-like power.

For this reason also, the most serious ideological challenge to religion today is probably posed by the feminist movement, because it is a type of liberation movement that has a clear time dimension, in that it changes one's attitudes toward the past and suggests a different pattern of existence in the future.

How Judaism will confront feminism and the influence of the infiltration of feminism into the heart of traditional Jewry are perhaps among the stormiest and most fascinating questions with regard to Orthodoxy's future.

So as we come to the end of the Christian millennium, a point in time that has apparently assumed some deep symbolic importance, the Jewish world in both Israel and the Diaspora, in all its dissenting factions, faces its basic time concepts being emptied of significance. Since the dimension of time is probably the most basic category of awareness, its emptiness harms one's internal fabric.

Will the Jewish world manage to find a playwright who can write a new, unknown chapter to a drama whose text seems to have run out? What will be the role of the more spiritual, a-historic streams in Judaism, like philosophy and mysticism? Or perhaps the homogeneity of post-modern secularism will be replaced with another picture that will offer the Jewish world a different mythical context.

Perhaps we have not yet reached the end of all ends.

The writer teaches Jewish thought at the Hebrew University and the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.

© Jerusalem Post

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