The Crisis in the Jewish Character of the Jewish State

By Rabbi Bernard Rosensweig

Most Jews today are very much focused on the political future of the Jewish State — and with good reason.  In the process, we have failed to pay enough attention to the breakdown and erosion of the Jewish character of the Jewish State.  The crisis of Jewish identity in the State of Israel can be at least as crucial as the controversial political decisions of the government in forging the destiny of the Jewish people in its homeland.  What value is there, ultimately, in a Jewish State that is devoid of Jewish character and where the sense of Jewish identity is peripheral?  Without roots in Jewish tradition and without a unique sense of Jewish purpose founded in the ancient, but ageless, Jewish value system, the Jewish State, no matter what its political configuration, is in dire straits.

When a Jew takes a careful look at the State of Israel today he is confronted by a paradox.  On the one hand, he is buoyed by the satisfying reality that there is more Jewish learning and scholarship going on in the Jewish State than at any time in our long and tortured history.  The number of yeshivot and kollelim of every kind and description flourishing in Israel today is staggering — but hardly comforting in the face of the frightening number of Israelis whose Jewish commitment and identification is minimal at best.  How shall we account for the fact that the realization of the Zionist dream has brought with it a crisis in Jewish identity?

The failure to develop the Jewish character of the State of Israel is the result of a two-fold fallacy in ideology and religion.  The first involves the breakdown in Zionist ideology.

The rallying cry of many of the early secular Zionist thinkers was “nihiyeh k’chol hagoyim beit Yisrael; Let us become like all the nations of the world.”  The ultimate goal of the Zionist dream was to make the Jew the same as every other human being, with a land of his own and with all the trappings of national independence.

In the process, political Zionism envisioned and projected a new kind of Jew — and a new definition of who or what defines a Jew, i.e., a national Jew, a Jew whose relationship to his people has no religious basis, but a Jew whose connection to his people is based solely or primarily on his love for or attachment to the land of the Jews.  It created Jews who had no relationship to Judaism and, at the same time, contended that a Jew was a good Jew by virtue of his identification with the national hopes and aspirations of the Jewish people.

Many of these people proclaimed, and still do, that a national Jew really was not obligated to adhere to the mitzvot and to fulfil the demands of religious discipline.  It might be of some value for a Jew living in the Diaspora, who needs something with which to identify himself as a Jew, to observe the religious imperatives of Judaism.  However, a Jew who lives in the Holy Land, they claim, has no need for any kind of religious impositions.  His national convictions ensure his Jewish identification and continuity.

Many of the early pioneers of the land of Israel came with negative attitudes to the Torah and its imperatives.  However, they came with a strong Jewish background.  Early in the history of the Jewish State, Rabbi Judah Leib Maimon, who was the first Minister of Religions in the State of Israel, brought a piece of religious legislation before the appropriate committee.  In the process, he felt the need to explain its significance.  He was abruptly interrupted.  Meir Yaari, the ideologue of Hashomer Hatzair, said to him: “Rabbi Maimon, it is not necessary for you to explain this halachah to me.  After all, I am the grandson of a great Chassidic Rebbe.”  Aharon Zisling, a leftist, intervened: “Rav Maimon, you know that I have a brother who is a rav in Tel Aviv, and I am fully aware of the consequences of your legislation from a Jewish point of view.”  And so it went through the committee.

The implications of that story are clear.  Founders of the State all came from homes which were saturated with Jewish life; and, as much as they appeared to reject their backgrounds, they could not escape its reality.  For better or for worse, it remained an integral part of their essence.  Many of the past presidents of Israel, such as Yizchak ben Zvi, Zalman Shazar and Chaim Herzog, fulfilled many of the traditions and demands of the Jewish religion.  I was always fascinated by the fact that David Ben Gurion, though not religious, hosted a weekly shiur on Tanach in his residence.  I attended a number of Chumash shiurim in Menachem Begin’s home.  These people, no matter what their personal outlooks, could not, would not, break from their roots.

This was the generation of the founders.  But what of their children and grandchildren who did not have the benefit of that kind of background, who did not absorb that traditional environment with their mother’s milk?  What happened to their Jewish attitudes?  They produced the failure of the Zionist dream.  They produced a generation of Canaanites who rejected all connection to the historical past of the Jewish people, and who made a distinction between Israeli and Jew.  They produced the students who, in one survey of 40 students in a non-religious high school, indicated that only one student could define what “Kiddush” was, or had ever seen a Sefer Torah or knew how to find the “Shema” in a siddur.  There are a significant number of sabras — you would be amazed at the numbers — who have never seen the inside of a synagogue, who do not know what a Sefer Torah looks like, who have never celebrated a Jewish holiday, and who spend Yom Kippur at the beach.  The tragicomedy of Israeli diplomats in foreign countries and their ignorance of matters Jewish, are easily documented.

This secular Zionist approach has produced a generation of young people in which 25% of high school students interviewed in a Tel Aviv mamlachti [non-religious] high school indicated that if they lived in the Diaspora they would not identify themselves as Jews.  Dr. Yair Auron of the secular Kibbutz Movement Teachers’ College found, in a study which he conducted on Jewish-Israeli identity, that many secular Israelis do not consider themselves to be part of the Jewish people in any deep or meaningful sense.

He posed the question: “Does the fact that you are a Jew play an important role in your life?”  Almost 32% of secular youth who responded said that it was of little or no importance in their lives; while only 17% considered it to be very important.  Contrast this result with that of the students in mamlachti dati, state religious schools, 93% of whom considered being a Jew to be very important in their lives.

He then asked: “If you decided to live abroad, would you want to be born a Jew?”  42% of the non­religious respondents indicated that they would rather not be born Jewish or were indifferent to the whole matter.  Only 21% wanted very much to be born a Jew.  This statistic is in stark contrast to the products of the religious school system, 83% of whom wanted very much to be born as Jews.  In the light of this tragic data, one can appreciate the quote of Yaacov Chazan.  Chazan was one of the founding fathers of Hashomer Hatzair and an avowed secularist.  Himself a descendant of a Brisk rabbinical line, he admitted sadly in his old age:  “We came to Eretz Israel to breed apikorsim, [heretics], but we’ve only managed to produce amaratzim, [ignoramuses].”

This approach, and the educational structure which it has spawned, has produced the generation of yordim, those who leave Israel to live in the Diaspora..  How many are they today — half a million; three quarters of a million, possibly more?  The overwhelming majority of them are secular Jews — many of them kibbutzniks — from secular environments, who have practically no connection to the Jewish communities in whose midst they live.  The Ministry of Education, in an early study on the problem of yeridah [the outgoing population] concluded: “The most conspicuous conclusion of the studies on factors of yeridah is the absence of Jewish and Zionist identity.”  The study indicated that these people define themselves as Israelis first and only secondarily as Jews, and that their so-called patriotism, which is the ground of nationalistic and political Zionism, does not serve as a barrier against leaving Israel.

Nor has the program of “Moreshet Yehudit,” which was introduced into the secular school system in Israel, and which was to solve the problem of lack of Jewish identity, fulfilled its function.  It was supposed to be the answer to the vacuum of Jewish values in the general school system, but it has failed miserably.  What kind of an impact can secularist, non-observant teachers, who teach Tanach simply from an archeological­historical perspective, ignoring its dynamic religious message, who barely make mention of the Oral Law, and its treasures as reflected in the Talmud, have on youth who have never been exposed to real Judaism?

In 1991, in the face of the continuing deterioration of Jewish studies in the secular school system of Israel, Zevulon Hammer, who was then the Minister of Education, appointed a blue ribbon panel — The Commission to Investigate Jewish Studies in General Schools.  Ultimately, the commission, made up mostly of secular Jews, produced its report, known as the Shenhar Report, and submitted it to the government in 1994.  Its findings were disappointing, and many of its conclusions explain why this failure will continue to be compounded.

What value is there, ultimately, in a Jewish state that is devoid of Jewish character?

One of the recommendations in this report, for example, urges that religious pluralism should be taught in the general school system.  The specious argument that is used is that the Orthodox “interpretation” of Judaism is one with which students cannot identify and to which many of them feel hostile.  Instead, the commission suggests that the same religious pluralism (which has spawned a 52% intermarriage rate in America) should be introduced to save the Jewish identity of secular Israeli youth.  Tragically, the leftist minister of education has decided to implement this provision in the report, with all the unfortunate ramifications which are sure to follow.

Another recommendation proposed by this commission emphasizes the need to stress the universal-humanistic aspects of Judaism rather than its unique, particularistic ones.  The claim here is that this will make Judaism more attractive to these youths.  Does anyone seriously believe that by ignoring the unique aspects of Judaism, and focusing on those elements which we appear to have in common with the rest of the world, this will enhance the Jewish identity and develop the Jewish character of these non-religious Israeli youth?  It is much easier to predict, in the light of the historical experience of the Jewish people with the Haskalah and the Reform movements, that these recommendations will simply intensify the rate of assimilation of Israeli youth who are distant from the sources of real Judaism.

Surely, Moreshet Yehudit should be taught.  But it should be taught seriously by thoroughly committed religious teachers, to whom these texts and values are of primary concern and who can transmit these values to open, searching minds.  The content of this core program should be made relevant and attractive and meaningful; the uniqueness of Judaism, its beauty, its practicality and its superiority should be stressed.  What is required is the need to train a group of young teachers in the best educational techniques, and to imbue them with a sense of mission and purpose.  Whether this can be done in the present political constellation is obviously open to question — but in no way lessens its urgency.

The second problem, as I see it, is religious rather than ideological.  It revolves around the demonstrable reality that the Torah community and its rabbinate in Israel has failed to make sufficient impact on the larger community, and to influence its course and direction.  When we look at the Israeli rabbinate, we see an organism that, in many respects, is similar to the American Orthodox rabbinate as it existed 80 years ago — a rabbinate which did not speak the same language as the people, literally and figuratively, and which lost contact with the masses of Jews.  The result was “the lost Jewish generation” and the assimilation which it helped to foster.

While this is not true everywhere, the tragic truth is that the relationship between the rabbi and the community is practically non-existent in many places in Israel, and minimal in others.  I have two children who live in an urban community on the furthermost outskirts of the Tel Aviv area.  They are part of the large influx of Anglo-American Orthodox Jews who have changed the complexion of that city.  Yet my children, who are active in the community, have practically no relationship with the Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of that city — nor do their contemporaries.  There are more than 40 synagogues in that urban center and practically no organized religious presence.  The rabbi’s influence in the community involves kashruth supervision, and not much else.  He, at least, lives within the boundaries in which he has been designated to serve; from what I gather, the Chief Rabbi of an important neighborhood in Jerusalem, where my other daughter lives, does not even reside in the area where he is supposed to be the supreme religious authority.

The Torah community in the city in which my children reside is somehow able to fend for itself and to build a constructive religious life without the involvement of its Chief Rabbi.  They are adapting the models from the English-speaking world in which they were reared.  But what about the masses of Jews in that city, and all the other cities and neighborhoods of Israel, who are unaffiliated, and whose knowledge of Judaism and Jewish values and Jewish practices are minimal?  Who will tend to their needs?  Who will reach out to them, to guide them, to expose them to the beauty of Torah Judaism and its eternal value?

In order to succeed, the rabbis have to reach out, not only to the yeshivah-trained (“preaching to the converted”), but to much larger masses of the uneducated or minimally educated.

The Israeli rabbis are well-intentioned, in the main, and would sincerely like to raise the level of Jewish commitment among their constituencies.  However, they suffer from a narrow definition of their role as spiritual leaders.  Many of them believe that their position involves answering sheilot, halachic questions, when they are directed to them, supervising kashruth and attending to ritual matters.  All of these elements are laudable and an integral part of the rabbi’s function in a Torah community; but they are hardly sufficient in the face of the realities of Jewish life, or the lack thereof, in Israel today.  The unwillingness or the inability of the Israeli rabbinate to come to grips with this reality should be a matter of great concern for every Jew who cares about for the Torah character of the Jewish state.

These attitudes and approaches on the part of many Israeli rabbis are having serious consequences:  they are opening the door to deviationist movements such as the  Reform and the Conservative.  Nature abhors a vacuum; if the “waters” of Torah are not refreshing the Jewish community, then the “venom” of the snakes and scorpions of sectarian movements will penetrate its essence.

Thirty years ago, I warned the Chief Rabbis of the danger of these movements to the religious welfare of Israel.  I pointed out that they would not come in their true colors, with the American system and style; that they would come with more traditional representatives who would appear to have a Torah orientation, and that they would create communities of their own in Israel.  Without a significant Israeli presence, their legitimacy as viable Jewish movements is threatened.  The Chief Rabbis of the time, men of scholarly eminence, scoffed at my prediction, as did others in subsequent years.  Sadly, my prediction is becoming increasingly true.  Reflect on the Masorati educational stream and its attendant synagogue movement.  Their increasing strength is a sign of our weakness and failure.

It would seem to me that the Israeli rabbinate, with all of its good intentions, has much to learn from the Orthodox rabbinate in America.  The Orthodox rabbi in America today must, in the first instance, be a talmid chacham, like his Israeli counterpart.  In the synagogue of the rabbi in our ranks, there are all kinds of shiurim, classes and lectures which are given, on a weekly basis, for the men and women of the congregation.  These classes are given on a number of different levels, from the most intense to the most elementary.

But the rav in an American community is involved in many different areas.  His synagogue is a center for many different activities; he is friend and advisor to the families in his kehillah, and his contact with them is an ongoing one.  He visits the sick, helps the needy, comforts the mourner and rejoices with his congregants in the happy milestones of their life.  In many instances, they become part of his extended family, particularly, since he is involved in the fate of each and every member of his community.  In America, rabbis were practicing outreach and influencing baalei teshuvah long before there were formal designations and movements in that direction.  In the main, this is not a common phenomenon in the Israeli rabbinate.

This approach to practical rabbinics is something that the Israeli rabbinate, with all of its dedication and sincerity, can learn from its American counterpart.  Beyond that, there should be certain changes or additions to the programs of most yeshivot.  I am obviously not referring to the intensity of its learning program, which should be maintained on the highest levels.  However, in preparing some of its musmachim, its graduates, to make a significant contribution to preserving the Jewish character of the Jewish State, certain practical programs should be introduced.  Unfortunately, given the realities which exist in most yeshivot, one can easily predict resistance to any ideas which smack of change, even when it only impinges upon methodology and approach, and not the essences.  “Chodosh osur min Hatorah; the new is prohibited by the Torah,” has become an idee fixe in the Torah world.

In any case, students who intend to go into the active rabbinate in Israel should be compelled to go through a series of classes and programs to prepare them for their role as spiritual leaders in Israel.  The know-how of rabbis from Anglo-American communities, who are presently residing in Israel, should be put at the disposal of the responsible organs of yeshivot and government.  No other Torah grouping has the kind of first-hand knowledge in dealing with the day-to-day problems of the average layman as do the rabbis who are the products of the Anglo-American experience on the communal-synagogue level.  The first steps in this direction have already been taken in this direction.  The results could be satisfying to both sides.

The struggle for the Jewish character of Israel is reaching a crucial stage.  Increasingly, various groupings in Jewish life, both in Israel and in the Diaspora, are becoming aware that a Jewish State without a Jewish character will loses its raison d’etre.  An international organization has been formed dedicated to the preservation of the Jewish character of Israel; its program involves both the need for awareness and positive steps to change the direction of Jewish life in our Holy Land.

I have presented the problem in its full dimensions because most Jews have always assumed that Jewish identity is a “given” in the Jewish State.  They concede that the problem might exist in the Diaspora, but it is inconceivable to them that a Jewish State could confront such a sobering reality.  Yet, as we have seen, that is precisely what is happening.  I think that it is safe to assume that the spiritual crisis is reflected in political attitudes.  Where the Jewish character of the State is eroded, there the sense of Kedushat Eretz Israel, the sanctity of the Land of Israel, is diminished.  The consequences of this are clearly discernible in our time.

What is needed is a concerted effort to penetrate the secular, non-religious world on all of its levels.  This effort must be undertaken by accentuating the positive elements of Judaism — not merely by attacking the shortcomings of empty secularism.  In order to achieve this, Torah Judaism has to be presented in its most attractive and authentic form, by people whose commitment to Judaism is of the highest order and who, in their personal lives, exemplify the best and the most compelling in Judaism.  In the process, we may yet succeed in reuniting the holiness of the land with the holiness of the people.

Rabbi Rosensweig is the Rabbi of Adath Yeshurun Synagogue in Kew Gardens, N.Y. and a Professor of Jewish History at Yeshiva University.  He is a former president of the Rabbinical Council of America.

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This article was featured in the Spring 1996 issue of Jewish Action.
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