Two issues from the extremes of Judaism are disturbing the peace of Israel, and raising yet again the hoary queries about what is Judaism, and who are the Jews.
One of the current issues is the hot button issue of drafting the Haredim.
Another is the much quieter issue in Israel, but not so quiet among Diaspora communities, especially those of the United States, about the rights of Reform Jewish women at the Western Wall.
Who is a Jew and what is Judaism should be troubling us, but the questions are so old and so unanswerable. While it may be best to ignore them, there are ample indications that many Jews have not gotten the message.
No doubt the message is confused.
There are both ethnic and doctrinal components involved in the definition of a Jew.
Both elements are muddied.
Jews have never been ethnically pure. There is an extensive, but inconclusive literature about the initial formation of the people called Hebrews, then Israelites, Judeans, and finally Jews. According to some scholars, the different names for the Almighty that appear in the Hebrew Bible reflect the names of the gods associated with the peoples who amalgamated into the community. The Book of Ezra reports the condemnation of men who returned from exile in Babylon and married "women of the land" with doubtful ancestry. Community leaders demanded that they divorce, but there is no report that they did so. (Ezra 10) Later, additional tribes joined the community. Some were converted forcefully by Jews who at the time were as aggressive as Christians or Muslims in later periods. The family of Herod was one of those converted, perhaps involuntarily, which explains part of the King's problems. There were many who did not view him as a true Jew.
Currently the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox have similar problems with individuals who convert voluntarily, or with secular Jews who become religious. They may be assigned to separate congregations, not trusted to be observant in ways considered appropriate, and not welcome as marriage partners.
Anyone who looks closely at the issue may conclude that the concept of a "true Jew" is an oxymoron.
The various backgrounds and colors of Israeli Jews, with many ethnically mixed couples, as well as intermarriage rates in the Diaspora of around 50 percent, get in the way of any ethnically based definition of who is a Jew.
We have the Orthodox definition requiring a Jewish mother, but also definitions adopted by liberal congregations granting recognition to those with Jewish fathers.
Israel's Law of Return allows immigration--but not necessarily definition as a "Jew"--to anyone with one Jewish grandparent and their spouses. Many of those immigrants--perhaps several hundred thousand who came from the former Soviet Union along with their children born in Israel--identify with the secular Jews of Israel and are accepted by them. Marriages have to be performed in Cyprus or somewhere else, but life goes on.
Conversions, whether by Orthodox or non-Orthodox rites, in Israel or overseas, also contribute to the futility of defining Jews ethnically.
DNA and family stories indicate that a number of Palestinian families were at one time Jewish. Some continue with elements of Jewish ritual, like lighting candles on Friday evening, also seen among Spanish and Portuguese Christians with Jewish roots. Jewish tradition is to welcome individuals from such fallen away families back into the ethnic/religious tent if they express an interest in entering.
The doctrinal basis of a definition is no less problematic.
The range of Jewish congregations extends from the Reform on what we can call the "left" to the ultra-Orthodox on the "right". Individual congregations within each of the conventional categories are more left or right depending on their rabbis and activists. There are Reform congregations close to Conservative Judaism, Conservative congregations that vary between the nearly Reform to the nearly Orthodox, and Orthodox congregations that have moved close to the ultra-Orthodox. The ultra-Orthodox vary not only between Ashkenazi and Sephardi, but also by dress and other matters adhered to jealousy by rabbis who see themselves carrying on the traditions of forebears from centuries past.
The sharpest differences between the Reform and the Orthodox/ultra-Orthodox resemble differences between Christian denominations. Unitarians or something else on the left and Roman Catholics, Orthodox Catholics or something else on the right may qualify for the designation of distinct sects, denominations, or religions. Likewise Reform and Orthodox Jews. They are all Jews, just as Unitarians and Catholics are all Christian, but essentially different religions, sects, or denominations in their beliefs and practices.
This impinges on our squabbles about the Women of the Wall.
If Reform Jews are our Unitarian equivalents, and Orthodox/ultra-Orthodox our Roman Catholic equivalents, then the Women of the Wall appear to have a weak case demanding to practice their rites where the Orthodox/ultra-Orthodox are dominant, and have been given control of the space by government decision.
Would Unitarians demand to conduct their prayers in St Peter's, or Catholics their rituals in a Unitarian church?
If so, the spirit of Christian ecumenicalism has gone further than the equivalent among the sects or religions of the Jews.
Alongside Orthodox, ultra-Orthodox, Reform and other religious Jews are the secular. They amount to about 50 percent of Israeli Jews, and an unknown number of Diaspora Jews. They may define themselves as secular or nonobservant, with or without the additional labels of atheist or agnostic, and avoid religious ceremonies entirely, excepting those marriages, funerals, bar or bat mitzvahs, circumcisions or naming ceremonies where attendance is required by obligations of family or friendship.
For many among secular Israelis, conflicts about drafting the Haredim and paying for their support provoke feelings of unfairness which can reach high levels of intensity. However, the rights of Reform women to wrap themselves in a tallit, read from the Torah, or do both alongside the Western Wall, provoke much less interest, or perhaps nothing more than annoyance at another religious problem.
The numbers at issue and the impacts on secular Israelis explain differences in intensity. There may be 600,000 Haredim in Israel supporting two political parties that are often members of the government coalition. They have achieved substantial benefits, which disturb secular Israelis who pay for those benefits and suffer personally by what many consider to be unfair burdens. Compare that with the commotion caused alongside the Western Wall which secular Israelis seldom visit, by individuals from the small population of Reform Jews in Israel, with no representatives in the Knesset, whose impact on the media is occasional at best. The issue of religious freedom raised by the Reform do not touch secular Israelis, or--if they notice--it may lead them to avoid involvement due to fatigue with having to cope with more pressing issues created by another variety of religious Jews.
The Israeli government has responded to the Women of the Wall with the small fingers of its left hand, trying above all to keep down the noise and avoid provoking activists in the Diaspora.
Reform Jews are too few in number to impact Israeli politics directly, but their American rabbis and activists are making hay on the issue. Demands for religious freedom, equal access to Judaism's holiest site, bringing cases to Israeli courts and even writing their American Congressmen reflect intensities of the faithful along with rabbinical self interest.
Israeli authorities have sought to quiet things alongside the Western Wall by providing an area for the Reform to do their things. At times it has been necessary to protect them from ultra-Orthodox men and women, boys and girls who protest their rituals with much noise and a bit of violence. And at times, the police have prevented Reform women from encroaching on the area assigned to the Orthodox. The Supreme Court decided in favor of the status quo and the Orthodox. More recently a lower court has ruled in favor of the Reform. In the nature of things, the case will work its way back to the Supreme Court. Authorities have not opened the entire area of the wall to the Reform, and have tried to convince Reform and Orthodox Jews to accept territorial compromises and boundaries. So far the noise has remained below the threshold that disturbs the majority of secular Israelis, but there is unhappiness among the faithful of both Orthodox and Reform sects, denominations, or religions.
Click here to return to Blog home page