Streams of Jewish Life in Israel Today

by Rabbi David Rosen
photos by Karen Lagerquist

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To understand the variety of Jewish life in Israel it is necessary to take a historical journey to the end of the 18th century.

Until then Jewish life had been much the same as it had since the evolution of Rabbinic Judaism. The world that Jews experienced, particularly in Europe, was overwhelmingly hostile. European society sought to keep them apart as much as possible. Sometimes this separation was designed for protection.

The challenges that Jews faced were material; preoccupation with making a living and protection from harm. The Jew, however, did not need to protect his sense of identity. Gentile hostility reinforced that identity; the spiritual world of the Jew was generally strong and stable. The Gentile world invariably appeared barbaric and ignorant and held little or no attraction.

With the slow but steady emancipation of European Jewry, Jews began to discover that European society had some very attractive things to offer: science, philosophy, art and music. But the modern world’s opportunities were its dangers as well.

To these opportunities were two diametrically opposed responses within the Jewish community. There were those who saw society as attractive; they sought to run away from their Jewish identity – their faith, tradition and community – and assimilate into the non-Jewish world (assimilationists).

The other extreme perceived these attractions as insidious. They feared that future generations would be seduced from their heritage and values, bringing about Judaism’s demise. They withdrew even further into their ghetto and insisted on no value in any culture beyond the spiritual and intellectual life of the Jewish tradition. This group reacted against any change and froze itself in mind and manner of dress. This is why these ultra-Orthodox (in Hebrew haredi – sometimes called hasidic, though only a segment of ultra-Orthodoxy comes from the charismatic pietistic Hasidic movement) wear 18th century eastern European dress suited for cold climates, even in a humid New York summer or in the blazing Middle East sun.

As the process of emancipation and enlightenment progressed, most Jews rejected both of these extremes. They sought to find a balance between maintaining their identity and becoming a part of the modern world.

This desire produced different forms of modern Judaism. Even though there are doctrinal and practical differences, the different streams of contemporary Judaism, from modern-Orthodoxy through the most radical forms of Reform Judaism, all strive for a balance between Tradition and Modernity.

There was another response to the challenge of Modernity, one that became more compelling as Jews discovered that anti-Semitism was an entrenched disease even in modern European society. This response was rooted in the traditional bond between the Jewish people and the land of Israel.

This movement of political Zionism, which was founded on 18th century rationalism and inspired by 19th century nationalism, declared that if Jews wanted to be both Jewish and modern, then to do so with integrity was through the creation of a modern Jewish national state. The future of the Jewish people, it insisted, lay in creating a renewed Jewish national context and a new kind of Jew!

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Tags: Israel Cultural Identity Jews Assimilation