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The Liberalization of Judaism: Redefining Religion in Israel? By Marc Ellis

Recent articles in the Israeli and American Jewish press heralded or opposed the recent Israeli Supreme Court ruling that opens up aspects of Israeli religious life to the more liberal streams of organized Judaism. Most American Jews seem to welcome such liberalization because it allows Israel to reflect the diversity of world Jewry.

Jews have had a love/hate relationship with the state of Israel from its origins in 1948. Israel has become increasingly contentious in recent years, mostly in response to the Palestinian question. Nonetheless, the overriding issue often silenced in the press is where everything comes to a head. What does it mean to be Jewish after the Holocaust and after the formation of the state of Israel?

The argument over the kind of religiosity appropriate to a Jewish state will continue into the future. The power of the Orthodox is being challenged. For many Jews, Israel is the ground of their identity and how Jews perceive themselves as it has to do with the state itself. As a symbolic matter, Israel is called upon by a majority of Jews as an affirmation of Jewish survival and flourishing. Thus the expression of Jewish religiosity in Israel serves as a reflecting mirror. Many Jews want to see themselves represented within the Jewish state. In the Jewish community the state of Israel represents more than overt expressions of institutional religion.

What it means to be Jewish is a perennial issue in Jewish history. Yet after the Holocaust and after the creation of the Jewish state of Israel, even the religious part of Jewish identity has shifted. With the assumption of political and military power in Israel and America, Jewish religiosity is no longer a place of refuge where Jews affirm their identity in a larger, mostly hostile, surrounding culture. The new challenge facing Jews is what religiosity means in an empowered Jewish state.

Jews are learning, albeit reluctantly, that Israel is like other states when it uses it power for its own advantage. American Jews have largely sat on the sidelines of the great political and ethical challenges facing the Jewish state. Rather than engaging in criticism of Israeli abuses of power in relation to Palestinians, American Jews have been enablers of these policies. This is true at least of the leadership of American Jewish religious institutions.

Jewishness has often come in a bundle of ethnicity, religion and nationality. Rarely in Jewish history has nationality been tied in a material way to territorial settlement in the land of Israel. The overwhelming arc of Jewish history has played itself out in the Diaspora. But with Israel, this territorial tie now seems clearly defined, the religious debate about Jewish identity may represent an unannounced challenge to this definition. Perhaps the continual struggle over authentic Jewish religion in Israel is partly a sense that Judaism and thus Jewish life is not so connected or at least subsumed under the rubric of a Jewish state. Why else would American Jews care so much about what part of Jewish religion carries the day in Israel?

Yet playing Jewish identity out in a struggle about religiosity may be misplaced. This is especially the case now when Judaism in its various forms has conformed to power–whether in Israel or the United States–as the way forward for the Jewish community. After the Holocaust, Jews have decided that having and linking with empire power is the way to flourish in a world that has often been hostile to Jewish life.

Still, what religion can mean in such a situation is becoming an open wound. Jews who oppose empire in all its forms, including Jewish empire power, are hardly interested in this Orthodox/liberal religion debate. For these Jews any religion worth embracing is one that actively promotes justice. Perhaps they are embracing the oldest form of Jewish religiosity.

Regardless of the Israeli Supreme Court rulings, the political facts on the Israeli/Palestinian ground will ultimately determine the true religion of contemporary Jews or at least its ethical content or lack thereof. Here the ultimate judge will be history rather than God. In the Biblical text, prayer without justice is the height of blasphemy. Injustice renders the “authentic” religion discussion moot. This prophetic sense places the ongoing liberalization of Jewish religion in Israel in its proper perspective for Israeli Jews and American Jews as well. For without justice for Palestinians, what does it mean for Jews to pray to God?
Marc H. Ellis is author of over 20 books on Jewish identity and global spirituality, most recently Encountering the Jewish Future. He has recently retired as University Professor of Jewish Studies at Baylor University and is now Distinguished Visiting Professor at the University for Peace in San Jose, Costa Rica.