Amos Oz, the distinguished Israeli writer, speaking recently in Jerusalem, argued that the past belongs to us, but we don’t belong to the past. Though he may not have had religion in mind, his formulation well reflects what most religious streams in contemporary Judaism are about.
Exponents of modern Judaism know that to be authentic, they must be rooted in the past, but to be relevant, they must reflect the present. The non-fundamentalist streams may each have different ways of mixing tradition and modernity, but none wants to ignore either.
Even Jewish secularists who may wish to reject what they deem to be antiquated and irrelevant religion need the Jewish past to be able to express themselves as Jews.
Similarly, those whom we know as modern Orthodox and are committed to the past see themselves in the context of the present. They differ fundamentally from those who claim total adherence to the past, as per the oft-quoted dictum by the Chatam Sofer (1762-1839) that everything new is forbidden by the Torah.
Though Israel as a modern democracy largely functions according to Oz’s formula, with most of its religious, intellectual and social movements reflecting it, two kinds of Judaism there seem bent on negating the present. One is ultra-Orthodox (haredi), the other ultra-nationalist.
For all their zeal and passion, both constitute a danger to the future of the state. You only have to walk through a haredi neighbourhood to see the unrealistic efforts to recreate the past and ignore today’s world other than its technology. Even when they reap social and other benefits of the state, they resist contributing to it, for instance, by refusing to serve in the Israel Defence Forces.
The other kind of embracing the past and rejecting present realities is prevalent among religious nationalists. Unlike haredim, they’re part of the mainstream and are committed to the defence of the State of Israel. But the state that some, perhaps many, want is rooted in obsolete messianic ideas that fly in the face of what’s possible and just in our time. They can be found among the settlers in the West Bank as well as among extremists who harass Christian and Muslim holy places and fantasize about rebuilding the ancient Temple in Jerusalem.
Ironically, though both these ostensibly authentically Jewish streams seek to distance themselves from non-Jews, much of their ideology is influenced by contemporary radical manifestations in other faiths. Thus evangelicals in the United States hold corresponding views, albeit in a very different context, to both the ultra-Orthodox and the nationalists. And Muslim jihadists show uncanny similarities to the extremist elements in the national religious movement.
They all constitute a threat to Israel. Despite the evangelicals’ professed commitment to Israel, they may love Jews, but many hate Judaism and look forward to the time when we’ll all finally see the light and embrace Christianity. And jihadists are, of course, proud and eager to show the world that they’re our sworn enemies.
We’ve learned how to withstand onslaughts from without. There’s no danger of Jews embracing Christianity en masse. Similarly, contemporary Israel is strong enough to fight off attempts by Muslim extremists bent on its destruction.
But it’s less certain that Israel will remain a Jewish democratic state that’s rooted in the present. The danger comes from ultra-Orthodox and ultra-nationalist Jews, both gaining adherents and both bent on eradicating as much as they can of the open Israeli society. Their political arms, currently in the government, have displayed ominous signs to that effect. And once democracy goes, the very existence of Israel is in jeopardy.
That’s why all other streams in Judaism must disregard the differences between them to jointly defend that democracy. Diaspora support, currently too often favouring extremists in the guise of commitment to the Jewish state, must come together to make sure that the past remains ours, but that we don’t get lost in it.