Judaism by Proxy

by Maskil on 21 Apr 2009

The quotes below are from an excellent op-ed by Gideon Levy that appeared recently in the online edition of Haaretz. (OK, not THAT recently, but I’m a little behind, having been in Israel for a week and moved home almost immediately on my return. I’m now struggling to cope without my trusty ADSL connection.)

Orthodox society and its leadership should not be blamed for this. The Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox have the right to do everything they can to impose their faith on the secular majority. It’s the secular who are to blame. Just as it’s not yeshiva students’ fault that they are not drafted, but rather the fault of the secular majority that allows this, so it is with the other aspects of our lives. We, the secular people, are to blame for all this. We’re the ones who give in. Just as with the tyranny of another minority, the settlers, who terrorize the majority, so it is with the tyranny of the ultra-Orthodox: The tyranny exists because the secular majority has chosen to obey it.

So don’t come complaining to the religious people. The secular are the majority, and the power to change the picture is in their hands. If the majority were to stand up and not surrender to the minority, buses would run every day and bread would be sold on Passover. So it could be we are much more religious than we are willing to admit. We may maintain the image of being secular, but we are religious in our essence.

If only we were willing to admit this and stop pretending to be secular. All the same, a society that pretends to be Western and enlightened cannot delude itself while maintaining such a religious and unenlightened lifestyle. Not much has changed since our school days, when we were taught to kiss a Bible that dropped on the floor. So let’s enjoy the taste of the matzah and let’s not try to pull a beer bottle out from behind the ridiculous nylon on the supermarket shelf, and let’s admit it: We are (almost) a state governed by religious law.

I can find almost nothing to disagree with in the piece. Having said that, however, below are a few minor points I’d like to add to the discussion.

  • We – the secular (and also, very importantly, the progressive) majority do have only ourselves to blame for the current situation regarding religion and state in Israel. Given that, however, there are some things that could be said in mitigation:
  • Some of the very earliest concessions to Orthodoxy were simply inherited from the legal and social structures of the Ottoman and Mandatory regimes. They were never updated, however, to mirror the real world diversity of Jewish life, reflecting only the outdated Ashkenazi/Sephardi distinction, rather than the more significant Masorti/Orthodox/Progressive ones.
  • At the time that the earlier concessions were made to Orthodoxy, religion in general (and perhaps Judaism in particular) were in retreat before the forces of secularism and Zionism. The ocean of Jewish religious life in (particularly) Eastern Europe had been drained, and only a few could foresee that Orthodoxy was capable of making a comeback and throwing its yoke over Israel.
  • Because religion was seen as a spent force, Zionism as a whole never seriously attempted to define a modus vivendi between religion and state or society. We are today paying the price for this “laissez-faire” attitude.
  • The Orthodoxy of days gone by was far more in tune with spirit of the Zionist enterprise and the needs of a modern society than the backward kleptocracy that maintains its hold over the public and personal lives of Israeli citizens today.
  • Israel has always had to contend with a long laundry list of pressing issues, particularly on the security front. These seemingly more urgent and important issues conspired to keep the issues relating to religion and state in the background.
  • The Israeli electoral and political system must also carry at least some of the blame for the situation. It will be very difficult for Israel to become a secular society without radical changes to that system, and there are many entrenched interests that would like to keep the system intact.

Finally, we need to get to grips with the “Judaism by proxy” phenomenon that secular, traditional and (to a much lesser extent) progressive (Masorti and Reform) Jews display. Judaism by proxy is akin to a guilt feeling, and goes something like this: “While we may not be practicing Judaism in the way our ancestors and martyrs did, there are some folks who are still doing things the old way. Let’s leave Judaism in their hands for now. They’ll make sure nothing changes, and maybe one day we’ll get it back from them again”. That, in a nutshell, is Judaism by proxy, and it may well be the most serious obstacle to establishing a normal, healthy relationship between religion and society in Israel.

I can only hope that, as we begin to reclaim a diverse, fluid Judaism from the dead hands of its ultra-Orthodox caretakers, we’ll understand and reject the trap of Judaism by proxy, and demand a more just, pluralistic and open relationship between Judaism in all its forms, Jewish society in Israel and abroad, and the State of Israel. This more mature Judaism will realise that it does not need its hands on the levers of power in order to thrive. Until that day comes, constant vigilance will be needed to ensure there is no further deterioration in the situation.

Gideon Levy / The dark religious side of Israel – Haaretz – Israel News

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