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SIDIC Periodical IX - 1976/1
The Complex Reality of Judaism (Pages 04 - 12)

Other articles from this issue | Version in English | Version in French

The complexity of contemporary judaism
Kurt Hruby


The section of Christianity that has recognized the importance of the phenomenon and of the existence of Judaism — and hence, thanks to this recognition, of the Christian heritage and of its present implications — is minimal. More often than not it sees this same Judaism, with which it seeks to enter into contact and establish a dialogue, as a monolithic depository of Jewish values and traditions.

However, it is never easy to approach a given reality on the level of generalizations without running the risk of attaining only a very limited understanding of it. This observation is particularly true of Judaism today; it is a reality that is complex in more than one respect and difficult to apprehend in its true dimension. Christians who are sensitive to the necessity of seeing Judaism not in a purely historical perspective but, according to the apostle Paul (Rom. 11:18) as « the root that supports us », speak of it as though it were a precise entity, clearly defined, obedient to the criteria often applied to it by analogy with other religions and spiritual systems.

Already at this level a first ambiguity can be discerned: it is true that Judaism is an essentially spiritual reality, but it is not only that, since it cannot be conceived without its human basis commonly called the Jewish people.

By the very fact of using the term « people » for want of a better, and without any intention of giving it too precise a content, we are immediately up against another difficulty: if today the majority of Jews consider themselves incontestably members of the Jewish people, there are others who refuse this identification and feel that their links with Judaism are purely spiritual. We must be extremely careful when speaking of Judaism not to seek to define at all costs that which, by its very nature, eludes all current definition, and not to apply to it criteria which manifestly do not fit it.

To have a true idea of Jewish reality it is absolutely indispensable to listen to the Jewish phenomenon and to try to grasp it, as far as possible, from within, in its complexity and in its diversity. These factors are among its chief riches and they are at the same time signs of a vitality never lost during the whole of its long existence. Any other approach to Judaism risks arriving at a result which corresponds with our own conceptions which, because they are made from the outside and unconsciously transported to the inside, remain foreign to its reality.

This is equally true in the field of theological research properly so-called. It has often been said, with a certain amount of justice, that Judaism, unlike traditional Christianity, is « a-theological ». Here again, it is obviously easier to make statements than to specify.

It is true that the chief preoccupation of Judaism, contrary to that of traditional Christianity, is less with the purely theological content of divine revelation than with the fidelity, with the concrete means traced by God in revelation for his people, and hence for humanity, of which this people is the prototype. This <4 a-theological » character is proved by the fact that Judaism has never felt any need to define and to dogmatize the content of its faith. Any efforts made in this direction both by religious philosophers of the Middle Ages and by certain modern authors remain, when all has been said, very marginal and at bottom very « unJewish ». This somewhat undogmatic characteristic of Judaism undoubtedly gives it great flexibility, and also a great power of adaptation to different situations. However we must not hastily conclude on this account that Judaism is only a vague form of deism without any specifically religious principles. This would be to misunderstand it fundamentally.

Fr. Kurt Hruby is professor at the Institut Catholique in Paris. Among his writings are several books in the series Schriften zur Judentumskunde », including the volume Die Stellung der jiidischen Gesetzeslehrer zur werdenden Kirche (The attitude of rabbinic authors towards the early Church) published by Theologischer Verlag, Zurich (1971).

It has always been very difficult to say what precisely are the elements which Judaism can abandon without risking the loss of its own identity. It is principally in this field that there arose in the last century those disputes within Judaism itself which created a situation very different from that which had prevailed for centuries before.


It has been suggested, with a certain amount of truth, that from the point of view of its existence, and hence also that of its spiritual evolution, the Jewish element came out of the Middle Ages only after the civil emancipation which it attained progressively in Central and Eastern Europe after the French Revolution. This does not, however, mean that Judaism in the course of its existence evolved in isolation. At every level of its existence it has always been deeply involved in the great intellectual and cultural movements that have influenced the society in which it was developing at any precise moment of its history. This is true of the biblical period when it was gradually emerging as a spiritual and cultural entity in its own right, of the hellenistic period when in the developing diaspora it made its own the acquisition of Greek culture, and of the first centuries of the Muslim period when outstanding Jewish thinkers reformulated the whole spiritual patrimony of the nation, relying closely on Islamic theology and hence on the philosophical thought of antiquity by which it was very largely inspired.

However, this period of experience ended on the one hand by the decline of Islamo-Arabic culture, especially in Spain, and on the other by the progressive deterioration of the living conditions of the Jewish people in Christian countries. Thus Judaism was henceforth driven to develop both spiritually and culturally in isolation; but this was a situation imposed from without, not a phenomenon to be attributed to its own conception of life. Just because of this situation, Judaism was to structure its life more and more in conformity with its own needs without taking into account the evolution that had taken place in the society about it, a society that had relegated it to the extreme periphery of social life. This evolution ended in the sixteenth century with the appearance of the Shulhan Arukh which henceforth was to be normative for the whole of traditional rabbinic legislation. At the same time — we refer to a phenomenon whose beginnings go back to the twelfth century — there occurred a kind of «flight to the interior* which expressed itself in a powerful mystical and esoteric movement which,from the sixteenth century onward, was to dominate for a long time practically the whole of Jewish life.

It would dearly be erroneous to think that this isolation on the part of the Jews was total. Even during this period there was always intellectual contact between them and the groups around them. This was particularly true during the periods of humanism and of the Renaissance. However, the frequency and intensity of these contacts in any particular country depended of necessity on the conditions imposed on the Jews. Wherever they were treated with a degree of liberalism as in Holland, England after Cromwell, and in certain parts of Italy, they tended quite naturally to show an active interest in the cultural evolution taking place around them.


After the adoption of the principle of civil emancipation for Jews, proclaimed for the first time during the French Revolution, this medieval situation, already broken through at least intellectually by the Enlightenment and the followers of Moses Mendelssohn in Germany (1729-1786), was to undergo an extremely rapid evolution. On this level there very soon arose a problem that Judaism had never before had to face: the problem of its own identity as a separate body.

This evolution is closely bound up with that of modern society which is becoming ever more pluralistic; differentiation on the spiritual plane alone will no longer suffice to make a religious group appear foreign to the rest of a nation. Even at the time of the most advanced cultural integration with the non-Jewish environment, as in the Alexandrine diaspora and later in Muslim Spain, the fact that the Jews were a group apart was never contested; the very conception of society which was that of antiquity and of the Middle Ages was radically opposed to such contestation. Until modern emancipation, Jews were distinguished from their non-Jewish environment not only by their spiritual orientation: either because of this or because of the discriminatory measures imposed on them from without, they had everywhere developed « Jewish languages » (such as Jewish-German, Jewish-Spanish, Jewish-Arabic, etc.). They were distinguished also by their dress; more often than not they were obliged to live in districts set apart for them though they had in general very great freedom of organization within their communities. It followed that at all levels of life the individual was firmly enclosed in the Jewish community which regulated almost the whole of his life and from which he could free himself only by apostasy.

In the countries influenced by emancipation these structures were to collapse completely after about ten years, though it is true that everywhere Jews had to struggle to obtain the benefits of civil emancipation. But what interests us here is not so much the progress of this struggle as the principle underlying it: the integration of the Jewish element into the surrounding society, so that henceforth the only criterion of differentiation would be a purely spiritual one, considered in principle if not in fact by the philosophy of the time as affecting only the conscience of the individual, without any influence on his solidarity with the nation as a whole and hence on his total membership in it.

For the Jews this new situation posed numerous problems. It in fact challenges one of the major principles of Jewish existence, that of the kelal Yisrael: the solidarity of all Jews as an entity before the exigences of the divine law that constitutes its basis. This supposes consciousness not only of a common history but also, and still more, of a common destiny linked with an evolution seen as inscribed in the very plan of God, and comprising a body of concrete practical applications affecting the people as a whole. What then becomes of this destiny and these applications for a Judaism henceforth fragmented into many national communities whose aspirations are lost in a non-Jewish environment? Is the notion of « the solely religious community », which is henceforth the status of the Jewish community in the modern state, compatible with the very genius of Judaism? Is it compatible with the conception of a Judaism which, far from being limited to the religious option of a single individual, sees itself as controlling the whole of life? It is true that this control is exercised through the mouthpiece of an essentially spiritual patrimony, which from the viewpoint of its concrete implications nevertheless goes beyond this patrimony. It is at this level that the agonizing question arises: what exactly are the principles that must at any cost be maintained if Jewish identity is to be safeguarded?

During the whole of the nineteenth century the evolution of Judaism was to depend on the answer given to the various aspects of this question. During the first phase the partisans of total reform of Jewish life and the unconditional traditionalists had a somewhat violent confrontation. For the partisans of reform, emancipation had meant the immediate entry of Judaism into a new era, that of universal brotherhood and the spiritual promotion of humanity. Is not its true vocation and its true function precisely to promote such an evolution? Does not this evolution, stripped of all « mythological » elements, constitute the beginnings of what both the prophets of Israel and ancestral tradition call the « messianic times »? Henceforth the duty ofthe Jewish element is to become totally integrated into the life of the peoples who accept the possibility of integration, to share their aspirations and in all matters to prove its solidarity with them. The Jewish element must of course safeguard its own spiritual orientation but, in a situation so profoundly changed from what it had been, this orientation should free itself from all historical particularism which, though understandable, is henceforth outmoded. Of course the Bible is the word of God but this word must not remain dependent upon the situation that prevailed two thousand years ago. It must be reinterpreted in the light of the present situation and adapted to it. Many elements of the Bible do indeed apply to the existence of the Jewish people in its own country, but all this is over and done with: Jews are henceforth integrated into their non-Jewish environment and no longer desire political systems peculiar to themselves. In the same way all prescriptions concerning food, dress, etc., aimed at making barriers between Jews and non-Jews, are no longer relevant. Rabbinic legislation which during the centuries has reinforced these prescriptions and thus established a more rigid separation from the non-Jewish environment, is merely the expression of widely differing historical situations and not, as traditionalists claim, divine law having the same authority as that of the Bible.

The traditionalists consistently dismiss this view which basically excludes almost all the elements hitherto considered fundamental to Judaism. For them the forms adopted by Jewish life during its evolution and which were finally codified in the prescriptions of the Shulhan Arukh are not only the result of an historical process and hence susceptible of change; they are the authentic and immutable expression of life lived under the authority of the Torah and thus inextricably bound to the very raison d'ętre of the Jewish people. To sacrifice the venerable structure of traditional Jewish life with its multiple aspects would be to empty Judaism of its substance and condemn it to a speedy end. For them, what is presented as Judaism by the exponents of reform has nothing in common with the fundamental inspiration and the authentic heritage of Judaism.

During the first phase of confrontation between two such irreconcilable attitudes no compromise seemed possible. The traditionalist positions were certainly not without logic and cohesion. However, they took almost no account of a factor that was nevertheless capital: the profound change that had occurred in the very conditions of existence. The traditional way of life, according to them the sole guarantee for the safeguarding of Jewish values, was part of a general situation which had totally and irrevocably changed. The old community framework had very largely disappeared, and with it the traditional system of education which had for centuries assured the transmission of Jewish spiritual and cultural values. With the rapid and spectacular diminution of awareness of its traditional heritage, Jewish consciousness had also diminished. By attending the same schools as their non-Jewish counterparts, young Jews had immediately entered another cultural world with criteria and values very different from those handed down to them by their ancestral system. Jewish tradition, as we have already said, in its concern for the preservation of its own values and for the avoidance of all contamination through morals incompatible with these values, had set up numerous barriers in the realm of relations with non-Jews; now, from the very fact of emancipation, association with the surrounding society had become the common practice. Because the Jews had freed themselves from their centuries-old isolation and had henceforth a certain measure of representation in all spheres of ordinary life, the old barriers were no longer needed. Moreover, how was it possible on the one hand to claim a share in the life of a people and on the other to refuse a full participation in this life? Such an attitude would have been not only illogical but senseless. It is true that certain traditionalists were of the opinion that this integration should be opposed in order to safeguard what they considered the only valid form of Jewish life, and the only form that accorded with the law of tradition.

In the countries affected, this evolution was marked by a very rapid and constant regression from the traditional standards of Jewish life. Since it had henceforth become necessary to live like everybody else according to a way of life that was not at all specifically Jewish, many traditional observances such as the dietary laws, respect for the Sabbath, etc., were progressively neglected. Judaism seemed to be on a dangerous slope, in danger of losing all its substance. In these circumstances, which were becoming more and more general, the clamor of the traditionalists advocating as the ideal a past that was over and done with, were simply anachronistic.


Alarmed by the realization of this loss of the permanent substance of Judaism — many Jews having accepted baptism and broken definitely with ancestral tradition — some outstanding men conscious of the inherent danger of the situation began to look for solutions that could stem this fatal evolution. Though aware of the imperative necessity of applying radical reforms to Jewish life as a whole, they were anxious to proceed methodically and to avoid chaotic development.

Toward the middle of the nineteenth century a series of rabbinical conferences was convoked with the aim of working out these solutions. Later the conferences were sufficiently enlarged to become synods with a relatively high proportion of lay people ». (Such terminology has no meaning for Judaism which, since the destruction of the Temple, has had no clergy in the Christian sense. These lay people were simply individuals who had not made the traditional advanced studies.) The method was adopted to give the reforms a solid basis and maximum authority. Since the members of the traditionalist party refused to attend them, these conferences were representative of the reform party only. Moreover they very soon realized the great difficulty of touching the traditional system without shaking the very foundations of Judaism. In theory the most radical representatives of the reforming element never ceased stressing the outdated character of traditional Jewish law, but in practice they made a point of justifying the reforms they proposed by continual reference to this law. In such conditions it is not to be wondered at that the results obtained were somewhat poor and almost exclusively confined to synagogal worship. In practice the conferences dared not make any really firm decisions on other much more important matters.

The Revolution of 1848 which brought to the Jews in most countries of Central and Western Europe civil liberties so far denied them, is a landmark in this respect. A period of relative stability succeeded that of struggle and opposition that was often violent. The suggestions for radical reform, of which the most active proponents were Samuel Holdheim (1806-1860) and Abraham Geiger (1810-1874), achieved relatively little success and were put into practice only by isolated pilot groups. Most of the communities underwent a moderate influence represented by Ludwig Philippson (1811-1889), the initiator of the rabbinic conferences. More often than not there was concern to avoid all that could look like too sharp a rupture with the past. This tendency in its turn was to be given ideological structures by Zacharias Frankel (1801-1875) who in 1853 founded the rabbinical seminary of Breslau, the first modern institution of its kind.

On the traditionalist side a renewal took shape with Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888). His merit was to recognize very clearly that the struggle maintained by the leaders of the old orthodoxy against modern ideas and the actual situation of Judaism was doomed in advance to failure. For this reason he propounded the necessity of making use of these ideas to rebuild a Judaism faithful to its traditions and express its principles in deliberately modern concepts and language.

In the second half of the nineteenth century the situation of the Judaism that had been born of emancipation was gradually stabilized. The religious tendency that officially prevailed in the majority of communities was a conservatism more or less tinged, according to locality, with certain ideas dear to the reformers. Side by side with this were groups that had undertaken extremist reforms. On the fringe were certain « Orthodox » communities that had subsisted or been reorganized — either within the large communities, as separate groups with their own institutions, or independently. They were called « Orthodox » to distinguish them from other tendencies, but this name has no meaning for Judaism.

Within these tendencies, with the exception to a certain extent of Orthodoxy, the situation from one community to another of ten varied greatly. It goes without saying that what we have just said concerns community structures only. In these the individual was, clearly, absolutely free to adopt or to reject the lines of the community framework.


This outline of the rapid evolution of the Jewish world in the first half of the nineteenth century is, as we have stressed, applicable to Central and Western Europe only. The situation was quite different in the countries of Eastern Europe where the majority of Jews was to be found. Most of these regions were then under Russian rule. The czarist government, after a little initial trifling, proved itself resolutely opposed to all idea of civil emancipation for Jews. The situation had even deteriorated because, with the exception of a small but fortunate minority, later to be affected by assimilation, the government tended to concentrate the Jews in certain districts where they alone had the right to live.

Thus, East European Judaism kept, on the whole, to its traditional structures and, with these, to its own culture. The most advanced milieux were certainly influenced by the Haskalah (Enlightenment), and often withdrew from the traditional way of life. However this orientation was not generally expressed by cultural assimilation with the environment, impossible in the circumstances, but by a renewal of Jewish culture.

With the progress of industrialization there gradually grew up around the big urban centers a Jewish proletariat, even a sub-proletariat. This section of the Jewish population was influenced by socialist ideas. It tended to develop a new type of Jewish culture deliberately « lay », that is to say, cut off from the old culture which was exclusively centered on the religious heritage. The focus of Jewish consciousness was now Yiddish (Jewish-German), the current language of the masses. It was, moreover, at this time that Yiddish, so far only a popular idiom, emerged as a literary language.

Although political conditions differed, the Jewish situation was about the same in Austrian Galicia and in other eastern regions under Hapsburg domination. This included the regions to the north and east of Hungary, that is to say, almost all the places where Hasidism, the latest of the great movements of spiritual renewal in Judaism, had spread. It came under attack from the followers of the modern ideas. Obviously they could see in it nothing more than a form of retarded obscurantism (since popular Hasidism revels in a permanent atmosphere of the marvelous and of the miracles worked by its spiritual leaders, the tsaddikim), so it too became a bastion of Jewish orthodoxy. Hungary was very divided at this level between modern influences and a strong traditionalist element, so that when the time came, conflict between these two irreconcilable tendencies split the Jewish community of the country into two. Henceforth there were to be two Jewish communities totally independent of each other, both recognized by the civil authorities.


The historical situation in Europe had in the end weighed too heavily on Jewish evolution to allow the tendency towards reform to have its full effect and really to assert itself. Many of the leaders of the movement, profoundly distressed by this situation, turned their backs on the old world, which offered them too problematical a scope, and settled in the United States. In this young country it was possible to make a new Jewish life without always coming up against forms of opposition which, although scattered, were nevertheless tenacious.

It was in the United States that Reform, or Progressive Judaism as it prefers to be called today, became a powerful movement under the dynamic influence of men such as David Einhorn (1809-1879), Isaac Meyer Wise (1819-1900) and Kaufmann Kohler (1843-1926). In the United States also an attempt was made to give it an ideological basis which seemed, in the first phase, to mark an almost irrevocable rupture with most of the traditional ideas (see the « Pittsburg Platform » of 1885, the work of K. Kohler). Reform Judaism developed rapidly and gave birth to some remarkable institutions such as its own rabbinical seminary, Hebrew Union College, founded in Cincinnati in 1875, and gained followers especially among Jews of German origin.
However, the very audacity of its ideological formulations very soon gave rise to opposition, opposition which increased with every influx of Russian Jewish immigrants who poured in after 1880 as a result of the pogroms in Russia. Thanks to this immigration there took root also in America a considerable Orthodox element. Because this element remained tied to the framework and structures of the country of its origin, it proved in the opinion of many Jews too little adapted to the conditions of a new life-style. Gradually a conservative body took shape which united fidelity to the principles of traditional values with a spirit of adaptation to American life and its exigences. The spiritual focus of this body was to be the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, reorganized and restructured at the beginning of this century by one of the greatest Jewish scholars of the period, Solomon Schechter (1850-1915). Schechter, however, opposed the idea of being the founder of a new Jewish movement. His ideal was to make it possible for the Judaism of all time, changeless in its profound inspiration, to find its place in contemporary America as it had formerly done in other cultures. Likewise a group of Orthodox Jews came out of isolation and founded such avowedly modern institutions as Yeshiva University.


In those countries where it was possible for Jews gradually to acquire civil rights and where they were offered the possibility of cultural and social integration, the assimilationist trend was favorably received by the immense majority of the Jewish population. This was particularly true of France, country of the Declaration of the Rights of Man, which was the first to proclaim the equality of Jews before the law. However, it must be said that this insertion of the Jewish element into the life of the nation, seen subjectively by the Jews as complete, had not in fact been ratified by their non-Jewish environment. In France the moment of truth came with the Dreyfus case (1896). Virulent anti-Jewish feeling which the case unleashed was powerfully exploited by the clerical press and divided France for a time into two camps: « Dreyfusites » and « anti-Dreyfusites ».

This event shocked the conscience of a Viennese journalist and writer, Theodore Herzl (1860-1904), then representing an important Austrian paper in Paris. It made him reflect deeply on the condition of the Jews and on the failure of assimilation. Impressed by what was then commonly known as « the Affair », Herzl published a book called The Jewish State in which he developed the thesis that the real cause of the anomaly of Jewish existence should be sought in the fact that for hundreds of years the Jewish people had been deprived of a national home. To put an end to the situation, the creation of a home was urgent. This book marks the birth of the modern Zionist movement. The first Zionist Congress took place in Basle as early as 1898. It is expressly stated in the programme drawn up for this occasion that Zionism intends to be a political movement and that it is opposed to any identification with religious ideas and the hopes historically connected with them.

An analysis of the evolution that the Zionist programme was to undergo is of supreme importance to highlight the complexity of the phenomenon of Judaism and the permanent influence everywhere exerted by a heritage essentially spiritual. Zionism was founded by men almost devoid of religious tradition properly so-called, and was conceived on a purely political basis. Yet, under pressure chiefly from the great body of Jews from Eastern Europe who had remained deeply marked by tradition, it was obliged to include in its programme a demand for the creation of a Jewish national home in Palestine. For the consciousness of Jews impregnated with traditional values who had never encountered the generous, strongly universalist and assimilationist ideas of the advocates of reform, it was indeed inconceivable that a Jewish national home should be created anywhere but in their ancestral land. Its memory had been constantly evoked in prayer during the centuries of exile, and according to tradition it was to be the scene of a new gathering in of the dispersed of the nation at the dawn of the messianic era.

Following the same line of thought it is interesting to record the reactions of the Jewish world of the day to Zionist ideas. Those who supported the Zionist programme did so for widely different reasons, as individuals, according to their personal choice, but the growing movement encountered the greatest mistrust, even sometimes avowed hostility, on the part of the adherents both of Reform and of Orthodoxy.

The adherents of Reform saw it as an obvious and ruthless return to a conception that seemed to them definitely outmoded. In the « Pittsburg Platform » (article five) this declaration appeared: « We recognize, in the modern era of universal culture of heart and intellect, the approaching of the realization of Israel's great messianic hope . . . We consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community, and therefore expect neither a return to Palestine . . . nor the restoration of any of the laws concerning the Jewish state. »

The Zionist programme was in fact both a recognition of the failure of assimilation and the end of the illusion that by integrating the Jewish element into other cultural spheres « the realization of Israel's great messianic hope * was being hastened. The leaders of the Reform had resolutely consigned to the realm of mythology all hope of reconstituting Judaism as a nation. This concept, formerly expressed in mythological terms, had now to be expressed in terms that conformed with the intellectual and spiritual development of modern times.

For the Orthodox the problem was more complex; the expectations connected with a restoration of the Jewish people were an indubitable postulate of divine revelation. Even here, however, there could be absolutely no question of « messianic doctrine » since, for tradition itself, there exist notable differences about the way in which these hopes are to be realized. Hence, from the start, one section of Orthodoxy refused all human interference in the achievements considered eschatological: it is for God alone to act when he sees fit, and man has only to await, with firm hope, the hour of divine intervention.

Another element of Jewish Orthodoxy had a different argument. It also could appeal to a certain tradition in support of its thesis according to which God always acts through the intermediary of man. Even with regard to the great achievements at the end of time, man can and must take the initiative, and in the measure in which it conforms with the design of Providence, this initiative will be ratified by God. However, it is unthinkable that in such a domain the initiative should be taken by « miscreants » whose life does not conform with the precepts of the Torah, and that a Jewish homeland in Palestine should be conceived as not based exclusively on the laws proclaimed in divine revelation.

These antagonisms on one side and on the other did not prevent either the representatives of Orthodoxy or the leaders of the Reform from becoming, as individuals, key people in the Zionist movement. Here also tensions were gradually attenuated by the concrete evolution of events. Thus at the 1937 rabbinic conference of Columbus, Reform Judaism in the United States adopted in its « Guiding Principles » an attitude to Zionist achievements in Palestine that was obviously positive. On a more general level these « principles * mark a clear break with the excesses of the first period of Reform and a return to much more traditional ideas.


This was the spectrum of tendencies present in Judaism on the eve of the events that were to be the cruelest trial of its long and painful history. One can speak only of tendencies because no matter how bitter were the struggles at any given moment they had no real effect on the profound unity of the kelal Yisrael, the Jewish community — the word « communion >> would perhaps be more suitable — and did not call into question a solidarity difficult to define but nonetheless real. The reason for this is that theological consider-ations, with all the shades of meaning with which we have invested them where Judaism is concerned, cannot have a real effect on an ensemble of which theology is only one dimension, and that not always the most important. Here once again we touch upon the eminently complex character of Jewish existence which always resists any attempt at categorizing it.

It is true that Judaism appears historically as a predominantly religious entity having been formed and fashioned by an essentially religious heritage. To deny this would be to disregard the importance of the religious element, for Jewish identity is defined in terms of its attachment to its heritage. However, Judaism in itself is not at all exacting about the attitude of the individual towards this heritage. The sole « theological » principle it has formulated is expressed in the Shema Yisrael (Deut. 6: 4): «Hear 0 Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one. » This principle is therefore the recognition of the absolute oneness of God and, at least implicitly, of all that for Jewish existence follows from it. This recognition can on occasion be tacit and take the form of a categorical non-negation. However, anybody effectively questioning the statement would by the very fact become kofer ba-ikkar, « a denier of the fundamental principle ». Yet from the point of view of the Jewish community, even this would not mean a definitive break with the destiny of Judaism. « Even if he is a sinner he is still a Jew, » says the talmudic tradition on this point (Sanhedrin 44a).

Thus the fact of being Jewish seems like an ontological datum based on very composite criteria and subsisting even when these criteria become almost imperceptible. This also explains the infinite variety of ways in which one can claim to be a Jew, even outside strictly religious criteria. There can never be any question of denying primary importance to the religious dimension, but this dimension must not be conceived as immutably and forever expressed by certain traditional formulae.

The events between 1939 and 1945 marked the end, at least existentially, of a beautiful dream and of a dangerous illusion. Everything that since emancipation had been considered unquestionably attained was brutally contested, and the outburst of anti-Jewish feeling resulted in the physical extermination of the Jewish element. It is understandable that the reaction of a human group having lost a third of its members in an upheaval of apocalyptic proportions should remain branded by this experience of which all Jews were the victims, no matter from where they came, simply because they were Jews.

For the survivors of the Holocaust the experience unleashed agonizing reflection on the mysterious and indefinable Jewish identity which had caused such a disaster. Against the background of this traumatic experience the successful efforts of the Zionist movement to create a Jewish state in Palestine necessarily appeared as the reaction of the vitality of the Jewish people to the attempt to annihilate them. Here lies the profound meaning of this event at the level of Jewish consciousness, and for this reason every Jew is henceforward concerned positively or negatively with the existence of this state thanks to which Judaism attains a new dimension of existence. To recognize this by no means implies adherence to any particular political idea, or identification with the concrete politics of the State of Israel. It does not imply an attempt to make all Jews into potential Zionists, nor does it deny the importance and the necessity of the Jewish diaspora. To understand the meaning of this event on the level of Jewish existence as a whole, we must look beyond the purely political and attain a different dimension.

From the strictly religious point of view the meaning of the Holocaust of the Jewish people will for ever remain impenetrable. From individuals it has called forth two diametrically opposed reactions: a realization of the impossibility of what has justly been called a « theology after Auschwitz », and a quest for interiorization and renewed spiritual fervor. Both attitudes have been effectively registered but neither has had a decisive influence on the Jewish world as a whole. This world, in accordance with its own particular genius, has once again found a third way, the way of life and of a seeking — often dispersed but nevertheless very perceptible — for a new expression of Jewish identity in which the existence of a Jewish state henceforth established constitutes incontestably a major element.


We have spoken directly of a Jewish state using current terminology and not defining the adjective. In what measure is this state really « Jewish » in the eyes of Jewish tradition? Does it, from this point of view, correspond with the hopes of generations of pious Jews?

Once again, this question asked in this way has no meaning for Judaism. What is in fact essential is not to know exactly how this state defines itself but to know that it exists. As for its Jewish character, it suffices that it has been founded by Jews, is in large measure inhabited by Jews and is established in a land with which the Jewish people has particular and incontestable historical links. The existence of this state has moreover sufficed to demolish the majority of reservations formulated by numerous Orthodox groups in its regard.

From the point of view of the « theological » position of Judaism, the State of Israel reproduces all thecharacteristic contradictions that are apparent in Judaism. According to the will of those who were the instruments of its creation, the majority of whom did not belong to religious Judaism, it is a modern pluralist state whose legislation is not that of the Torah and of tradition. From the beginning the qualification «Jewish » state has provoked numerous difficulties because it is imprecise. When, through force of circumstances, qualifications were sought, they necessarily relapsed into the usual pattern of religious law because it was soon realized that at the present stage of evolution there exists no other valid criterion of «Jewishness ».

The result of this situation is that in this modern « lay >> state all that concerns Jewish identity properly so-called continues to be governed exclusively by religious law. However, so as not to close the door to possible evolution, and to avoid endless dissension, the state has no constitution. Moreover, the percentage of those in it who consider religious law as the norm of life is certainly no higher than in the other Jewish communities throughout the world.

Another apparent contradiction consists in the fact that to justify the right of the Jewish people to possess a state in Palestine, even the groups that call themselves a-religious appeal quite naturally to the Bible. It can certainly be considered as a purely historical document and « demythologized », but it nevertheless remains true that it is difficult to empty it of all its irrational elements. Moreover, do we really want to remove them? What is the true meaning, on the level of Judaism, of the claim to be « a-religious »? It is often not so much denial of the supernatural as opposition to the traditional forms of Jewish religion. In this respect what happened in Israel in 1967 is highly significant: at that time there was a real communion in shared mystical exaltation between those who were consciously religious and those who were resolutely a-religious. This is dearly beyond any attitude that can be analysed according to rational criteria. We have quoted all these examples not to pass any kind of judgment on the intrinsic value of these positions, but to stress precisely the extreme complexity and the diverse character of the phenomenon.


Seen from the outside, Judaism always appears to be divided into several groups or spiritual tendencies, and these groups always bear the same labels: Orthodox, Conservative or Progressive. There is antagonism between the groups themselves; the Orthodox always consider the others as more or less unauthentic with regard to Jewish tradition. All attempts to unite these groups or to find a common denominator would still today encounter rejection by the Orthodox. This actually happened when the Minister for Religious Affairs of the State of Israel cherished the idea of convoking a pan-Jewish « Sanhedrin » to find agreed solutions to many questions that were, from the point of view of rabbinic legislation, very delicate.

However, events have profoundly changed the general atmosphere, and those within the different groups who see most clearly are decidedly conscious of dependence on an actual situation that in its turn is already anachronistic and superseded by the Jewish reality of today. Over and above this fragmentation of Judaism inherited from the conditions peculiar to the nineteenth century, there is everywhere apparent a powerful movement towards integration centered on the idea of Jewish identity. It is in this sense that today Judaism can be said to be passing through an important period of change. After the trials of assimilation, of internal division, of physical extermination and of national resurrection, Judaism is incontestably seeking its unity. The center of this unity is also its chief catalyst, and it can be none other than the Jewish state which, from this point of view, is called to become what it is destined to be — the spiritual center of the Jewish people. If Judaism is to fulfil its mission to humanity, a mission whichwill always have a universalist implication, it cannot renounce its identity without consenting to its own annihilation. The quest for this identity is always necessary precisely because situations change rapidly, but no matter what form it takes it must never be confused with ordinary « nationalism », even if sometimes it has momentarily looked like it. At every level the fundamental demand of the Jewish way is for a Jewish existence.

All this will probably take a long time and has yet to encounter many difficulties of all kinds, but it too is the logical consequence of the laws of evolution. This quest has an incontestably theological dimension, in the sense that when completed it will enable Judaism to accomplish its task within the universe more efficaciously, in conformity with its unique raison d'ętre. This task must be accomplished both consciously and unconsciously; for thus will Judaism always be a « messianic » leaven no matter how it may interpret its own task during the different phases of Jewish existence. The « theological » value of Judaism does not reside in a list of definitions but exclusively in its own existence, together with all the elements of the first revelation of which it is the channel, and with all the power of resurrection which it manifests during the course of its history as a permanent sign of the call and of the fidelity of God.


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