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SIDIC Periodical IX - 1976/1
The Complex Reality of Judaism (Pages 13 - 20)

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

The complexity of Jewish existence
Jonathan Magonet


A Jew was once on a sea voyage when a storm broke out. The superstitious sailors determined by casting lots that he was responsible for the storm, but before throwing him overboard, being in their own way pious men, they tried to learn something about their strange passenger. Jonah, it seemed, was indeed responsible, not because he had offended some capricious sea god, but because he was running away from his vocation — to speak out on behalf of his God in a place he did not wish to visit. The sailors thus became the first of many whose puzzlement about the mysterious figure of the Jew has led them to try to pin down his elusive identity, and their questions seem a valid way of introducing a contemporary survey of the dimensions of this problem.

« What is your task? Where do you come from? What is your land? Of what people are you? » (Jonah 1:8).


The Hebrew word mal'achah is used to describe the daily routine work of mankind which must cease on the Sabbath day (Ex. 30:9). Yet the same root is used to describe the « messengers », both human and divine, who appear throughout the Old Testament: thus the question of the sailors concerns the « task», «vocation», even «mission» of the Jew.

Religious Jews recite daily at the conclusion of their prayers: « It is our task to praise the Lord of all, to acknowledge the greatness of him who formed the world in the beginning. » It was seen traditionally as the vocation of the Jew to give witness to the existence of God in the world, both by the daily affirmation of this fact and by the quality of the life he and his community lived. Yet the expression of this vocation has altered throughout the centuries, modified by the circumstances of the world around him.

The Bible has its own way of interpreting the originsof this task. The first chapters of Genesis record not only the creation of the world, but the constant rebellions of mankind against their Creator, resulting in the first great destruction with the flood, from which one man was saved because he exemplified the quality of « righteousness » (Gen. 6:9). But within a few generations the same decay had set in, and God, having promised never again to cause a total destruction, modified his plan. Again a single man would be chosen, but one whose qualities were to be tested far beyond anything Noah had experienced. His faithfulness and loyalty to God were to be refined, and above all he was to hand on to his children this quality of righteousness (Gen. 18:19). Thus Abraham was to become the model for the new humanity, and through his family, as it grew, all of mankind were to be reached and blessed. The book of Exodus and the rest of the Old Testament continue the drama on the larger scale of an emerging people and the developing association of that people with a particular « promised » land — for this is to be the model of an ideal society, obedient to God's laws, loyal to him alone, caring for each other both out of a sense of justice, and because of « loving their neighbor as themselves » — and ever aware that the land itself was theirs only « on loan » as « guests » of God (Lev. 25:23).

The history unfolds through the early days of tribal groupings and confederations, to the painful attempts to unify the people under a single king, to the growth of a minor empire under David and Solomon. The subsequent division into two kingdoms was judged by later writers as evidence of a serious failure that could only have led to the « punishment » which ensued: the Northern kingdom, Israel, fell to the Assyrians; the Southern one, Judah (from which name the term « Jew » was ultimately to emerge), to the Babylonians. This exile drew out different responses. The defeat of a nation could have been interpreted as the defeat of their « local » god by the more powerful one of their conqueror. But under the guidance of thinkers such as the anonymous writer preserved in the latter chapters of the Book of Isaiah, a remarkable inversion took place. The Babylonian victor was not all-powerful, but rather an agent of the God of Israel, sent to punish his wayward people. Thus a human defeat was turned into a spiritual victory. Further, although the universalistic implications of Israel's faith can be seen already in the earliest strands, the encounter with the wider world brought with it visions of a future time when all these vast nations would come to serve the One God.

This, on the face of it, is the sequence of events as the Bible records it. Naturally there lie behind it innumerable questions as to the history of the various elements that went into its composition — the traditional materials, their various editings and re-editings. What fascinates is the degree of self-criticism in this account, the evaluation of all human successes and failures in the light of a divine plan. And it is curious to see the Jews' own self-description as they step upon the world stage: a « stiff-necked », unwilling crowd, who harassed Moses throughout the wilderness period, wanted a « king » so as to be «just like everyone else », and almost lynched prophets like Jeremiah when he told them the truth about their situation. Yet that very stiffneckedness, once harnessed to the service of God, became a heroic quality of stubbornness and the will to live in the face of the continual assaults of the outside world throughout the millenia of Jewish existence.

This first phase of Jewish history ends with certain characteristic ideas that are to be continually recurrent in the subsequent generations. An awareness of a collective history that recalls their origin in the call to one man to serve God, and the redemption of a people from slavery. Thus the admonition « remember you were slaves in Egypt » has colored Jewish sensitivity to basic human rights and the demand for freedom. A sense of chosenness by the One God, « Creator of heaven and earth », who had proved his mastery of the nations of the earth. Indeed, Jewish history has been seen with a curious naive blindness as an ongoing dialogue between Israel and its God, into which private conversation the nations of the world may occasionally intrude. The Assyrian, Babylonian, Greek and Roman Empires rise and fall, but are significant only insofar as God uses them to aid or punish his « children», and this blindness can still allow Jews to be among themost sophisticated people on earth, yet also out of touch with serious changes in their immediate environment.

The returned exiles recreated their state as a small, powerless province of the Persian Empire. Under the Seleucid despot Antiochus Epiphanes there was a sudden dramatic return to independence under the Maccabees, but within a century this too was lost. Yet changes were underway that were to see the emergence of a radical new « Judaism » at the outset of the Christian era. The origins of these changes are obscure. We know of various religio-political factions struggling for power, and we know of their subsequent fate. With the failure of the revolt against Rome in 70 C.E. and the destruction of the Temple, the Sadducee party lost its raison d'ętre. Those who advocated military solutions were finally destroyed by the failure of the Bar Kochba revolt of 132-135 C.E. Various smaller sects, including the early Christians, broke off and went their separate ways. And the « Pharisees » became the leaders of « Rabbinic Judaism ». The Talmud records how Johanan ben Zakkai, leader of the peace party in Jerusalem, had himself smuggled out of the besieged Jerusalem and met with Vespasian. One of his requests was that he be allowed to found a small academy in Jabneh where he and his students could study their traditions. In this center, the foundations were laid for the next two thousand years of Jewish religious existence.

Three elements are worth noting. First, the democratizing of Judaism. With the end of the Temple came the end of the « priesthood » in all but a residual ritual manifestation. Any Jew could be designated to lead prayers, and prayer was the « service of the heart », the substitute for sacrifices that was now to be brought to God. Every family table became an altar, and every father performing the ritual with his family an officiating priest.

Secondly, authority in religious matters lay not with a hereditary priestly caste but with the rabbis, whose qualifications were their scholarly attainments and whose decisions were reached by democratic process. The term « religious » in this context requires a further statement. For Rabbinic Judaism saw no demarcation between « religious » and « profane » spheres of life — rather, all aspects of existence were potentially « holy », for all of life was lived out in the presence of God. Their work was the creation of a civilization that gave a clear identity to the Jew, administered a culture and community within different sorts of society, taught and preserved a unique way of life in the face of persecution and tyranny, periods of prosperity and worldly success, the challenges and inroads of different life-styles, philosophical and religious movements and pressures from without.

The third element which emerged full-blown in the Rabbinic period was an institution which probably did more than any other to create and sustain Jewish identity. The origins of the synagogue may have been in local gatherings of the exilic community in Babylon to study their traditions, to pray together and to arrange some organization for mutual aid. Certainly these three features became the characteristics of the institution as it subsequently developed, and it remains a focal point for the community today even when a large proportion of those who attend it would call themselves agnostic.

Jewish life became one of permanent exile, a journey from one place of sanctuary to the next throughout the entire world. Whereas Christianity, and later Islam, developed in the context of world powers, ruling vast empires, committed to spiritual and often territorial conquest, and subject to the temptations and corruptions of power, Judaism had to learn the art of survival. A Jewish joke tells of the three-day warning given before the arrival of a tidal wave. In the Catholic church the priest tells his flock to confess their sins and pray for forgiveness. The Protestant pastor asks his congregants to seek out those they might have wronged and try to make amends. The rabbi tells his congregation: « You have three days in which to learn to live underwater! » And the other side of this is the utter dependence upon the good will of the powers that be, which led to the development of the gallows humor so typically Jewish. Two Jews are facing a firing squad, and one asks his friend if he might request from the guard a final cigarette. Back comes the answer: « Don't make trouble! ».

Of the inner life of the Jew over a span of almost two millenia there is hardly space here to touch on more than a few aspects. The Middle Ages saw the systematizing of the open-ended legal discussions within the Talmud into codes of practice which were to become increasingly more fixed and formal. The challenges of the outside world led to the creation of philosophical systems, and mystical movements were also to develop. Frequently, too, great religious controversies split families and communities over several generations, sometimes leading to the creation of separate sects, like the Karaites, but more often ending in reconciliation when the issue became less central or external events intervened. Yet the most radical breaks in the system, with which the Jewish world is still trying to cope, came in the aftermath of Napoleon's march through Europe. The new possibilities of emancipation, the challenges of the Enlightenment, broke forcibly the old inner cohesion and the Jews stepped out of the ghettos to embrace the modern world.

In the subsequent development, one can trace what seems to be an unconscious secularization of traditionalelements as the Jew tried to create for himself a home in this new world. Jewish messianism was compounded of several elements which are already traceable to Old Testament prophecy: the return to the land and the restoration of the great golden days of David's rule before the dissolution set in under Solomon; the universal recognition by the peoples of the One God; the pilgrimage of « many peoples » to Jerusalem to learn of the ways of God; the putting aside of the weapons of war so that universal peace would reign (Is. 2:3-4).

All these elements were to have sudden new significance in the post-emancipation Jewish world. For the new ideologies struck an immediate chord in Jewish hearts. A messianic dream of universal peace and brotherhood could lead to secular visions of a new unified humanity, classless societies, universal suffrage — thus Jews were in the ideological forefront, and among the most impassioned adherents, of the new liberal, socialist and communist movements. The same zeal for social justice, transported to the shores of the United States in the vast Jewish migration there from Eastern Europe about the turn of the century, found Jews in the forefront of the struggles to create labor unions, and a child of that milieu, Emma Lazarus, could compose the words upon the Statue of Liberty welcoming the immigrants to this new world:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost, to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

(The grandchildren of this generation were to be among the disproportionately high percentage of Jewish young people involved in the Freedom Marches in the Southern States — and among those who died for the cause. Most denied that their Judaism had anything to do with their presence there.)

Yet Jewish socialists could also embrace a nationalistic vision, and the beginnings of the Zionist movement, which sprang from several different ideological bases, could become a secular version of the religious hope for the ingathering of the exiles. Indeed the earliest opposition to the Zionists came from those orthodox religious groups which saw it (and indeed some of which still see it) as a profanation of God's name to try to fulfil the messianic promises before God's own good time.

The process of secularization had other dimensions. Jews had prided themselves on their concern for learning, and literacy was the norm in Jewish society throughout the Middle Ages. But learning par excellence meant the study of Talmud and associated religious texts and traditions. In the new society the hunger for learning turned to other areas, for the universities offered one of the doors into the world of intellectual discourse. Out of this encounter emerged one of the most fruitful marriages of Jewish intellect and Western thought — if one thinks immediately of the Freuds and Einsteins as exemplifying this synthesis, then one should multiply the list in every field of the arts, humanities and sciences. Yet, once again, the price was often a concurrent denial or negation of Judaism or one's Jewish background.

A curious sidelight of this is that precisely in these secular areas some sense of « mission », which had disappeared at the time of the rise of Christianity, returned to Jewish life. The Zionists saw themselves as bringing the benefits of civilization, by which they meant Western technology and culture, to the Middle East, and to some extent they still cannot understand why this should be rejected, let alone labelled as « imperialism ». The early Jewish socialists became the great activists for the new movements — and were also among the first to suffer martyrdom as repressive regimes replaced the early utopian visions. Indeed their position on the borderlines where visionary expectations encounter the harsh realities of mass societies, corrupt power, vested interest and totalitarianism, is perhaps the modern equivalent of the old prophetic stance.

In addition to these secular responses to emancipation, new religious adjustments had to be made. The movement out of the ghettos meant an emancipation from the restrictions of religious observance. For some Jews, at first, baptism was the necessary passport to the new world; but in time so radical a step was not needed as Jews entered the main cultural streams of Western society. Links with their Jewish past were maintained on a cultural, social or emotional basis, but as assimilation to a particular national culture increased, these ties became more peripheral, unless some resurgence of anti-Semitism forced a renewed awareness of Jewish origins. The religious response to this was two-fold. On the one side there emerged « Orthodoxy >>, a conservative reaction which tended to erect a psychological wall to replace the fallen physical wall of the ghetto. In the face of a massive defection, it drew strength from a re-working of the prophetic concept of the « righteous remnant » that will survive and prove to be the true bearer of God's word. Whatever the changes in the outside world no compromise could be made with the authentic, unbroken and unchanging chain of tradition handed down from Sinai. Its strength lay in the apparent security it gave and in the inner richness of Jewish ritual life. Yet its weakness has often been in its concentration upon « practice » alone, without encouraging on a popular level the regular study of tradition which gave life to these practices and elevatedthem from remaining a mere behaviorism devoid of meaning or of moral or ethical implications.

One must also recognize certain intrinsic problems in this position. What little flexibility and adaptability that remained in Jewish law had finally become virtually paralysed in the face of such radically new problems. The areas where Jewish law had authority were already severely diminished. In the Middle Ages Maimonides could still include in his codification of the law a section on the regulations pertaining to the Temple — but subsequent codices set these aside. Similarly, whole areas of criminal and civil law became largely redundant as Jews acquired citizenship, entered the mainstream of life about them, and shared fully the legal rights and obligations of their society. Indeed the only two areas where Jewish law could still be seen to function, and where rabbis still had some real authority and power, until the creation of the State of Israel raised new possibilities, were in matters of ritual practice and questions of status such as marriage, divorce and conversion. Sadly, the lack of security in the Orthodox world and the fear of initiative have effectively prevented the tackling of problems even within these areas.

Further inroads came with the new scientific studies of Bible and the history of religion. The former challenged the very basis of the concept of revelation, leading to an Orthodox response of refutations, apologetic commentaries, polemics and the inevitable appeal to faith as the last resort. The latter led to the growth of the « Science of Judaism » movement which subjected Jewish traditions to historical analysis and gave a semi-scientific basis to some of the criticism levelled by the early religious reformers — for the supposed monolithic structure of Jewish tradition and practice, all of equal significance and sanctity, could be seen in its historical development with elements added from the purest sources and yet also from the crudest medieval superstition and popular custom.

The second response was a movement for « Reform >> which began in Germany, fostered by a class of prosperous Jews who wished to combine the best of German culture with their Jewish religious identity. The first practical steps were in the area of ritual, where prayers in the vernacular and the use of the organ were introduced. Subsequently a re-examination of beliefs, rites, ceremonies and practices led to the removing of all things which seemed out of harmony with the spirit of modern thought. Reform saw itself as both a preservative influence, winning back to Judaism those Jews who might otherwise be lost to the secular world, and also as a rediscovering of those « prophetic » elements of the tradition which accorded with the universalistic optimism of the nineteenth century. The Messiah as a person disappeared, but surely they were even then standing at the dawn of a new « messianic » age. Its orthodox detractors saw it as a move towards assimilation and a way of throwing off the yoke of the commandments, but were sufficiently influenced by it to seek an uneasy reconciliation between traditional practices and beliefs and the contemporary world during the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Reform flourished in America in perhaps its most radical form, with Sabbath services held on Sunday in a few cases, and the abandonment of traditional elements such as headgear and prayer shawls. But such radical positions in turn led to reactions, particularly in the wake of the shocks to Jewry in this century, so that in America the spectrum of non-orthodox Judaism ranges from some extreme « left » (« classical ») Reform temples through a large middle ground where Reform overlaps with the « Conservative » movement (created at the turn of the century to «assert and establish loyalty to the Torah and its historical exposition »), to an orthoprax Conservatism, through to Orthodoxy, itself divided into groupings dependent on degrees of observance and traditions preserved from different countries and communities of origin. A wit has suggested that Orthodoxy runs the risk of being « irrelevant », Reform runs the risk of being no longer Jewish, and Conservatism runs the risk of both. Or more succinctly, from the point of view of practice: An Orthodox rabbi always wears a hat, a Reform one almost never, and a Conservative rabbi keeps one in his back pocket. (For completeness one should mention Reconstructionism, an American movement which emphasizes the character of the Jewish world as an ethnic cultural group of which Judaism is the folk religion.)

The same pattern of Orthodox/non-Orthodox movements can be seen in Great Britain (where the terms « Liberal » for « Progressive »] and « Reform » approximate to the American « Reform » and « Conservative »). But such developments as existed in pre-war continental Europe were virtually destroyed by the Nazi period, and in the surviving or rebuilt communities only a few individual Reform synagogues exist. Small Reform and Conservative movements exist in Israel, created and serviced initially by American rabbis, but with a number of Israeli-born rabbis becoming involved. They are not recognized nor allowed any authority by the ruling Orthodox religious establishment. Indeed it is odd that in Israel Jews put up with a lack of religious freedom as Jews that they would tolerate in no other part of the world. The religious pluralism of other Jewish communities is not visible there, and helps account for the estrangement of Israelis from formal religious commitment — whereas study circles can be found there for virtually every spiritual movement in the world. From the outside all theycan see are the endless quarrels between the various rabbinical authorities and occasional bizarre examples of archaic legal discussions of issues where considerable human suffering may be involved. The only « ideological » pronouncements relate to a sudden primitive literalism in Bible interpretation where the annexation of the occupied territories is concerned.

Jews embraced the post-emancipation world, and despite initial setbacks seemed to have indeed found a new home. Then came Nazi persecutions and the very country which seemed to have offered most, which became the focal point of the Jewish love affair with the modern world, turned round and tried to exterminate them. The shock of this experience has yet to be worked out. Whether consciously or unconsciously it colors Jewish responses to all new events. An American Jewish theologian can posit an eleventh commandment for the Jewish people: « Thou shalt survive! » Statements about the Middle East conflict, whether by political or church leaders, are too quickly subjected to the criterion: « Is it good for the Jews? are they for us or against us? » It is a Jewish world, with a few notable exceptions, which has been too battered by the crises of the last century and feels itself moving fearfully and inexorably towards the next one. Thus it is hardly conscious of a « mission » in all but the most limited sense. Whether on religious or ethnic grounds the question is that of survival — expressed in the traditional language of faith, in secular terminology of « the Jewish people» being lost by the inroads of assimilation or inter-marriage, or in the national language of a threatened Jewish State. But it is not survival so as to fulfil some divine or other purpose — it is survival for its own sake.


At a recent service for the induction of a rabbi into a pulpit in the north of England, the new incumbent pointed out how odd it was for him to be there, since he was a French-born, German-educated, English-speaking rabbi with a Czechoslovakian wife. His parents were refugees from Nazi Germany, his wife a refugee from Czechoslovakia after the Russian invasion of 1968. And indeed, among the first questions a Jew asks another on meeting for the first time is where the other came from — and if not himself, then his parents, or at least grandparents, for few Jews can point to a family history in the same country for more than a couple of generations.

The Diaspora (a Greek term meaning « dispersion », « scattering ») refers collectively to all the places outside the land of Israel where Jews settled after the destruction of national life by the Romans in 70 C.E. But in fact, long before that historic event the dispersion of the Jews had been in progress. Of those exiled in Babylon, not all returned with Ezra and Nehemiah, and perhaps a majority put down roots and stayed there. Among those fleeing the Babylonians some had settled in Egypt, and a flourishing sanctuary in the Elephantine region of Egypt existed in the middle of the second century B.C.E. By the time of the Greek and Roman overlordship of Judea large Jewish centers existed in Babylonia-Persia, Antioch, Rome, Athens, Thessalonica, Bulgaria, Armenia, Cyprus, Carthage and Alexandria. In the first century C.E. there were Jews in Spain, and from the period of the Roman republic they were to be found in France and Germany. The Arab conquest in the seventh century C.E. brought under the sway of Islam not only Mesopotamian and Palestinian Jewry, but also all the communities throughout the Middle East and large parts of the Mediterranean world. The Jewish community in Spain experienced a Golden Age under Islam. Then successive persecutions under the Almohades and at the hands of the Inquisition in Christian Spain where they had fled, culminated in the expulsion from Spain in 1492.

The exiles were dispersed throughout the Ottoman Empire, from Bosnia to Constantinople, from Salonica to Sofia, or regathered into new communities in North Africa, Amsterdam, London, Ferrara, Livorno, Vienna, Bucharest and other cities, still preserving their traditions and the Judeo-Spanish language, Ladino. Thus two distinctive « Sephardi » civilizations developed, one oriental and the other occidental. (The term « Sephardi » derives from the name of an unknown land of exile, « Sepharad », mentioned in Obadiah 20 and traditionally identified with Spain.)

As a contrast to the fate of the Sephardim, we may also consider the « Ashkenazim », a term used to designate Jews who lived in Germany and East European countries, where the Judeo-German vernacular (Yiddish) was spoken. (The name « Ashkenaz » is to be found in Genesis 10:3 in the list of Noah's grandsons, and was traditionally associated with Germany.) Beginning with the first crusade during the eleventh century, religious hysteria was whipped up against the Jews as convenient scapegoats when any trouble arose. After the Black Death in 1348-49, they were accused of poisoning the wells of Christians, and in the aftermath armed mobs wiped out over 350 Jewish communities; tens of thousands of Jews, men, women and children were murdered. One result was a massive flight of German Jews to the Polish provinces. The details of the wanderings of these communities are beyond the scope of this essay, but it will be clear that all aspects of Jewish life were affected by such migrations, leading to the appearance of localdifferences in custom and tradition. Some effects can be seen in matters of ritual and the prayerbook, for between the Ashkenazim and the Sephardim there grew up differences in the liturgy and ceremonies, in the manner of pronouncing Hebrew and the character of the music of the synagogue. Variations in matters of law also arose, so that the great codifications had to be adjusted to include both traditions. Above all else the cultural differences posed problems when the two groups encountered each other, as for example in Amsterdam after the expulsion from Spain.

The Sephardim represented a highly sophisticated and cultured class already resident there when Ashkenazi refugees fleeing from the Chmielnicki massacres poured in. The Sephardim considered the newcomers as culturally and socially inferior, and the differences were not put aside till several generations later in the face of a shared poverty. Today in Israel the situation is curiously reversed where the leadership of the country is still formed from the Ashkenazi immigrants and their successors. However, over half the population are Sephardim from the socially and culturally deprived background in North Africa. It is only in recent years that attempts have been made not merely to educate, integrate and «raise» the cultural level of the Sephardim but to seek to appreciate the cultural contribution they themselves have to give.

A modern Jonah may have come from one of more than seventy different lands from which Jews have immigrated since the creation of the State of Israel.


On the invitation sent out by a great hasidic teacher announcing the marriage of his daughter, he informed the guests that the ceremony would be held on such and such a date in the city of Jerusalem. A footnote added: If, in the meantime, the Messiah had not come, then it would be held in the little East European village where they currently all lived.

From the first great exile the question was posed of the relationship of the Jew to the land in which he was now living and the « promised land » that he had left behind. In a letter addressed to the exiles, the prophet Jeremiah made what was to become the definitive statement of Jewish thought on this matter. « Seek the peace of the city, whither I have caused you to be carried captive, and pray for it unto the Lord, for in the peace thereof shall ye have peace » (Jer. 29:7). From the fourteenth century we have documented statements about prayers being recited in synagogue after the reading of the Torah that God bless the king and help him.

Such prayers probably go back much earlier, and they reflect the two-sided aspect of Jewish relationship to the host country. At one level they represent enlightened self-interest, the prayers of a minority group within a society, totally dependent upon the good will of the ruling powers for their own security. But on the other side, Jewish loyalty to the host country has always had a deeper dimension, especially where some reciprocal feelings were displayed.

Perhaps the nineteenth and twentieth centuries saw the most extreme examples of this latter effect. For Jews who had set aside the traditional bases of their Jewish identity overwhelmingly identified themselves with the land and nation where they lived. Certainly Jewish folklore recognizes that German Jews were more German than the Germans, and likewise English Jews, French Jews, etc. Jews could thus end up fighting loyally for their country on opposing sides during the First World War. As identity became more and more associated with national criteria, « Judaism » ceased to be an all-embracing term and was relegated to the limited area of « faith ». Thus one could be « an Englishman of the Mosaic Persuasion » in the same way that one's neighbor was a member of his particular church.

Yet throughout Jewish history the sense of being a stranger wherever one lived, in permanent exile, was preserved — both by the obvious precariousness of Jewish existence, and the centrality in Jewish prayer and ritual life of the memory of the promised land, of Jerusalem, and the hope of a glorious restoration. Already early in the nineteenth century the first stirrings of a new relationship to the land were felt. The new immigrations to Palestine had a mixed basis: for some it was still a religious urge; for others it was a response to anti-Semitism in their host countries, mixed with socialist or nationalist ideologies. For some the new settlement was an end in itself, a final haven for the wandering Jew: whereas others saw it as only the beginning of a new cultural and spiritual renaissance for the Jewish people, a free people on their own soil, discovering anew their roots.

What might have been the fate of these settlements but for the Nazi persecutions is hard to tell. Certainly the creation of the State of Israel was in large part a response by the world powers to the distress and devastation of the Jewish people during the Holocaust, whatever local political motivations may also have been present. But with its creation the question of « which land» has taken on a new dimension for the Jew. Of all the Jewish movements of the last two centuries, Zionism has been the most obviously successful, particularly in its prediction of the dangers of anti-Semitism and its achievement of a state. Its ideology had as its aim the absorption of all of world Jewry, and itfostered a feeling of disloyalty to the Jewish people, of second class quality, in those who chose to remain in the Diaspora. Yet the existence of the State of Israel has itself changed the reality out of which Zionism grew, and this has yet to be fully appreciated. A generation has grown up that can even take the existence of a Jewish state for granted, and the reality is only an airplane ticket away. The State has already achieved the effect of restoring pride to a people reeling under the shock of the Holocaust, and indeed has given a new focus for popular self-identification as a Jew, now that the religious dimension is not strong and the Yiddish culture of Eastern Europe which used to serve that purpose has all but disappeared.

The shock of the October War has also changed popular thinking on the Zionist credo that Israel was to be the one place in the world where Jews could be safe. If the Six Day War created the myth of a new invincible Israel, the October War, in itself a far more significant military triumph, put the State into the mainstream of Jewish existence — what had formerly been the precarious nature of small Jewish communities was now being acted out on a world scale.

Thus Jews today find themselves torn by odd loyalties, not, as classically assumed, between their country of origin and the State of Israel — except, of course, for situations like that of the Jews in the Soviet Union (though unwarranted accusations of disloyalty are as old as the Pharaohs [Ex. 1:8-10] and Hamans [Esther 3:8-11] of the Bible). Rather, since Israel can be seen as an optional alternative should one ever want it, the questions concern the nature of the society in Israel itself and its relationship to its neighboring Arab world, for Diaspora Jewry must not only share the glory, but also pay the price, for what happens to the Jewish State. While tremendous emotional demands are naturally made upon the Diaspora Jew to show his identification with the State in these times of crisis — particularly when the U.N. resolution on Zionism raises again the spectre of a respectable label for a new wave of anti-Semitism — nevertheless a Jewish feeling of identification with the underdog makes him sympathize with the Palestinian refugees, question the status of Arabs within Israel and generally the basis of the political approaches to the Arab world. All of which with an uncomfortable feeling that Arab threats to drive the Jews into the sea mean just what they say! As yet with a few individual exceptions, no significant Diaspora body has taken the public initiative of opening up a new line of communication with the Arab world as a mediating influence, yet in this complex Israel-Diaspora relationship it may be that the latter will now have to begin to take its turn in asserting its right to speak on behalf of the Jewish people.


In over two and a half thousand years of dispersion Jews have lived in every corner of the globe, and wherever they have settled there has been some sort of intermarriage with the local population, so that Jews represent a very mixed racial stock. This is a most obvious fact when one contrasts a blond, blue-eyed, Californian Jew with his dark-skinned third cousin by marriage from Bagdad, or if one walks for a few minutes in any street in Israel.

The question of Jewish peoplehood, or of Jewish identity, has become one of the great questions of Jewish life in the latter part of this century — partly because of the racial issue raised by the Nazis, partly because of the creation of the State of Israel. Whereas in the past intermarriage has usually occurred when a Jew first converted to the dominant faith of his society, or, more rarely as severe penalties were of ten imposed, by the other partner becoming Jewish, now there was the possibility of state-sanctioned civil marriage. Rabbinic law cannot recognize such a marriage in any way, and problems arise in the matter of the identity of the children of such a union. Here Jewish tradition holds the view that the child is Jewish if the mother is Jewish, irrespective of the status of the father or of the child's upbringing. The situation is thus complicated by the different criteria used by the various non-Orthodox movements, particularly in America, where conversion procedures unacceptable to the Orthodox have been in existence for over a century and have resulted in children being recognized as Jewish by one part of the Jewish world only. (A debate is currently raging in America about «religious » wedding ceremonies performed by some Reform rabbis between a Jew and a professing Christian partner.) Whereas the American Reform Jewish community is large enough to be self-supporting, and matters of status can be adjusted relatively easily in the more tolerant atmosphere there, the situation of Jews of such a background becomes highly problematic when they move to Israel, or to any other country where only an Orthodox rabbinate is to be found. A similar problem involves the Russian Jews who have moved to Israel in such vast numbers in recent years, where the marital partners may not be Jewish and may not wish to undergo some « religious » conversion when they are satisfied with a national Jewish identity and have no formal religious beliefs. Indeed the whole question of whether Jewish identity can only be determined by the rabbinate or by the civil courts of the State of Israel is an issue always threatening to erupt.« I AM A HEBREW; AND I FEAR THE LORD ...

Jonah's answer is puzzling because it does not seem to speak directly to the question. However it includes two poles of Jewish identity — the aspect of people-hood, of belonging to a particular family, and that of vocation, a divine calling. A Jew may retain only the most slender link with his Jewish identity; he may consider it in cultural terms, in national terms as a Zionist or Israeli, in a sense of shared fate, or as a mere sentimental attachment somewhere at the edge of his consciousness, compounded of elements of popular Jewish music, or cooking, or jokes, and occasional demands upon his purse — yet somewhere the family connection will intrude to jerk him back to awareness. Many Jews were surprised to rediscover their identity when the Six Day War suddenly seemed to threaten the existence of the State of Israel. And although that initial shock identification soon passed away, the dramatic reality of the State can still recall a sense of family pride and relationship when all else is lost.

The great era of Rabbinic Judaism which served for two thousand years seems to have reached a watershed. The old landmarks and forms of Jewish existence can still be seen, but they exist either as the special property of a limited part of the Jewish world, or as individual elements in the private anthologies of Jewish practice preserved on a random basis by individuals or communities. But to the vast majority of Jews these forms are peripheral, the « fence around the Torah » designed to preserve the faith against the outside world, effectively excluding them instead. Heresies, sectarian movements and ideological issues can be grappled with — but there is no dialogue possible with indifference.

Yet, paradoxically, the Jew was perhaps never so prominent a figure in world-consciousness — as a symbol of alienated man; as the archetypal victim; or even, once again, as a fantasy villain manipulating the world from behind closed doors; or, most absurd of all, the new military hero, admired and hated at the same time.

The Jew today is bewildered as never before by the world around him and his position within it. The way back to the security of the ghetto and its spirituality is closed, except for a few who can select their own reality and close off the outside world. The secular experiences of merging with the host community or creating a state have been remarkable in their achievements, but the price has often been very high, and material success alone no longer satisfies. To escape the destiny by disappearing from the Jewish world has also been shown to be impossible in the face of a determined effort at extermination. And the threat of further suffering and persecution hangs uneasily in the air in this troubled time. Perhaps it is time for Jonah, the archetypal Jew, to make another journey to Niniveh.

Rabbi Magonet is a doctor of medicine and head of the Department of Bible Studies at Leo Baeck College, London. He has edited the volume Returning: Exercises in Repentance, and is co-editor of the Daily and Sabbath Prayer Book of the Reform Synagogues of Great Britain.


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