Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Daniel Elazar Papers Index

Israel: Religion and Society

Secularists to Sadducees

Daniel J. Elazar

Abraham Feder's excellent article (21 December 1984) in response to those of Shulamit Aloni (26 September 1984) and David Krivine (30 November 1984) has added depth and clarity to the debate on the role of religion in society, particularly in Israel, and how one's expectations from any religious system, including halakhah, need to be tempered by a more sophisticated understanding of the complexities of human nature. Feder properly points out that religion is not only concerned with social justice but also is a response to the individual's deepest personal needs. True religion must speak to both. There is another dimension, however, what in my opinion needs to be added to the overall discussion with regard to religion, morality, and the State of Israel.

The halakhah as we know it is a product of Pharisaic Judaism. While its origins as a corpus go back at least to the time of Ezra, 2500 years ago, and probably to Sinai as tradition has it, it took its definitive form in the generations immediately following the destruction of the Second Temple and was not fully accepted by Jews the world over as normative until the end of the 3rd or early part of the 4th century of the common era. From then until the modern epoch beginning in the 17th century and particularly from the late 18th, it was normative for all Jews except schismatics such as the Karaites.

During the modern epoch its dominance was broken but it was not until the 20th century that a majority of Jews ceased to live within the framework of halakhic Judaism. Most simply drifted out of that framework. Even those who went into non-Orthodox movements, with the exception of a few intellectual leaders, did so out of nostalgia, to retain some of the old customs and ceremonies, or out of the need for an acceptable form of Jewish identification in the modern diaspora.

Non-Orthodox palliatives worked in the diaspora but did not find an echo in Israel, where there soon developed a polarization between those who maintained halakhah in the Pharisaic manner as it had developed over the centuries, and those who saw a strictly secular political solution to the Jewish problem. In some cases, this polarization was papered over by common Zionist aspirations which led to the development of the famous "status quo" and in other cases, where no suitable accommodation could be found, it led to confrontation. In either case, it did not solve the Jewish problems of the majority of Israeli Jews: the quarter of the population that defines itself as secular and the growing share of the middle 50 percent who define themselves as traditional but who are rapidly losing their links with Jewish religious tradition as they drift out of older halakhic frameworks.

This might not have been a problem had the secular solutions advocated by the non-religious Zionists worked. But it is clear to all by now, except a diehard few, that those secular utopias represent gods that failed. Thus, even Shulamit Aloni, one of the most militant secularists in Israel, is involved in an effort to build a movement of "humanist Judaism" that will draw upon the moral dimensions of the Jewish tradition in order to cope with the moral and personal issues which religion addresses in all times and climes.

Shulamit Aloni appropriately turns to Israel's Declaration of Independence as one source in her search and relies on it and other products of the Zionist ideology to help her in her quest. In the past decade or so it has become apparent that, particularly for those Israelis outside of the religious camp, Zionism is the faith of their fathers, the only faith they know, hence the faith they turn to in hours of crisis. We saw this most clearly at the time of the Yom Kippur War which revived Zionist sentiments across the spectrum of nonreligious Israeli groups. We saw it in a different way in connection with the Lebanon war, when the morality of the war was attacked by its opponents on Zionist grounds and defended by its proponents on the same grounds, each emphasizing a different aspect of the Zionist heritage.

This is a common enough phenomenon, a variant of the "foxhole religion" experienced by soldiers in wartime. To say this is not to dismiss it. Quite to the contrary, reliance upon the faith of one's fathers is a natural human expression and the particular faith involved tells us a great deal about the aspirations of the people involved.

In its own way, Zionism has become another branch of Judaism, parallel to Orthodoxy, Conservatism, Reform or Reconstructionism in the United States and other diaspora communities. Albeit, like Communism, it is a secular rather than a theistic religion in its fundamentals (not that religious Zionists are not Zionists, but their Zionism plays a different role for them, representing as it were, an extension of a larger set of religious beliefs). Zionism serves as the basis for the Jewish self-definition of a majority of the Jewish population of Israel just as Conservative and Reform Judaism serves a majority of the Jewish population in the United States. The one is primarily an Israeli phenomenon today with some diaspora outposts while the other is primarily American Jewish phenomena with outposts in Israel and other diaspora communities. As such, Zionism has its own rituals and symbols, which, because of its particular character have become part of the civil religion of Israel.

Like every religious movement, Zionism in its first stages was utterly messianic in that its proponents expected that it would achieve a rapid success which would in turn bring about the full achievement of its goals, namely, the redemption of the Jewish people in their own land through political means. In fact, Zionism was successful enough to capture a major share of the Jewish people as its adherents and a central place for itself among modern Jewish institutions. It did succeed magnificently in creating a Jewish state and transforming the Jewish people in the process, but like every other religious movement, its messianic expectations were not realized.

But there was another dimension to the Zionist experience. Zionism is a reflection of the rebirth of the classic partisan division within the Jewish people associated with statehood and now reborn along with the rebirth of Jewish political independence, and which are best known by the terms attached to them in the Second Commonwealth: Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes. While these three parties (as they are commonly known) or camps acquired their respective identities under these names in the last era of the Second Commonwealth, in fact each camp can be traced back at least to the time of the Davidic monarchy when the Jewish people were divided into monarchists supporting the Davidic line, supporters of the prophetic school later identified with Elijah, and the Kenites, who continued to live as if in the Sinai wilderness for ideological reasons. The revival of Jewish national existence in the land has led to a revival of those two of the three camps which had disappeared during the course of the long exile.

There has been much talk about the normalization of the Jewish people in connection with the establishment of the State of Israel, all of which assumes a change in Jewish existence that will make the Jews "like all the nations." It can be argued that normalization, for Jews, means the restoration of all three camps within Judaism and Jewish life.

The Sadducees were eminently the party of Jewish statehood in the sense that their Jewishness was principally expressed through the political institutions of a state and those religious institutions such as the priesthood and the Temple which were intimately bound up with statehood. The Temple came into existence to emphasize the new statehood of David and Solomon and became the keystone of the renewed statehood of the Hasmoneans. It acquired prominence in the halacha of the Pharisees only after it made no difference because the Temple itself was destroyed.

With the destruction of that state and the transformation of the Jewish community in Eretz Israel into one existing on Roman sufferance, the Pharisaic system of Jewish life, with its special emphasis on the individual internalization of Jewish norms, became the dominant one within the Jewish people, ultimately coming to embrace all Jews who remained within the fold. The Pharisaic system, with its emphasis on schools as the principal institutional expression of organized Jewish life and such political power as remained in Jewish hands, scholars as the principal spokesmen for the Jewish people, and individual observance of a highly portable law as the touchstone of Jewish identification and self-expression, was uniquely adopted to the needs of the time.

Thus the diaspora experience strengthened the Pharisaic camp in every respect. Lacking a proper political base, the Sadducee camp ultimately disappeared. Significantly, the last bastion of Sadducean ideology was in Babylonia where the particular conditions of Jewish autonomy made the exilarch a focal point for its expression, but even the Exilarch had to come to terms with the heads of the academies in the course of time and became subordinate to them.

Essenism represented a recurring phenomenon in Jewish life in its own right, an effort to express Jewish messianic aspirations within the framework of a collectivist community, but Essenes, with their emphasis on relatively small communities as the means to fulfill the precepts of the Torah, similarly disappeared from the scene. They required the protection of a strong Jewish presence and power in the land to maintain a protected existence as a separatist messianic minority within the Jewish fold. Once that was gone, they could sustain their colonies.

Pharisaic Judaism held fast for nearly 1800 years and was almost unchallenged for some 1500. No longer a party within a larger framework, it became a framework itself. It was only with the coming of the modern epoch in the seventeenth century that the order which it imposed upon the Jewish people began to break down under the pressures of modernization. For some time, the only alternative to Pharisaic Judaism seemed to be assimilation. It was only with the rise of modern Jewish nationalism and, most particularly Zionism, that another alternative emerged.

Once Pharisaic Judaism lost its dominant position, the Pharisees once again became a camp, today known as Orthodoxy. It is no accident that Orthodoxy as a movement did not develop until the nineteenth century in response to the emancipationist movements. Up until that time, there was no need for a special framework for halakhic Jews as such. Even the divisions within the halakhic camp could be handled through traditional institutions.

Today the Pharisaic camp can be defined as consisting of Jews who see in Halakhah the central and unifying principle of Judaism. After a century or more of retreat, that camp is once again advancing. They have turned to the offensive after years of being on the defensive, and have now developed institutions that are trying to "convert the Jews." Their camp represents perhaps a quarter of the population of Israel and perhaps a fifth of world Jewry can be considered within it.

Of those among the remainder of world Jewry who identify Jewishly in some conscious way, a very small minority are neo-Essenes. The latter are those who, in the Essene tradition, have sought to create total messianic societies within the framework of the existing world. Most are to be found in the kibbutzim since the periodic diaspora experiments, for example the Jewish communes and havurot that appeared on or near the campuses of the United States in the late 1960's, cannot survive without the protection of a (Sadducean) state.

The largest group within the Jewish fold today and certainly the largest in Israel consists of those people who must be considered the heirs of the Sadducean tradition, even if only part of that camp operates within the framework of a Sadducean party. Today's neo-Sadducees include those Jews who seek to be Jewish through identification with Jewish history, culture, and tradition, but without necessarily accepting the authoritative character of halacha or the centrality of halacha in defining their Jewishness. In essence, these are people who tend to have a political sense of Judaism in the largest meaning of the term. Thus they are committed to the Jewish people (either as a whole or as they exist within Israel), first and foremost, seeing in the expression of peoplehood or nationhood what can well be termed a religious obligation, the cornerstone of their civil religion. Increasingly, these neo-Sadducees have come to understand that the maintenance of Jewish peoplehood is a political act. It was the Zionist movement that first came to recognize that the survival of the Jewish people in a post-Pharisaic age required a political revival and, consequently, who were the first to redefine Jewish life in explicitly political terms, relating to Jewish history and tradition through that perspective.

Virtually all of Israel's present political leadership and most of the diaspora Jewish leadership as well, are effectively within the Sadducean camp. They have created an alliance with those of the Pharisaic camp who have joined with them in the common enterprise. The latter have had to join that enterprise principally on Sadducean terms, although they have been able to wring concessions from the Sadducean majority with regard to the maintenance of Pharisaic norms, because for the Sadducean camp Jewish unity is sufficiently important to warrant them. Moreover, the Sadducees' own nostalgia for Jewish tradition makes those norms more acceptable, particularly since they have nothing viable to put in their place.

It was precisely that implicit understanding of what the Mizrachi's alliance with the World Zionist Movement meant that led to the great fight within the Orthodox camp during the early days of the Zionist revolution. Agudat Yisrael sought to remain authentic Perushim (they often used the term) in the sense of being utterly willing to separate themselves from the majority of Jews to maintain what they believe was the only correct approach to Judaism. The Mizrachi, on the other hand, was prepared to "taint itself" by association with the new non-Pharisaic majority to advance what it considered to be common Jewish goals, which it understood as valid per se within the Pharisaic tradition.

The Jewish people will have to reconcile itself to the renewed existence of this classic division within Jewish life. The fact that some four-fifths of world Jewry is outside the Pharisaic camp, means that a Sadducean Judaism will develop whether the Pharisees will it or not. The only question that is open is what will be its content?

The ancient Sadducees amy not have accepted the Pharisaic understanding of Judaism but they, too, shared a religious conception of Jewish existence. The neo-Sadducean camp must begin to understand itself for what it is and develop an appropriately articulated Jewish framework within which to function, rather than simply transforming those elements of Pharisaic Judaism which are somewhat appealing into a kind of civil religion that is either no more than residually Jewish or which uses Jewish forms to promote un-Jewish content.

While that task falls upon the entire Jewish people, it is of particular concern and relevance to Israel which, as the center of the Jewish world and the only place where an autonomous Jewish culture flourishes, must make a greater effort to make that culture truly Jewish in one way or another. The civil religion which has emerged in Israel represents the first articulation of a revived Sadducean approach to maintaining the rhythm of Jewish life. No civilization can exist without having its own rhythm. A great part of the genius of Judaism in general is to be found in the way it establishes a clear rhythm for all Jews and of Pharisaism in particular in the way it transformed that rhythm into a portable one, that could be carried into exile in every diaspora. Normally life rhythms of particular civilizations are associated with particular locales. Zionism-as-Sadduceanism has emphasized the revaluation of traditional Jewish rhythms in ways that are held to the Israeli locale but, as we see all around us, under the influence of a universal culture, the way it has tried to do so is not enough.

The present trend is toward quite separate Judaisms on one level, despite the Sadducean borrowing of Pharisaic practices for their civil religion, withe each camp taking on the characteristics of a separate community within the Jewish state. Interaction between the two camps should not only be fostered for the sake of Jewish unity, but for the sake of the proper expression of the Jewish spirit as well.

Since the very revival of the Sadducean camp is intertwined with the revival of the political expression of Jewishness through a Jewish state, more than any other movement in Judaism, the Sadducees need a living Jewish political tradition based on their first principled and properly rooted in Jewish sources and experience -- in the way that Pharisees require a living legal tradition, to provide them with the continuity which a tradition offers. To suggest that the Sadducees are in special need of a Jewish political tradition is not in the least to suggest that the Pharisees do not need one. Quite to the contrary, just as Pharisaic Judaism managed to absorb the ideology and symbols of the Davidic line and the Temple ritual, the two most important Sadducean traditions, in order to provide a comprehensive approach to Judaism and Jewishness, so too have they had to relate to the Jewish political tradition.

Under the conditions in which Pharisaic Judaism became dominant, political consciousness as such had become dangerous for Jews, to having led to the disastrous revolts against Roman rule. So the Pharisees absorbed and hid that tradition within the mainstream of the Halachah itself, carefully avoiding any reference to it as a political tradition. In subsequent ages, this tradition survived and even thrived within the four ells of Halachic Judaism. We are just now discovering how well it did.

As a consequence we have a paradoxical situation today. The Jewish political tradition in its most authentic form lives within the Pharisee camp but the Pharisees themselves are least willing to recognize it as a political tradition. One consequence of this is that they have done relatively little to come to grips with the problems of statehood within a halachic framework. The Sadducees, on the other hand, have ignored that tradition and have built their political ideologies on foreign ideologies, mostly imported from Europe, which not only fail to help develop the Jewishness of the Jewish state but neutralize the Jewish commitments of the younger generation.

For the Sadducees to recover the tradition, they must not only learn from their experience as Jews confronting political situations, but drink deeply from sources preserved by the Pharisees. By the same token, while the Pharisees can continue to exist as individuals and in their communities by living off their own sources, in order to cope with statehood, they must become Sadducean to some degree.

The danger in a Jewish normalcy lies in the possibility of intense conflict between the two between the two principal camps, as was the case in the last epoch of the second Jewish Commonwealth. At a time when the Jewish people seems to be breaking apart into separate camps or communities, and most especially in Israel, this mutual inter-dependence is a positive factor, a basis upon which to rebuild a more united and more Jewish state. It is to be devoutly hoped that, in the Third Commonwealth, the intense conflicts which marked the Pharisee-Sadducee relationship in the Second will be avoided for the sake of the Jewish people as a whole.

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