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Israel-Diaspora Relations

The New Jewish Public

Reinventing World Jewry:
How to Design the World Jewish Polity

Daniel J. Elazar

While most of these organizations have their origins in the modern epoch, today they serve postmodern purposes and interests, and all but a few of them have developed accordingly, either in support of the new trends or in an effort to counter them. The first point to be made about this new Jewish public is that it is unbounded. That already became the case in modern times as Jewish communities lost their authority and Jews could leave them at will without abandoning their Jewishness any more than they wanted to as individuals. With the exception of the Jews of the State of Israel who, as Israelis, are bounded by the Jewish state and who must live according to the laws of that state whether they want to or not, the Jews in the world today choose whether or not to be Jewish, how, and in what ways, and with what intensity or extent.

In the modern epoch, from the mid-seventeenth to the mid-twentieth centuries, the issue of compulsion to remain Jewish dropped away. Jews could not only convert out of Judaism but could leave their Jewishness behind them without formally acquiring any other religious identity, although those that did for the most part did so to acquire a new civic identity as citizens of their respective states. In this respect Benedict Spinoza can be seen as the first Jew to become well-known and visible outside of the Jewish community without becoming or feeling the necessity to become a Christian. Not only that, he articulated the terms under which Jews could take that step.

Soon, the same absence of compulsion which enabled Spinoza to become a Jew separated from the bonds of his community became well-nigh universal. But if Jews were no longer compelled to be Jewish, if they chose to be, their communities could require them to accept certain standards or forms of behavior. Then in the nineteenth century with the emergence first of non-Orthodox Jewry and then of Jewish secularism and the community's loss of its monopoly, Jews could even be Jews in ways of their choice and nobody had the power to prevent that. Still, for the most part Jews had to be within some framework, even a framework of choice, to be identified as Jews.

Then came Hitler, who reintroduced the dimension of compulsion, but only with regard to matters of racial definition, which had to do with dying as Jews, not living as Jews. The destruction of Nazism released those born Jews from that threat as well; after paying so great a price, they were free to drift off in any direction and so it has been in the postmodern epoch since World War II, especially since at the same time the world became more open to accepting Jews as individuals in any way, not only as equal citizens and as religiously acceptable, but also as business partners, neighbors, and even partners in marriage. All boundaries, even self-imposed boundaries, which separated Jews from non-Jews, collapsed.

Already by the late modern epoch, the Jewish world could be seen as one of concentric circles radiating out from a core of Judaism which functioned like a magnet to draw Jews closer to whatever they defined as being at its center and radiating outward through degrees of Jewishness and Jewish identification, with each concentric circle being pulled less by the magnet at the core and more by external forces (other magnets) until the outer circles were hardly Jewish at all and, at the outer edges, the circles more or less faded off into the fields pulled by other magnetic attractions. It became impossible to have a single definition of who is a Jew or even to draw a precise line between who is and who is not, at least for civic or religious purposes.

What was clear, however, was that those who were affected more intensely by the magnetic pull of Judaism and were involved in the circles closer to the core became a new basic constituency for organized Jewry, to which Jewish organizations and institutions turned for support and membership. Since that constituency contained only a part of those who even by more stringent definitions were defined as being Jewish, namely those born of Jewish parents or converted to Judaism who identified as Jews or who were citizens of Israel and identified as Jews (and even many, if not most, of them did not share a common concern with the Jewish people and its polity), the relevant circle of constituents was even smaller. That is one reason why, although non-Orthodox and secular Jews seem to have the numbers behind them overwhelmingly, Orthodox and otherwise highly committed Jews actually carry so much weight within the Jewish polity since their total constituencies may be smaller but the commitment of those within them is more intense up and down the line.

The rapid spread of assimilation on a voluntary basis in a manner that does not reject being Jewish per se but which finds other pulls more attractive, further erodes this pool of Jews and makes efforts to organize them for whatever purposes that much more difficult. That is the first and most predominant characteristic of the Jewish world which is served by the reemergent world Jewish polity.

It should be added that this description was originally seen as applying to diaspora Jewry only, that Jews in Israel, the only bounded Jewish civil society defined by statehood, followed a different pattern. But for reasons which we cannot go into here, Israel is beginning in its way to fall into a very similar pattern with most of its citizens born Jews, neither knowing nor on an increasing basis particularly caring about the Jewish people, except perhaps with the weakest of sentimental ties. There are an increasing number of people entering the country under the Law of Return (which means as Jews or people connected with Jews) who are not Jewish at all. For the first generation of Jewish statehood, the dominance of the Orthodox religious establishment under the laws of the state still imposed certain standards of involvement for those people who were deemed Jews by those standards, but ever wider cracks are appearing even in that established situation which is unlikely to last for very much longer, for better or for worse.

The New Sadducees

Meanwhile, the processes that accompanied the emergence of Zionism, the resettlement of Jews in their land, and the reestablishment of the Jewish commonwealth have also brought about the reemergence of the classic threefold division that has shaped the internal life of the Jewish people whenever Jewish life has been centered in Eretz Israel. Those divisions are best known by the names attached to them in the Second Commonwealth: Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes. These three parties, as they are referred to by historians, or camps, to use a more appropriate term that reflects the internal complexity of each and is compatible with modern Hebrew usage, acquired their identities under these names in the last centuries of the Second Commonwealth. Each camp, however, can be traced at least to the Davidic monarchy when the Jewish people was divided into monarchists supporting the Davidic line, supporters of the prophetic school later identified with Elijah, and groups of ascetics such as the Rehabites who abjured town life.

Much has been said about the normalization of the Jewish people through the rebuilding of Zion, all of which assumes a change that will make the Jews "like all the nations. There is every reason to believe that normalization, for Jews, means the active restoration of these three camps in Judaism and Jewish life. That the current 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 long exile is the most clear-cut step toward truly Jewish normalization yet taken.

The Sadducees (including their predecessors) were the first camp in preeminence for over a millennium, from the time of King David to the end of the major Jewish revolts against Rome (roughly 1000 BCE - 135 CE). They were preeminently 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, intimately bound up with statehood. In sum, they were most closely identified with the institutions of the keter malkhut and to extend the influence of the keter malkhut over the keter torah.

With the destruction of the state and the transformation of the Jewish settlement in Eretz Israel into a community existing on Roman sufferance, the Pharisaic system of Jewish life, with its special emphasis on the individual internalization of Jewish norms, became dominant. It ultimately came to embrace almost all Jews who remained in the fold. The Pharisees anchored their system in the keter torah. After the destruction of the Temple, they gained control of the principal instrumentalities of the keter malkhut in Eretz Israel and put down a challenge by the surviving priestly representatives of the keter kehunah to co-opt them. Because of the prominence of the Temple and its ritual in the halakhah of the Pharisees, it is worthwhile recalling that 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. The Pharisees, as part of their preemption of centrality in Jewish life, co-opted the Temple as a symbol after it was destroyed.

The Pharisaic system emphasized schools as the principal institutional expression of organized Jewish life and the locus of such political power as remained in Jewish hands, scholars as the principal spokesmen for the Jewish people, and the individual observance of a portable Law as the touchstone of Jewish identification and self-expression. It was uniquely adapted to the needs of the times. Thus the diaspora experience strengthened the Pharisaic camp in every respect. Lacking a proper political base, the Sadducean camp ultimately disappeared. Significantly, the last bastion of Sadducee ideology was in Babylonia, where the conditions of Jewish autonomy made the exilarch a focal point for its expression. But even the exilarch eventually had to come to terms with the heads of the academies and became tied to them.

The Essenes emphasized small collectivist communities as the means to fulfill the percepts of the Torah. They required the protection of a strong Jewish presence and power to maintain a shielded existence as a separatist messianic minority in the Jewish fold. Once that was gone, they could not sustain their colonies. Hence they simply disappeared when Jewish political autonomy was irrevocably lost, as their Rehabite predecessors had with the destruction of the First Commonwealth.

The Rise of the Neo-Sadducees

Pharisaic Judaism held fast for nearly eighteen hundred years and, with one important exception -- the Karaite challenge -- was almost unchallenged for fifteen hundred years. This is not to suggest that every Jew in the premodern world lived according to the halakhah as then interpreted, nor was there a uniform interpretation of halakhah in all times and climes. We have enough evidence of Jewish deviation from Pharisaic norms, even on the part of devout Jews, to know that this was not so; Pharisaic Judaism, however, was the norm and all recognized it as such even if all individuals did not meet it in the normative way. It was the form and fabric of a tradition society, which meant that there was considerable latitude within and among Jewish communities in halakhic interpretation as long as the differences could be contained in the traditional society.

Once the Pharisaic camp had won, it was no longer a camp within a larger framework but provided the framework itself. Only with the coming of the modern epoch in the seventeenth century did the order it imposed on the Jewish people begin to break down under the pressures of emancipation and modernization. By the early nineteenth century, assimilation was rampant among those Jews who had left the traditional society. Because the only Judaism they knew was Pharisaic, once they no longer accepted that, they were in a position to break completely to the point of conversion to a nominal Christianity in order to advance in the world around them. This provoked several responses.

One was the emergence of the Reform movement, which rejected Pharisaic Judaism entirely by rejecting the binding character of the halakhah, emphasizing instead the importance of religion in the western Protestant sense as a means of connecting people to the transcendent deity rather than binding them to transcendent norms. The Reform movement rejected the keter torah for a new, sanitized version of the keter kehunah, which emphasized prayer in local "temples" under rabbis who served as ministers. Reform also rejected the keter malkhut by denying that Jews were a people and rejecting all Jewish national goals.

For those Jews who wanted less radical religious reform, historical, later Conservative, Judaism became the vehicle. The advocates of historical Judaism still saw themselves in the Pharisaic camp in that they recognized the binding character of halakhah, but they wished to stimulate halakhic change in keeping with modern times. In their efforts to be good citizens of the countries in which they lived, they minimized the claims of the keter malkhut. Their reliance on the new-style synagogue as their major vehicle also brought them to renew and emphasize the keter kehunah, though in the guise of reforming the keter torah.

In response to assimilation and these reform tendencies, those who saw themselves as remaining faithful to Pharisaic Judaism developed Orthodoxy, which is as much a modern movement as the other two. It was based on a new ideology emphasizing the immutability of Pharisaic forms and a set of doctrines that rejected the idea of change in the halakhah. The new Orthodoxy eventually sought to foster greater adherence to the minutiae of the halakhah as a demonstration of one's full commitment to Judaism.

For some time, the only nonreligious alternative to Pharisaic Judaism was assimilation, through either the adopting of local nationalism or socialism. Even the Sabbatean movement (an effort to break with Pharisaism) at the beginning of the modern epoch, which was certainly not ideologically assimilationist, led in that direction. Only with the rise of modern Jewish nationalism and, most particularly, Zionism did another alternative emerge. That alternative eventually became what may properly be called the Sadducean option, an authentically Jewish option based on the conditions of modernism and resting on much the same kind of political and high cultural base identified with the Sadducees of two millennia earlier.

The re-creation of Jewish national life in Eretz Israel that followed brought about the reestablishment of the tripartite framework that had informed earlier Jewish commonwealths. Even a variation of Essenism reemerged in the form of the kibbutz, whose collectivism, we now know since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls and related materials, represents a recurring phenomenon in Jewish life -- an effort to express Jewish messianic aspirations in the framework of a community of the chosen expected to lead but, in the end, protected by the larger Jewish society.

Once Pharisaic Judaism lost its dominant position, the Pharisees again became a camp. today the Pharisaic camp can be defined as comprising Jews who see in halakhah the unifying principle of Judaism. After a century or more of retreat, that camp is again advancing. Its adherents have taken the offensive after years of being on the defensive and have now developed institutions designed to "convert the Jews." Their camp represents perhaps a quarter of the population of Israel, and perhaps 15 percent of world Jewry can be considered part of it. If we include halakhically-committed Conservative Jews, perhaps one-fifth of world Jewry would fall into the Pharisaic camp.

Of those among the remainder of world Jewry who identify Jewishly in some conscious way, most may be considered Sadducees or, more accurately, neo-Sadducees. Today's Sadducees include Israeli Zionists, diaspora Jews who seek to be Jewish through identification with the Jewish people as a corporate entity, its history, culture, and tradition, but without necessarily accepting the authority or centrality of halakhah in defining their Jewishness. In essence, these people tend to have a political commitment to Judaism in the broadest sense. Thus they are firmly committed to the Jewish people, either as a whole or as it exists in Israel, seeing in the expression of peoplehood or nationhood what can be termed a religious obligation, though often in the sense of a civil religion.

The fate of the Conservative and Reform movements in this regard is instructive. Each defines itself in modern religious terms. The Conservative Jews are ambivalent when it comes to halakhah. Some, probably no more than one-fifth of their claimed membership, see themselves as continuing halakhic Judaism, and the rest have no ideology, only ties to Conservative synagogues. Their ideology as Jews undoubtedly stems from their strong commitment to the State of Israel, reinforced by a deep feeling that Jews everywhere share a common fate whether they will it or not. In short, they remain Jewish for Sadducean reasons. This is even more so in the Reform movement, which continues to reject the binding character of the halakhah in the name of religious liberalism even though it has abandoned its initial anti-Zionism and, on the contrary, has tried to link the movement with Israel in concrete institutional ways.

Increasingly, these neo-Sadducees have come to understand that the maintenance of Jewish peoplehood is a political act. Formerly, there were those who explicitly sought to deny the political aspects of their position, arguing that what was involved was cultural expression, but in recent years they have come to understand how profoundly political their commitment is.

A few may be defined as Essenes -- those who, in the Essene tradition, have sought to create total messianic societies in the framework of this world. Most are in the kibbutzim. In the late 1960s, an effort was made to develop what must be defined as an American Jewish Essene movement through the organization of communes and havurot on or near college campuses in the United States. Lacking the protection of appropriate political frameworks, that effort has produced limited results except insofar as the havurot became surrogate synagogues and hence within the keter kehunah.

Coming to Grips with a Pluralistic Judaism

It has been suggested here that Zionism is preeminently a Sadducean movement, even though there has been a Pharisee wing of Zionism from the first and contemporary Essenes are principally connected with the Zionist enterprise. The Zionist movement was the first to recognize that the survival of the Jewish people in a post-Pharisaic age required a political revival. Consequently, it was the first movement to redefine Jewish life in explicitly political terms, relating to Jewish history and tradition through that perspective.

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

That implicit understanding of what the Mizrahi's alliance with the World Zionist Movement meant led to the deep conflict within the Orthodox camp during the early days of the Zionist revolution. The Agudath Israel sought to remain authentic perushim (they used -- and use - - the term) in the sense of being utterly willing to be separated from most Jews to maintain what they believed was the only correct approach to Judaism. Mizrahi was prepared to "taint itself" by association with the new non-Pharisaic majority to advance what it believed were common Jewish goals, which it understood as valid in the Pharisaic tradition.

Although the Pharisaic camp has a special commitment to halakhic Judaism as we know it, many Sadducees also share a strong commitment to Jewish religious tradition and practice. Many are traditional or observant Jews by any standard. A few are even "orthoprax": they practice halakhic Judaism without being Orthodox in their fundamental ideological commitments, which are Sadducean. Still, Pharisees and Sadducees alike tend to look upon them as less authentic in their Judaism, because we are still living in the shadow of Pharisaic dominance. After all, a significant number of Jews now in Israel came from communities where the Pharisaic tradition continued its dominance unbroken during their own lives there, although, naturally, their number is decreasing. Moreover, a two thousand-year tradition is not forgotten overnight.

Nevertheless, by now several generations of Jews have grown up outside any Jewish religious tradition and cannot cope with the religious aspect of their Jewishness. Because of them and the renewed Jewish state that inevitably pursues political goals, the Jewish people now must reconcile itself to the renewed classic party division in Jewish life and, whatever their individual commitments, to expect the continuation of a strong Sadducee camp. As Jews, they must insist that the Sadducean camp begin to understand itself for what it is and develop an appropriately articulated Jewish framework in which to work. They cannot simply transform those elements of Pharisaic Judaism that are appealing into a kind of civil religion that is either no more than residually Jewish or that uses Jewish forms to promote non-Jewish content. The ancient Sadducees may not have accepted the Pharisaic understanding of Judaism, but they, too, shared a religious conception of Jewish existence. Although 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.

A civil religion indeed has emerged in Israel. It represents the first articulation of a revived Sadducean approach to maintaining the rhythm of Jewish life. No civilization can exist without having a rhythm. A great part of the genius of Judaism is found in the way it establishes a rhythm for all Jews. Normally, the life rhythm of a civilization is associated with a particular locale. Pharisaism was (and is) particularly adept in the way it transformed that rhythm into a portable one, which could be carried into exile in every diaspora. Zionism-as-Sadduceanism has emphasized the revaluation of traditional Jewish rhythms in ways that are tied to the Israeli locale but influenced by a universal culture.

Those in the Pharisaic camp will undoubtedly argue that the neo-Sadducean civil religion is not enough, and properly so -- in its present form they are right and they may even be right for the long term. But with some four-fifths of world Jewry outside the Pharisaic camp, a Sadducean Judaism will develop whether the Pharisees will it or not. The only open question -- a big one -- is, what will be its content?

The trend is toward separate Judaisms on one level, despite the Sadducean borrowing of Pharisaic practices for their civil religion. Israel may well come to be divided into the two if not three separate communities. On the other hand, their continued willingness to work together in the institutions of the keter malkhut, however strong their divisions in the other ketarim, offers an opportunity for maintaining Jewish unity under these new conditions. Let us hope that, in the Third Commonwealth, the intense conflicts that marked the Pharisee-Sadducee relationship in the Second Commonwealth will be avoided for the sake of the Jewish people.

Neo-Sadducees and the Jewish Political Tradition

Interaction between the two camps should not only be fostered for the sake of Jewish unity, but also for the fullest expression of the Jewish spirit. Precisely because the Sadducean camp has roots in the political expression of Judaism and Jewishness, the neo-Sadducees need a living Jewish political tradition. It, too, should be rooted in Jewish sources and experience, in light of their first principles and because they cannot depend on the halakhah to provide them the continuity that a tradition and a way of life offer. In short, the neo-Sadducees require a comprehensive political tradition in the way that Pharisees require a comprehensive halakhic tradition. To suggest that the Sadducees are in special need of a Jewish political tradition is not to suggest that the Pharisees do not need one. 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 tradition, in order to provide a comprehensive approach to Judaism and Jewishness, so, too, have the Pharisees had to relate to the Jewish political tradition.

Why, then, has that tradition become obscure in Pharisaic Judaism? Under the conditions in which Pharisaic Judaism originally developed, it had become dangerous for Jews to have political consciousness as such. The consequences of three anti-Roman rebellions demonstrated that. So the Pharisees absorbed and hid that tradition in the mainstream of the halakhah, carefully avoiding any reference to it as a political tradition. In subsequent ages, this tradition survived and even thrived within the four ells of halakhic Judaism, in the life of Jewish communities wherever Jews settled. 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 in the Pharisee camp, but the Pharisees themselves are least willing to recognize it as a political tradition. Consequently they have done relatively little to come to grips with the problems of statehood in a halakhic framework. The Sadducees, on the other hand, although far more open to building their Jewishness on a political tradition, have ignored that tradition and have built their political ideologies on foreign traditions, mostly imported from Europe.

For the Sadducees to recover the tradition, they must learn not only from their experience as Jews confronting political situations, but by drinking deeply from sources preserved by the Pharisees. Similarly, although the Pharisees can continue to live off their own sources, to cope with statehood they must acquire Sadducean concerns and even norms to some degree. At a time when the Jewish people is threatened with breaking apart into separate camps or communities, most especially in Israel, this interdependence is a positive element, a basis on which to rebuild a more united Jewish people and a more Jewish state.

The New Sadducees and "Who is a Jew"

If the revival of the tripartite division between Sadducees, Pharisees, and Essenes is associated with a piece of a Jewish past, new definitions of who is a Jew, with which the Jewish people are wrestling, represent a brand new experience for Jews. While the Jewish definition of who is a Jew has changed at least once in the course of the long span of Jewish history, from the biblical patriarchal model to the matriarchal descent pattern of Rabbinic Judaism, it has otherwise remained remarkably stable over two periods of nearly two thousand years each. Since the beginning of the post-modern epoch, however, after World War II, we have seen new-style intermarriage, whereby Jews otherwise desirous of remaining Jewish choose partners who are not Jewish and then try to find ways to do so. In an effort to respond to this situation, the Reform movement already has established a patrilineal descent option, along with traditional matrilineal descent, for children to be identified as Jewish, and a number of Reform congregations have provided for the membership of non-Jews who are not active in other religions, no doubt in an effort to respond to the problems of intermarriage.

The Jewish communities that were behind the Iron Curtain for many years before it fell, have already informally established that rule on an ethnic rather than a religious basis. Many of the most active Jews in those communities are not Jewish halakhically and would not have been accepted as Jewish any place else in the world until the 1970s. Now, even when knowledge of their status is readily available, no questions are asked. A very prominent Soviet Jew, himself the son of a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother, offered the following definition of Jewishness in the Soviet Union several years ago: 1) those born Jewish and identified with the Jewish community by having their Jewish nationality identified on their passports; 2) those born Jewish who have been identified by some other nationality on their passports; and 3) those who are willing to share the fate of the Jewish people, i.e., non-Jews attached to Jews through family connections. Even earlier, the State of Israel's Law of Return, while it does not recognize such people as Jews, made it possible for them to gain all the benefits of the law if they settled in Israel with their Jewish spouses, parents, or children.

While the Reform movement in the diaspora has made its changes, the Conservative movement has formally refused to do so, but, in fact, is under considerable pressure from its membership either to change the rules or to bend them. Orthodoxy holds fast to traditional halakhic standards and because it is dominant in Israel has succeeded in maintaining those standards for Israeli identity. Non-Orthodox Israelis are also more flexible in practice.

Where do matters stand today? Within the religious domain or the keter torah, except for a small minority of Reform Jews in the world, the traditional halakhic definition formally prevails. However, the reality is more flexible, essentially allowing every countrywide community to set its own definition with no questions asked. If people come to another community recognized as Jews in their countries of settlement, for the most part they are accepted as such, not only as Jews in trouble needing rescue and relief assistance, but also as leaders in the ranks of world Jewish organizations. Moreover, even the most halakhically rigid on the issue deal with those Jews effectively as Jews within the framework of the keter malkhut. Nevertheless, this is an issue waiting, like a time bomb, to explode.

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