Jewish Journal


‘Knowledge of Jewish law is no longer a monopoly of the observant’

by Shmuel Rosner

January 6, 2012 | 2:41 am

Harvey E. Goldberg is Emeritus, Sarah Allen Shaine Chair in Sociology and Anthropology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Utilizing both field research and historical documentation, he has focused on the cultural history of Jews in North Africa, ethnicity and religion in Israeli society, and more generally on the interfaces between anthropology and Jewish Studies. Recently he has been involved in projects concerning Jewish life in the United States, where he was born.
Goldberg has been Visiting Professor at the University of California, Berkeley and at Boğaziçi University, Istanbul, Visiting Lecturer at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Science Sociale, Paris, and Fellow at the Center for Advanced Judaic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. His books include Jewish Life in Muslim Libya: Rivals and Relatives (Chicago, 1990) and Jewish Passages: Cycles of Jewish Life (Berkeley, 2003). His edited volumes include Sephardi and Modern Middle Eastern Jewries (Bloomington, Indiana, 1996) and The Life of Judaism (Berkeley, 2001). Most recently he has co-edited two collections: Perspectives on Israeli Anthropology, with Esther Hertzog, Orit Abuhav and Emanuel Marx (Detroit, 2010), and Dynamic Belonging: Contemporary Jewish Collective Identities, with Steven M. Cohen and Ezra Kopelowitz (New York and Oxford, 2012).

You write that “Many Jews, particularly those who see themselves as bearing responsibility for the Jewish future, view recent changes and developments with alarm”. Such alarm, you say, “distract us from understanding the positive and culture-constructive aspects of Jewish responses to trends unfolding in the United States, Israel and elsewhere”. Can you name the two-three most “positive” aspects?

In the United States, my colleague Steve Cohen and other researchers have pointed out that while there are Jews who “leave the fold,” those who remain engaged in Jewish life do so with greater commitment, intensity, and knowledge. The education they make available to their children reflects the same trend. This is true for all the standard categories, including Conservative and Reform Jews, and also expresses itself in new types of congregations that define themselves and their images of Judaism in ways that move beyond conventional denominational labels. In Israel, the past generation has witnessed the growth of a range of frameworks in which Jews who most likely would be classified as “secular” seek exposure to Jewish texts, and devote time to expand their knowledge of Jewish culture and history. Even if these new forms of study do not lead to changes in “observance” from a traditional rabbinic point of view, it demonstrates the growing awareness that it is no longer acceptable for “Judaism” to be the monopoly of “datiyim” or the “religious” alone. Another phenomenon that can be found in both countries is the greater participation of women in public religious life.

Can you say something about the different ways in which Jewish feminism impacts Orthodox Jews in the US and in Israel?

An important change in both countries is that women began studying everything that men did. Today, there are professors of Talmud who are women. This does not occur among Haredim of course, but within Modern Orthodoxy or Israeli National Religious streams, women are recognized as having advanced knowledge of the whole gamut of Jewish texts. Regarding public religious practice, innovation has been cautious, but definitely in evidence.  Incrementally, more “adventurous” steps have been taken. Many years ago in the US, I witnessed an Orthodox Sabbath minyan in which the Torah Scroll, after having been taken from the ark, was passed into the women’s section allowing them to be close to it, before it was finally placed on the reader’s table. In various “open” Orthodox congregations it is now common to lower the curtain separating men and women while the Torah is being read, in contrast to the prayer section of the service. In some such settings, women at times will give the Torah lesson. 

There also has been pressure to alter the details of wedding ceremonies to correspond to egalitarianism consciousness, insofar as halakha is not transgressed. Thus, some contemporary rabbis will allow a bride to present something like a ring to the groom at the end of the ceremony, while taking steps to ensure that this is not confused with the ancient act of qiddushin where a man gives something of value to a woman to formally betroth her. In the mid 1980s, after a tragic death, I once asked a Hevra Qaddisha in Jerusalem to allow a woman instructor to eulogize her female student and was told that this was not permissible. In recent years, I have witnessed a number of occasions in which daughters have eulogized a deceased parent, and everyone took this as normal.

Please explain: “In the American context, informed by late-modern trends but also with roots in Protestantism, the contemporary locus of religion is the individual looking out. But in Israel, we are witnessing an opposite move—the weakening of collective imperatives and a groping toward the individual as a site of Jewish value”.

American civilization developed around an ideology that saw the individual with his (and now, her) religious conscience as a sacred cornerstone that must be respected, and out of which various forms of association grew.  Add to that the trends of late modernity or “postmodernism,” which question received cultural categories and “master narratives,” and we are not surprised to find Jews in America expressing themselves in diverse and fragmented religious modes according to their preferences and sensibilities. In Israel, we are beginning to see partially analogous trends coming from the “opposite direction.” Beginning from firmly formulated notions of collective identity and solid institutional structures, the growing emphasis on the individual in all spheres of Israeli life, from economics through the exposure to global culture, means that people sense they should have more choice in the realm of religion as well.  More and more Israeli Jews believe that they have the right to follow Judaism as it feels “right” to them, and not only in terms of norms handed down from the past. With “privatization” being such a dominant Israeli theme, it is understandable that it now appears in the realm of religion. Thus, some Jews in Israel recently have found that they appreciate forms of religious expression that evolved in the Diaspora, and at times are attracted to them.

Is there a growing gap between Jewish Americans and Jewish Israelis? Why?

The above comments notwithstanding, the basic historical fact is that Judaism in America and in Israel evolved along differing trajectories. Given the constitutional separation of church and state in the United States, Jews were free to formulate different religious paths and to organize synagogues, schools, and other forms of communal life accordingly. This led to the growth of liberal forms of Judaism, but even Orthodoxy in America benefited from this freedom. Diversity among the various streams grew with time, and no group can force its beliefs and practices on another. In Mandate Palestine, and then the State of Israel, Jews who were committed to exact religious practice sought to protect their way of life, and turned to politics to ensure that formal institutions were in place enabling them to follow their religious conscious. This resulted in the established place of Orthodoxy, and the separate streams of education seeking to ensure the continuity of various Orthodox ideologies and groups. Thus, while the majority of Jews in America who identified religiously affiliated with Reform or Conservative congregations, these were stifled in the Israeli setting and only slowly attained some recognition. The recent strengthening of strong nationalist rhetoric in Israel, anchored in the conflict with Palestinians, is another factor now driving many Jews in America along religious and cultural roads that separate them from Israel. Liberal ideologies and laws enabled Jews to make their way in America, and many find it difficult to understand why Israel seems to ignore or even run against these principles. There thus have emerged articulate Jewish voices in America that distant themselves from contemporary Israeli life. Simultaneously, other American Jews feel deep connection to Israel no matter what policies its leaders advocate, and some remain attached even as they try to contribute to projects of social change.

And an easy final question: All in all, is Jewish civilization rising or declining?

Easy, because it’s impossible to answer, but I can suggest several points regarding the question that should be kept in mind. First, one should not equate change with decline. Many patterns of Jewish life are undergoing change, and it takes time to reach assessments whether these are contributing to Jewish civilization or detracting from it. Second, calling Judaism a civilization needs to be qualified. Judaism has deep historical roots and has spread throughout the world, but because of the small number of Jews compared to other major civilizations, Jewish culture and religion have always been closely intertwined with other ways of life.  Some Jewish ideologies, particularly those we call Orthodox, have sought to deny or minimize the fact of cultural interchange and dialogue, but any sober look at Jewish history reveals myriad examples of what we consider “Jewish” to reflect give-and-take with the wider environment. This realization need not lead to extreme positions: viewing Judaism as a minor derivative culture, on the one hand, or seeking greater self-isolation to help “protect” Jewish ideals and practice on the other. Jews need to be informed about their past and exposed to a variety of Jewish paths that are being forged in the present. Armed with such self-understanding (which entails a grasp of other civilizations within which Jewish life has grown), contemporary Jews can make thoughtful choices that are also informed by engrained Jewish habits. If Jewish civilization succeeds to continue to grow and flourish, it will only be on the basis of internal variety, and dynamic efforts to hold on to what is significant from the past while creatively sorting through new sources of influence and pressure.

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