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Israel at 71

By Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson

Every Jew is called to a dual task – to fashion hi/her life as an expression of the age-old covenant linking God and the Jewish people, and to express the dynamism of that covenant according to their own unique personality. Like those who came before us, we rise to take our place in the transmission and expansion of God’s Torah.

But our age boasts three distinctions that make us unique in Jewish history: Most Jews today live in democratic societies; we are blessed with an independent Jewish state; and ours is a generation grappling with the shadow of the Shoah. These three catalysts for responsible action are inextricably intertwined, and lend historical specificity to the challenges we face.

The Jews of Israel must wrestle with the implications of sovereignty, seeking ways to integrate Jewish teachings in a pluralistic and democratic mode. What does Torah contribute to the ethos of a Jewish state, and what wisdom might it offer Jews who are secular or even hostile to religion? What obligation does a Jewish state have to its non-Jewish citizens and residents? Jews in the diaspora also grapple with questions of sovereignty, not as a people per se, but as citizens expected to contribute to the advancement of society.

Because these tasks overlap, the Jews of Israel and the Jews of the diaspora must find ways to speak to each other, harvesting Jewish insight across specific divides (denominational, religious/secular, Zion/diaspora). We must learn to frame our discussion with those who approach their Jewish identities differently than we do, with Jews whose life context may be quite different from our own.

In that regard, I believe that Masorti Judaism has a special contribution to make. From its inception, the enterprise of Zionism necessitated a shift of focus, from faith to politics, from exile to sovereignty. In the Zionist vision, Jewish identity extends beyond the circle of religion and aspires to address the integration of every aspect of life.

In that shift from belief to life, the founders of Zionism drew their inspiration from the nationalist movements of 19th-century Europe and the philosophies of Romanticism. But Jewish grounds are needed for a Jewish integration into life. For Zionism to strengthen an authentic Jewish identity, it must create continuity with Jewish sources and the Jewish past. It is precisely here that the thinkers of Masorti Judaism have a contribution to make, not only in the diaspora but in Zion, too.

By articulating its understanding of Judaism as having a history, and by framing the history of the Jewish people as the authoritative ground through which Torah is experienced, Masorti thinkers provide a way of understanding Jewish sources that can speak both to secular and religious Israelis and to those in the diaspora who seek to integrate the insights of each new age into Jewish life. If Judaism is the communal expression of Torah in each age, inevitably there will be several different ways of living that commitment, reflecting the rich diversity of Jewish experience. And that is as it should be.

But this search will not unfold in the chill air of disembodied dogma or personal expression. A living people builds on its own past, mines its own heritage, renews its dynamism by adding its own interpretations. Masorti Judaism provides a method of integrating the best of academic and scientific scholarship with the wellsprings of Jewish tradition, faith, observance, and culture. In that integration, we re-energize both modernity and tradition. And that remains, as it always has been, our sacred task.

*This article has been edited from a longer version, available at mercaz.masortiolami.org

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson is the Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies.

Posted on 8 May 2019