“Above All, Judaism Is a Religion”

Nov. 10 2021

One of America’s leading historians of the Jewish people, Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi (1932-2009) trained numerous scholars, and shaped the thought of many more with his works on Jewish memory, Marranism, and Sigmund Freud. In conversation with Sylvie Anne Goldberg, he reflected on the state of Judaism in his day:

One movement that is quite active right now calls itself “secular Judaism.” I have nothing against these people, who include many American and Israeli academics and intellectuals, nor against their movement or this trend. I support any action taken in the name of affirming Jewish identity. The one thing that annoys me, and I don’t think it’s a sign of purism, is the name itself, “secular Judaism.” Historically speaking, I find it distorting, misleading, and contradictory. Judaism is a religion, or at least it was. We can’t artificially cancel this aspect.

Above all, Judaism is a religion. By definition, every specifically Jewish way of life is anchored in one form or another to a religious connection to life.

And although Yerushalmi admitted sometimes thinking that “the condition of the Jewish people . . . isn’t anything to be proud of,” he urged reflection on the situation immediately following the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE.

The state of mind expressed in the Apocalypse of Baruch, [a religious work from that period], is, “let’s stop sowing, plowing, getting married, and everything else, because it’s all over.” And yet, nothing’s over, since we’re here today to talk about it. The other example comes from a poem by Yehudah Leib Gordon, . . . “L’mi ani amel” (“For Whom Do I Toil?”). . . . I quote from memory—the end of the poem states: “Who knows? Perhaps I’m the last Hebrew language poet and you are the last readers.” This poem was written in 1870, I believe. That’s how Gordon felt at the time, with good reason. There was no way to predict that less than a century later, a Jewish state would be restored, in which Hebrew would become the daily language.

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Read more at Tablet

More about: Judaism, Second Temple, Secular Judaism

 

Reforms to Israel’s Judiciary Must Be Carefully Calibrated

The central topic of debate in Israel now is the new coalition government’s proposed reforms of the nation’s judiciary and unwritten constitution. Peter Berkowitz agrees that reform is necessary, but that “the proper scope and pace of reform, however, are open to debate and must be carefully calibrated.”

In particular, Berkowitz argues,

to preserve political cohesiveness, substantial changes to the structure of the Israeli regime must earn support that extends beyond these partisan divisions.

In a deft analysis of the conservative spirit in Israel, bestselling author Micah Goodman warns in the Hebrew language newspaper Makor Rishon that unintended consequences flowing from the constitutional counterrevolution are likely to intensify political instability. When a center-left coalition returns to power, Goodman points out, it may well repeal through a simple majority vote the major changes Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition seeks to enact. Or it may use the legislature’s expanded powers, say, to ram through laws that impair the religious liberty of the ultra-Orthodox. Either way, in a torn nation, constitutional counterrevolution amplifies division.

Conservatives make a compelling case that balance must be restored to the separation of powers in Israel. A prudent concern for the need to harmonize Israel’s free, democratic, and Jewish character counsels deliberation in the pursuit of necessary constitutional reform.

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Read more at RealClearPolitics

More about: Israel & Zionism, Israeli Judicial Reform