Religious Identity or Cultural Connection? Orthodoxy and Israeliness: A Response to Chaim Saiman

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Religious Identity or Cultural Connection? Orthodoxy and Israeliness: A Response to Chaim Saiman
Michael Weiner

In “How Zionism is Reconstructing American Orthodoxy,” a contribution to Tradition’s recent symposium on “Rupture and Reconstruction,” Professor Chaim Saiman makes a relatively straightforward claim: “Israel has come to define Judaism, even—or especially—for Orthodoxy, which increasingly views the State of Israel as its spiritual center and normative core” (94). He clarifies precisely what this means, asserting that “affiliation with the religion, culture and wellbeing of Israel plays an increasingly dominant role” in the creation of American Orthodox Jewish identity, perhaps even to the point of supplanting its prior “halakha-centric” construction. In the rest of the essay, Saiman brings a wide array of examples—from increased communal support for young adults doing IDF service to deeper engagement with Israeli culture to American laymen relying on Israeli poskim—to prove his thesis. All come to demonstrate that Israel and “Israeliness” are now central aspects of American Orthodox religious life.

While Saiman’s numerous examples are fascinating data points in their own right, I am not sure that they prove his thesis. He wants to persuade us that when, for example, Orthodox Jews listen to (secular) Israeli music or attend AIPAC conferences in larger numbers today than in the past, these activities constitute new markers of “religious intensity” (93) that stand in stark contrast to the reality of years gone by, when “halakhic scrupulosity” alone was the sole measure of frumkeit.

By contrast, I suggest that much of deepening American Orthodox engagement with Israel is not a newly created form of religious identity, but rather an embodiment of traditional religious identity that has been carried over from two millennia of Diasporic Jewish life. In other cases, I would argue that such engagement is about either ethnic pride or the enhanced “supply” of traditional Jewish leaders and experiences that Israel provides, rather than a reorientation of religious being. Either way, while there has been a significant shift in recent decades in the strength and positiveness of engagement between Orthodox Jews and Israel, to see that as creating a categorically new form of religious identity seems to me to go too far.

On the cultural front, I find it difficult to believe that Modern Orthodox Jews listening to the latest Israeli pop song would define that activity as an explicit “affirmation” of Israel’s “religiously redemptive character” ( 94), as Saiman puts it. Such a claim requires that we enter the minds of Orthodox Eyal Golan-listeners and discover their intentions. Short of doing that, I will stick to my own suspicions that American Orthodox consumers of Israeli culture would not even think to put their entertainment preferences in the same ballpark of identity-based religious significance as their observance of mitzvot like tefillah, Shabbat or various hesed initiatives. Moreover, I don’t see such individuals as being very interested in the nuanced theology of Rav Kook, who held that secular Zionist settlement and culture contained a fulfillment of God’s will in the midst of rebellion. While such discourse permeates Dati Leumi circles in Israel, it has had far less impact on the philosophy of American Religious Zionism.

To take a recent example, I know of Orthodox Jews who took great pride in the Israeli actress Gal Gadot’s star turn in the Wonder Woman movie. Few of them, I believe, would have described this as a religiously meaningful act or in any way related to the redemptive character of modern Israel, but rather as a form of cultural engagement more akin to Jewish appreciation of borscht belt humor of old. It is pride, pleasure, and solidarity with one’s community and nation, but it is not necessarily understood to be religious, or at all new. Saiman himself notes that this phenomenon perfectly parallels mid-20th century Jewish pride in the American “cultural icons” (96) who were known to be Jews. Consequently, contemporary Orthodox pride in Gal Gadot (if there indeed is such pride) is not necessarily a religious gesture any more than our great-grandparents’ pride in the Marx Brothers was. Contra Saiman, interest in Israeli culture is not a product or outgrowth of religious fervor, but of connection to Jewish culture as a kind of ethnic culture. Would Saiman have us believe that Orthodox Jews who eat hummus and watch Fauda somehow incorporate these acts as significant parts of their religious identity more so than Orthodox Jews who eat kugel and watch Seinfeld? If so—and I’m very open to this being true—the point requires further development in order to be adequately proven.

Conversely, because there are now far more publicly committed, nationally recognized Jews in Israel than there are in America, American Orthodox Jewry now has greater opportunity to be religiously inspired by Israeli figures. We American Modern Orthodox Jews do not have our “own” Sivan Rahav Meir, Yishai Ribo, or Rabbi Chaim Sabato—observant Jews who are also significant artistic, cultural, and religious role models in the Jewish State. Thus, the American turn towards these figures is not a theological statement or identity shift, but rather a very practical one, based on supply and demand. To be sure, Jewish sovereignty in Israel enabled such people to become public figures, but the point is that American appreciation of them and openness to learning from these Israelis says more about the high-quality content of Israeli icons than about American shifts in values. (Of course, it also has something to do with ease of cross-Atlantic cultural transmission, thanks to the Internet, a point which Saiman gets right.)

Similarly, Saiman’s observation that a number of Israeli rabbis now have circles of devoted followers in America is also an issue of supply. Over the past few decades, more and more of Modern Orthodoxy’s top rabbinic leaders have made aliya, including most of the rabbis on Saiman’s list (Rabbis Henkin, Lichtenstein, Riskin, and Sperber). As a consequence of that demographic trend, it is only natural that American Orthodox Jews will turn in larger numbers to those transplanted leaders, who continue to write in English and engage with non-Israeli audiences. I do not see here an instinctive ideological preference for Torat Eretz Yisrael or some uniquely Israeli approach to halakha, but instead a matter of pragmatic convenience. Additionally, several rabbis on that list espouse more liberal positions on matters of halakha that have been less accepted in America, further explaining their popularity.

Moving to Saiman’s discussion of IDF service, I wonder how true it is that the lone soldier phenomenon has become part of Orthodox identity. This article notes that 70% of Nefesh B’Nefesh’s young olim define as “non-Orthodox,” according to the group’s internal statistics. If most lone soldiers do not identify as Orthodox, and the overwhelming majority of Orthodox men in North America do not join the IDF, then what exactly does it mean to say that supporting and cheering on lone soldiers has become a defining expression of Orthodox religiosity?

Similarly, I wonder how many Orthodox Jews attending an AIPAC conference would frame their participation as an element of religious identity categorically different than any of their other religious commitments, as Saiman seems to assert. I’m skeptical. Would Orthodox AIPAC attendees not simply say they are there to ensure the survival of the Jewish people and the security of a Jewish state in Eretz Yisrael (whether this is accurate or not)—both of which are classical halakhic values one could pick up from any work of Jewish law? What exactly is new or “reconstructive” about wanting to protect Jewish lives from harm? If Orthodox Jews didn’t attend AIPAC decades ago, that says more about the massive growth of Israel advocacy groups since the ‘80s than it does about identity shifts within Orthodoxy.

While Saiman does note at the onset that “significant social and demographic changes within Israeli society itself” may partially account for some of the changes he notes, he chooses to focus on the changes wrought in American Orthodox identity that are causally significant. I am not convinced that this selective analysis yields as much as he claims it does. Going back to the example of culture, I would say that the phenomenon of Orthodox Jews appreciating Israeli culture is better explained by lots of factors besides their own shifting prioritization of religious values. For one, the quality of Israeli cultural offerings has gotten a lot better in the past several decades, such that Americans of all stripes—well beyond the Jewish community—have also come into contact with TV shows like Hatufim, Srugim, Shtisel, or Fauda, to cite a few examples. This has more to do with Netflix than with new identities. I think these two factors—higher quality and improved ease of access—are themselves entirely sufficient to explain this phenomenon, without recourse to positing an identity shift. Put simply, Orthodox Jews only began to organize lectures on Israel as a “Start-Up Nation” (an example noted on p. 96) when Israel actually became a “start-up nation,” which was not all that long ago.

As Rabbi Reuven Ziegler puts it in an article explaining Rav Soloveitchik’s approach to Zionism, the Rav did not “perceive any inherent value in sovereignty, other than fulfilling the specific mitzvah of settlement, nor does he assign any inherent spiritual value to the State, seeing it rather as a base from which to attain other objectives. These objectives, fate and destiny, are the same ones Jews pursued during their long exile, since they can be attained in the Diaspora as well.”

I would say that this understanding of the relationship Americans ought to have with Israel, which emphasizes the continuities of religious identity in exile and in Israel, remains an accurate depiction of how American Orthodoxy today mixes Israel with its Jewish selfhood. Israel indeed embodies certain Jewish values to a greater degree than were present in Galut, thus affecting our choices regarding everything from television shows to army service, but it does not itself create a deep shift in the priorities of American Orthodoxy. Halakha, Jewish peoplehood, and Jewish culture remain as ever the focal points of our religious identity.

Michael Weiner is a junior at Yeshiva University, where he is majoring in political science and co-edits the opinions section of the YU Commentator.

[Published on January 5, 2020]

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