Last week there was a news story from Israel about an IDF soldier who was sentenced to two weeks in the stockade for eating a non-Kosher sausage on a military base. The sentence was later rescinded, but not before it raised concerns about the growing enforcement of Jewish orthodoxy in the IDF, and worries about the next battleground in the efforts of the ultra-orthodox establishment in Israel to root out all forms of halachic impurity.
Is this more evidence that hard, unyielding religion (which we henceforth, somewhat inaccurately, call fundamentalism) is on the march everywhere? Societies like Israel that were built on a firm foundation of secularism seem to be increasingly in retreat from their founding principles. At least this is the argument in the new book by the distinguished political philosopher, Michael Walzer, The Paradox of Liberation: Secular Revolutions and Religious Counterrevolutions. Walzer focuses on three examples, three countries that fought for and gained independence in the years after World War II: Algeria, India, and Israel. All three countries were originally governed by largely secular and more or less socialist governments that were, if not anti-religious, then a-religious, treating religion with a combination of tolerance and condescension, convinced that religion represented a dying past that would slowly ebb into extinction. As Walzer describes it, all three countries were dominated by an ideology of liberation. First the external enemies (the French for Algeria, and the Brits for Israel and India) had to be defeated and then the liberators wanted to rescue their people from backwardness, ignorance, passivity, and submissiveness, and wanted to help their people by transforming them, by overcoming or modernizing their religious traditional religious beliefs and practicesto which many of them are firmly attached. And so the liberated come to resent their liberation, and turn on their liberators. And in all three countries, hard, orthodox, fundamentalist religion is in retreat, while it is the secularists who find themselves unsure of their values.
As Walzer suggests, Moses is perhaps the prototypical liberator, both wanting to free his people from bondage and wanting to free his people from the mentality of their bondage, and being widely disliked for his pains, as last weeks parsha Bha-a lotkha amply demonstrates, with the people as a whole, wanting meat and not manna, the 70 elders who are touched by Gods spirit, and Miriam and Aaron all seeming to challenge his authority. One lesson is that the people dont generally appreciate being liberated from their idolatries.
Zionism is a classic ideology of liberation, wanting to free the Jews the wretchedness of galut. As Walzer points out, Franz Fanon, the Algerian author of the famous tract The Wretched of the Earth was also an ideologist of transformationif only colonialism could be abolished, the new post-colonial man and woman would emerge. But all Johnny One-Note ideologies of transformation (and Zionism and anti-colonialism are among the most benign) holding that a single evil needs to be eliminated before the worlds suffering ends, are always too narrow, and make the task of human transformation seem far easier than it actually is.
Where does this leave us? Walzer suggests that the problem with secularism such as the classic ideology of Zionism is that it failed to engage the religious world view. Im not sure if that is true, where in Israel, starting in 1948, Ben-Gurion made ample provisions for the ultra-orthodox in politics and through governmental subvention. And the case can be made that the Congress Party was essentially a Hindu party, for all of Gandhis and Nehrus protestations to the contrary. (That was certainly the view of Indias Muslims and untouchables.) Indeed, there is a strong argument to be made that Ben-Gurion made far too many concessions to the ultra-orthodox communities, and paved the way for its growing strength. One problem s that secularism is not what it used to be. In all the cases discussed by WalzerIndia, Algeria, and Israel, secularism was mixed part of a socialist utopianism that saw secularism as a path to a better and happier future. For good reason, this has been largely abandoned. Secularism is just about whether or not God exists, not about creating a new socialist man or woman, and as such is much diminished.
But rather than a division between religion and secularism, I think it makes more sense to speak of the divide between fundamentalism and non-fundamentalism, the latter coming in two main varieties, liberal religion and secularism. In Israel today, as many studies have shown, the old stereotype of the 20% ultra-orthodox vs the remainder of the Jewish population is seriously out of date, with large majorities of Jewish Israelis lighting Sabbath candles, refraining from eating pork or shellfish, and so on.
It was surprising that Walzers book says nothing about the one person who in the early history of Zionism probably did more than anyone else, to try to link the two camps, the orthodox and the secular, Abraham Rav Kook, the chief rabbi of Jerusalem for many years before his death in 1935. It has been difficult to get a detailed account of his life and works in English, a lack that has been in part remedied by an excellent volume on Kook by Yehudah Mirsky in the Yale University Press Jewish Lives series. Kook was a subtle thinker, but prone to messianism, and believed the socialists and kibbutzniks around him were in their own ways hastening the messianic age. Kooks messianism unfortunately, as Mirsky shows, has been one of the chief inspirations for religious settlers in Israel since 1967, many of whom see themselves as the inheritors of the legacies of both Kook and the pioneering settlement building spirit of Ben-Gurion and the Yishuv.
I dont know if Judaism in Israel and the United States are growing closer together or moving further apart. If Kook is relatively unknown in the United States, I was interested to read recently that his rough equivalent in American Jewish life, Abraham Joshua Heschel, is still relatively unknown in Israel. The answer seems to be that Israeli Judaism is both increasingly like its American cousin, with the growth of liberal Judaism, and increasingly unlike the American version, with an established religion that is constantly trying to expand the ambit of its authority. In the end, in the battle of religion and secularism, of fundamentalism and non-fundamentalism, there is no final winner or loser. Fundamentalist religion, contrary to predictions a century ago, is alive, well, and militantly proselytizing. But non-fundamentalist religion and secularism, contrary to more recent predictions, are healthy as well, and the boundaries between them will continue to be disputed for some time to come.