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What Does It Really Mean to Be a "Jewish State"?

What Does It Really Mean to Be a "Jewish State"?

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Therefore impress these My words upon your very heart: bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead, and teach them to your children – reciting them when your stay at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up; and inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates – to the end that you and your children may endure in the land…

Deuteronomy 11:18-21

Our community, Shorashim (about 100 families) is engaged in a process of strategic planning sponsored by the county government. As part of the process, we have been examining, through a survey and discussions, the implications of Shorashim’s declared identity as a “traditional” (masorti) community. The confusion that is emerging has broader implications – for Israel’s identity as a Jewish state.

It turns out that when people in Israel use the word masorti, their intention is not intuitively obvious without further explanation. The root is m-s-r, which means to pass on or hand down, just like the Latin root tradere (from trans = across and dare = give). The word has at least four different meanings:

  1. Traditional = Orthodox: a community in which the members live a halachic life style, meaning taking as personally obligatory such mitzvot (commandments) as avoiding travel on Shabbat, the dietary laws, regular synagogue prayer, etc.
  1. Respectful of the tradition as handed down to me: people who do not question the authority of halachah (Jewish law) in principle, but whose primary loyalty is to family and community traditions, which may, in many cases, be far from the halachic norm. Thus, masorti is often understood as the approach of many Mizrachi Jews (of North African and Middle Eastern origins), who are, for example, committed to attending [Orthodox] synagogue on Shabbat but who then drive to lunch with grandma, or even to a soccer game.
  1. Conservative: The American Conservative Movement thought it was being clever in adopting the Hebrew name Masorti in Israel. However, this choice has led to a good deal of confusion, because of the different connotations of the word. Although there may be similarities between Conservative practice and that of Mizrachi masorti Jews, the ideological underpinning is quite different. And most Israelis – Orthodox, secular, and masorti – assume that Reform and Conservative Judaism are one and the same.
  1. Culturally Jewish: Many Jews, when they say they want to live in a masorti community, mean a community with a general “Jewish atmosphere:” communal celebration of Jewish holidays (e.g., dinner in the sukkah, the M’gillah reading on Purim, Hanukkah party, Holocaust Day ceremony), a peaceful atmosphere on Shabbat, and the existence of a synagogue (but without any obligation to attend).

Here at Shorashim, there is consensus that we are a masorti community. However, there is no consensus about what that means. The gap between people who envision an active Conservative congregation and those for whom masorti just means a place with a Jewish atmosphere has given rise to feelings of betrayal on the one hand and religious coercion on the other. Which is just a microcosm of the big picture here regarding the conflicting understandings of what it means for Israel to be a “Jewish state.”

Rabbi Marc J. Rosenstein, the author of Galilee Diary: Reflections on Daily Life in Israel, grew up in Highland Park, IL, at North Shore Congregation Israel. His first visit to Israel was as a high school student in the first cohort of the NFTY-EIE program in 1962. He was ordained at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1975, and received his Ph.D. from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, in modern Jewish history, while a Jerusalem Fellow. In 1990, he made aliyah, moving to Moshav Shorashim, a small community in the central Galilee. Until his retirement, he served as executive director of The Galilee Foundation for Value Education, a seminar center that engages in programming to foster pluralism and coexistence, and as director of the Israel Rabbinical Program of HUC-JIR in Jerusalem.


Rabbi Marc J. Rosenstein
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