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Jewish Civilization and Polity in a Globalized World:
A New Vision for Organized Jewry
Daniel J. Elazar
As the twentieth century draws to a close, organized Jewry is in the process of concluding
the great mobilizing tasks that have confronted the Jewish people for the past century and
for which it organized itself into its present structure. Those great tasks are being
completed with extraordinary success. They revolved around: a popular rebellion against
the Jewish situation of homelessness, persecution, and impoverishment in the diaspora;
relief from the conditions of poverty and oppression which were the lot of most of world
Jewry then and throughout much of this century; rescueof Jews from countries of distress
and danger to Israel and New World diasporas where the Jewish people could survive and
flourish; and reconstruction of Jewish life under new conditions of freedom and equality.
Those have been great tasks, greatly undertaken and well done. With all of our mistakes,
we have much to be proud of as we draw up a balance sheet at the century's end. Indeed,
this century should stand out, even in the long history of the Jewish people.
However, the completion of those tasks leaves a vacuum for organized Jewish life. Jews
will continue to pursue their individual goals as they will, but to function as a collectivity
they must be moved by important collective tasks. Hence we are at the moment in a
hiatus as we turn to identify the tasks of the next century.
After a century in which the civil tasks of the Jewish people dominated the Jewish
agenda, we have been witnessing a shift or return to the spiritual tasks of Judaism,
sometimes in familiar ways and sometimes in new and even strange ways, but all directed
toward matters of the spirit. The result is that the civil institutions which the Jewish
people have built are almost all in difficulties at this moment. While those civil
institutions may not provide the vision that will motivate Jewish activity in the immediate
future, they must share that vision if they are to remain strong and vital institutions as we
need them to be.
What are the basic principles of such a vision? We can identify three eternal ones:
maintaining and strengthening the solidarity of the Jewish people, maintaining and
developing Jewish civilization and culture in all of their dimensions including the
spiritual, and the maintenance and strengthening of Jewish norms.
My emphasis on civilization and culture is quite deliberate. Seventy years ago, Mordecai
M. Kaplan defined Judaism as "the evolving religious civilization of the Jewish people."
With this definition he hit the mark. Judaism and its bearers, the Jewish people, must be
viewed as a separate civilization, perhaps the smallest of our planet's world civilizations,
that is to say, global in scope and impact.
Judaism is, as Kaplan suggests, a religious civilization, not simply a religion in the sense
that it is not merely a collection of theological doctrines and ritual practices but a
comprehensive way of life that is informed throughout by its original religious message
as it has evolved. For some Jews, living in that religious civilization involves close
adherence to the most rigorous canons of Jewish religious law. For others, it involves a
way of living informed by the spirit and in some cases the observances of the Jewish
religion, often beyond their conscious sensibility that they are.
One can disagree with Kaplan as to where he found the wellsprings of Jewish civilization
and how he saw it evolving, and still accept his basic definition as valuable, primarily
because it enlarges the sphere of what is Jewish and how people live Jewishly. A
civilization touches all aspects of life, but it is more than a way of life. It may include
several ways of life that share common civilizational bonds.
Those bonds are the bonds of culture. Once again, we are speaking of a religiously
informed if not a religious culture. Indeed, it is the religious dimension of that culture that
unites Jews despite relatively superficial differences in the manifestations of culture
based upon where Jews find themselves living.
In addition, culture includes high, middle, and low culture. Each of the three fulfills its
own purpose in the overall whole, and Jews, wherever they were or are, have always
shared some elements of all three. We might begin with the normal religious culture of
Jews, the cycle of the Jewish year, the daily prayers, and the home observances; those
ways in which, to paraphrase Abraham J. Heschel, the Jews sanctified time regardless of
where they found themselves in space. I describe this as middle culture because it
requires a certain amount of conscious effort and commitment where it is the norm or in
those ways in which it is the norm, but it slides over into popular culture as well.
Thus we may say that in Israel, following the Jewish calendar is a matter of popular
culture as are certain rites such as circumcision, hanging a mezuzzah on one's doorway,
holding or participating in a Seder, or even building a sukkah. The latter are sufficiently
widespread throughout the Jewish world to be part of the popular culture of Jews in the
diaspora as well, along with lighting Hanukkah lights and a few others activities.
Activities such as attending synagogue, observing kashrut, especially outside of the
home, and choosing to educate one's children in Jewish sources or to study those sources
oneself, activities which are available to every Jew without special difficulties, but which
are, in practice, matters of choice for individual Jews or Jewish families, represent the
middle dimensions of culture.
Since the establishment of the State of Israel or perhaps the Zionist movement, there has
been a popular culture that has developed outside of the Jewish religious culture and
which has spread to Jews in various parts of the world. Like contemporary popular
culture of all kinds, it has the same lowest common denominator elements and
expressions. At times these include intersection with popular religion. At times they seem
so far removed from anything that could be considered religiously appropriate for Jews
that those not part of the pop culture are appalled. But objectively this popular culture is
still Jewish. At times, for example, when we consider the best-selling literature in
Hebrew or in translation, this popular culture may enter the middle ranks of Jewish
culture as well.
Then there is Jewish high culture which consists of the finest expressions of religious
thought and sensibility, the serious study of Jewish sources, whether in traditional or
more modern ways, and the examination and reexamination of the Jewish experience to
learn from it for our times. At one time Jewish high culture was more separated from
Jewish middle and popular culture, although never as much as it was with other peoples
since the Jewish people as a covenantal people has from biblical times onwards reflected
a basic equality that has meant that access to the highest as well as the lowest is to be
available to everyone.
Jewish civilization, then, is that or those ways of life that are informed by Jewish culture
at all its levels and manifestations. To be authentically Jewish, both the civilization and
the culture must be informed by and interact with Jewish religious demands and
sensibilities, although both can be dealt with differentially.
The Substance of the New Jewish Agenda
An agenda seeking to foster Jewish civilization and culture must include attempts to
understand both, their essence, contents, and parameters. Their cores reveal their
respective essences, their contents suggest the range of expressions of those essences, and
their parameters mark the culturally and civilizationally legitimate limits of those
A second element is to try to heighten the Jewish character of the experiences which
follow those parameters. That means that once understood, every effort should be made
to make sure that the experiences of Jews that fall within the parameters of Jewish
civilization are authentically Jewish, while at the same time relate properly to the times.
That relationship may be one of harmonization or it may be one of confrontation. There
certainly are ways in which Judaism should challenge and confront the spirit of the times
in any times, just as there are others in which Judaism can march along in the spirit of the
times, joining with others to move civilization -- in general -- forward.
The third element should be that efforts should always be made to raise the cultural level
in Jewish life, to move from lower to higher to make popular culture middle culture and
to link middle culture to higher culture. This should be done on every possible front.
None of this is meant to suggest that everything that Jews do or even that Jews do as Jews
should be recognized as equally legitimate in Jewish civilization. There are, indeed, many
cultural expressions of Jews qua Jews that are to be rejected in the spirit of authentic
Judaism and the moral aspirations in which it is grounded. The new Jewish agenda is not
designed to foster anything that Jews do on the grounds that this makes it Jewish. It
should be designed to discriminate between what is legitimate and what is not and seek to
make more legitimate those things that are less or to eliminate them. Thus, for example,
while not historically a traditional Jewish activity, sports have become integrated into the
framework of Jewish civilization at least since the late nineteenth century. For some
people, they may be a prime expression of Jewishness that can be accepted under certain
conditions, but to allow sports to become a cult, as it has in some other civilizations,
would be a travesty on Judaism. Thus, the new Jewish agenda must know how to
distinguish or to improve what is less than the best and how it could reject what does not
fit in.
Judaism is a civilization. There is very little that is in essence outside of its purview,
which means there are myriad spheres of activity which Jews may choose for their
activity and for which Jewish institutions and organizations may be erected to serve and
strengthen. This gives us a very large playing field on which to develop the specifics of
our new agenda. It will have to be an interactive agenda in two ways: first, among the
Jewish people themselves and their institutions; and second, among the Jews and the nonJewish world around them, especially those who have kindred spirits and kindred
Any vision for the Jewish people must rest upon four basic principles: Torah, a shared
commitment to Jewish learning and the commanding obligations that being Jewish
entails; am yisrael (Jewish peoplehood), identification with the Jewish people as a whole,
not just Judaism as a religion, in a great chain of Jewish tradition that stretches across the
generations, binding Jews across time and space; clal yisrael (the community of Israel),
Jewish unity despite our differences and with mutual respect regarding those differences;
brit (covenant), the idea that Jews see themselves as bound to one another and to God
through a covenant that distinguishes us from members of other peoples or faiths, a
covenant that serves to differentiate Jews from non-Jews and to assure in certain critical
ways, that the Jews remain a people apart, even as we have our covenants with those
nations who share many of our covenantal principles and are bound to all of humanity
through the Noahide covenant.
In the new globalized world, we must add another principle, that of kiruv (outreach), the
commitment of those who affirm these principles to reach out as appropriate to other
Jews, to non-Jews who seek to share the fate of the Jewish people, and to humanity in
general, each in the appropriate measure, to touch them while strengthening Jewish life at
its core.
The advancement of these principles must be based on what seem like two contradictory
thrusts: one, provision for more pluralism in Jewish life than ever before, simultaneously
with a rejection of those forms of pluralism which are counter to advance Jewish norms
especially those that accept (even reflect) the neopaganism of our times. Moreover, in the
recognition and acceptance of greater pluralism, Jews will have to be careful to recognize
that different Jewish communities have different understandings of pluralism and not try
to impose their community's understanding on others, although they certainly may wish
to try to convince others of the validity of their particular approach to pluralism.
At the same time, Jews will have to carefully guard against allowing neopaganism to be
recognized as Jewishly valid in the name of pluralism. This requires walking a very
narrow line. Undoubtedly, those institutions offering alternative versions of Jewish
religious and spiritual life and will be advocates of one version or another and may have a
hard time playing that role. Hence it is one that the civil institutions of Jewry will have to
assume for themselves as they have done, albeit not necessarily in a deliberate fashion,
for the past half century at least. To do so they will have to play a critical role in the
renaissance of a norm-based Jewish vision which will need to include the following
1. Renewing the covenants that bind humans as humans and Jews as Jews,
o The advancement of a covenantal democracy that rests upon both consent
and shared norms.
o Partnership both within the Jewish people and with other peoples of
kindred spirit.
o Emphasis on the norms of hesed and hasidut; that is to say, the acceptance
of one's covenantal obligations and implementing them beyond the letter
of the law or their minimal requirements for the sake of maintaining
proper covenantal ties.
2. Strengthening the ties that bind Jews to one another, fostering reut or
neighborliness and arevut or mutual obligation.
3. Maintaining and improving justice for all through the translation of the biblical
idea of tzedakah u'mishpat into practical programs suited to the times.
These norms rest upon value concepts as old as the Jewish people itself, given form in the
Bible and the Talmud, in some cases reinterpreted at the time of the Zionist revolution,
and now requiring new postmodern applications.
They include:
1. Jewishly directed norms such as recognizing that Jews constitute an edah, an
assembly of all of the people of Israel for joint decision-making and action; that
the Jewish people constitutes an am segula, a people with a special destiny, and
that we are bound together in a brit arevut or a covenant of mutual obligation.
2. For Jews it also includes Zionist norms such as the building of the bayit leumi,
Israel as our national home, as a medina yehudit, embodied in a state that will be
both Jewish and democratic in Eretz Israel, which will be committed to
hithadshut, that is to say, Jewish renewal, and tehiya yehudit, Jewish revival.
Our new vision must be built on these foundations. In order to do so, contemporary Jews
need to strengthen their religious commitments, the Jewish character of their homes and
families, and develop a renewed emphasis on Jewish learning -- all proper steps
necessary to bring about a Jewish renaissance. We must find Jewish ways to fulfill
humanistic norms. These can be stated in traditional Jewish value language as yishuv
haaretz, the proper use of the world and its resources for human benefit in ecologically
sound ways; bnei Noah, recognizing that ultimately all humans are bound together in the
same covenant; tikkun olam, or the repair and restoration of the world; and darchei
shalom, developing and implanting the ways of peace.
The unspoken premise accompanying all of these is a need for Jewish organization -local, countrywide, regional, and global -- to provide the framework through which to
mobilize the resources and to focus collective Jewish efforts on those tasks. Without such
organization there is no Jewish people. With proper organization the Jews have a
community and a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. In our time, this is
especially important since we will continue to see a crumbling along the edges of the
Jewish people through assimilation and we will need the care to maintain a "whole" that
can counterbalance that assimilation into the new global world society. For a Jewish
renaissance we need not only Jewish individuals and families but Jewish communities
and a Jewish polity.