Choices for the chosen

November 24, 1995

Rabbi Dan Cohn-Sherbok has a proposal for a divided faith.

For decades Israeli society has been under threat from the Arab world. The danger of attack is part of daily life in the Holy Land. Yet the assassination of the Israeli prime minister by a rightwing Orthodox Jew is a new phenomenon. How could such an event have taken place? What is not commonly recognised is that the Jewish world is no longer monolithic. It has fragmented into a variety of groups, each with its own particular ideology.

On the far right, Orthodox Jews have splintered into a number of subgroups. At one extreme are the Hasidim, many of whom refuse to recognise the state of Israel since it has not been brought into existence by the Messiah. At the other end are religious Zionists who are staunch defenders of Jewish nationalism. Then there are a variety of non-Orthodox movements. Conservative Jews espouse a traditional lifestyle while discarding the belief that God revealed the Law to Moses on Mt Sinai. Reform and Liberal Judaism encourage the adaptation of tradition to modern circumstances. While Reconstructionist and Humanistic Jews have ceased to believe in a supernatural deity yet seek to identify religiously as Jews. Added to these are the vast number of Jews who have no desire to affiliate to any religious body.

Given such diversity, is there any ideology that can draw together the scattered fragments of the Jewish people? The Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, has stressed the importance of returning to tradition. In his view, the future of the Jewish people can be assured only if they return to the faith of their ancestors. There is little doubt that non-Orthodox Jews as well as Jewish non-believers would find little merit in such a proposal. No uniform Jewish lifestyle can be imposed from above, nor is it likely to emerge from within the Jewish community.

What is needed instead is a more realistic conception of Jewish life, one that accepts the variety of attitudes that exist within the Jewish community. In the modern world, the adherents of each Jewish movement are at liberty to decide which beliefs and practices are personally significant. Just as Jews are free to make personal choices about all aspects of their everyday existence they are at liberty to decide for themselves how to conduct their religious lives.

Such a conception of Judaism as a non-dogmatic religious system can perhaps best be illustrated by the analogy of the supermarket. If we imagine Jewish civilisation as a vast emporium with articles from the past arranged in long aisles and individual Jews with shopping trolleys, this form of Judaism would encourage all Jews to select from the shelves those items they wish to possess. Orthodox Jews would leave with overflowing trolleys; Conservative and Reconstructionist Jews would depart with less; Reform and Humanistic Jews with even fewer commodities; and non-affiliated Jews with hardly any. Just as when shopping each person is able to make selections without the fear of coercion or criticism, so within this open model of Judaism individuals would be free to decide which features of the Jewish past to incorporate into their lives.

As a radical alternative to the more structured models of the Jewish faith, this approach provides a foundation for integrating Jewish belief and practice into modern life. Within this philosophy, all those who wish to be identified as Jews would be encouraged to find their own path through the Jewish heritage. As a remedy for the bitter divisions in the community, this new formulation of the Jewish heritage may offer the hope of unity for the next millennium.

Rabbi Professor Dan Cohn-Sherbok teaches Jewish theology at the University of Kent. His new book, Modern Judaism, will be published in January.

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