Frayed: The Dis­putes Unrav­el­ing Reli­gious Zionists

Yair Ettinger

By – April 1, 2024

One of the great mis­con­cep­tions among Jews today is that Ortho­dox Judaism is sta­t­ic. As Yair Ettinger explains in his won­der­ful study, that can’t be fur­ther from the truth. Ortho­doxy is a prod­uct of Judaism’s dia­logue with moder­ni­ty, and many of the most impor­tant move­ments today — such as fem­i­nism and inclu­sion of LGBTQ+ Jews in reli­gious prac­tice — bring about change in the tra­di­tion­al Jew­ish world. 

Ettinger calls his book Frayed because Ortho­dox Judaism’s atti­tude toward change is not mono­lith­ic. Where some greet the chal­lenge of moder­ni­ty by open­ing doors, oth­ers close them, dou­bling down on strin­gen­cies. This can be seen most acute­ly in Ettinger’s dis­cus­sion about the par­tic­i­pa­tion of Ortho­dox women in the army, where the issue finds incred­i­bly force­ful state­ments from both sides of the debate. There are also ten­sions sur­round­ing women’s Torah edu­ca­tion and reli­gious par­tic­i­pa­tion, as well as ques­tions about whether a syn­a­gogue should embrace queer cou­ples seek­ing membership. 

Through­out the book, Ettinger explains not just what these pain points are but why they exist. Most of them are con­cerned with the decen­tral­iza­tion of pow­er: where­as in the past there was one author­i­ty to turn to, now numer­ous author­i­ties all claim the right to weigh in on hot-but­ton issues. These include the dis­so­lu­tion of the pow­er of tra­di­tion­al rab­binic author­i­ties after dis­en­gage­ment from Gaza in 2005; the pri­va­ti­za­tion of once-pub­lic insti­tu­tions; the pro­lif­er­a­tion of the inter­net; and the embrace of urban liv­ing, which pro­vides much more choice per square mile. Such changes have led to chal­lenges to or rejec­tions of Orthodoxy’s sole pow­er to grant mar­riages and divorces, its auton­o­my over the West­ern Wall, and the Israeli rabbinate’s sacred cows — name­ly, Orthodoxy’s right to cer­ti­fy restau­rants as kosher.

While Ettinger is a tal­ent­ed writer and researcher, able to tell the sto­ry of Ortho­dox Judaism’s fray­ing in a com­pelling and engag­ing way, he refrains from offer­ing much in the way of solu­tions. One leaves the book with a sense that we are bear­ing wit­ness to a schism in the move­ment, a slow-motion unwind­ing with few options for bring­ing its strands back togeth­er. This may be because there isn’t much that can be done, or because Ettinger feels that it is more his task to define the prob­lem than to guess at ways it might be fixed. What we get, more than any­thing, is a sense that there are seis­mic changes hap­pen­ing in Ortho­doxy. This peri­od of time will give us a front-row seat to watch the future of tra­di­tion­al Judaism unfold. 

Rab­bi Marc Katz is the Rab­bi at Tem­ple Ner Tamid in Bloom­field, NJ. He is author of the book The Heart of Lone­li­ness: How Jew­ish Wis­dom Can Help You Cope and Find Com­fort (Turn­er Pub­lish­ing), which was cho­sen as a final­ist for the Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award.

Discussion Questions

Frayed by Israeli jour­nal­ist Yair Ettinger con­sid­ers the crit­i­cal issues fac­ing Israel’s Reli­gious Zion­ist move­ment. While it was once an out­ward­ly uni­fied block, deep divi­sions in the inter­pre­ta­tion of Jew­ish law have cre­at­ed ide­o­log­i­cal and polit­i­cal rifts on ques­tions of women’s par­tic­i­pa­tion in reli­gious life and the mil­i­tary; inclu­sion of the LGBTQ+ com­mu­ni­ty; the legit­i­ma­cy of Amer­i­can Ortho­doxy; and how to relate to non-obser­vant and ultra-Ortho­dox Jew­ry in Israel. The author under­stands these divi­sions to be part of the pri­va­ti­za­tion” of Reli­gious Zion­ism, in which the ero­sion of reli­gious author­i­ty encour­ages indi­vid­u­als to chal­lenge the insti­tu­tions of Reli­gious Zion­ism that’ve been at the fore­front of defin­ing the move­ment until now. Ettinger’s analy­sis sug­gests how this evo­lu­tion affects both those who iden­ti­fy with the Reli­gious Zion­ist move­ment and Israeli soci­ety as a whole.