Ear­li­er this week, Yuval Elizur exam­ined reli­gious polit­i­cal pow­er in Israel and Jan­u­ary’s elec­tions. Today, Lawrence Malkin dis­cuss­es the ten­sion between tra­di­tion and moder­ni­ty in con­tem­po­rary Judaism and its con­se­quences. Yuval and Lawrence are the co-authors of the recent­ly pub­lished The War With­in: Israel’s Ultra-Ortho­dox Threat to Democ­ra­cy and the Nation. They will be blog­ging here for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ing all week.

No Amer­i­can Jew could have expe­ri­enced a more inspir­ing intro­duc­tion to Israel that I did upon arriv­ing in dark­ness aboard the first plane from Lon­don after the start of the Six-Day War. With­in hours I was in Jerusalem watch­ing the Bat­tle for the Old City from the ter­race of the King David Hotel. In the morn­ing we drove a rent­ed Volk­swa­gen along the tank tracks to avoid mines and soon came upon sol­diers cel­e­brat­ing their his­toric con­quest by pray­ing at the West­ern Wall. Nev­er obser­vant, I joined in prayers with this elite brigade of Jew­ish para­troop­ers, recruit­ed main­ly from sec­u­lar kib­butz­im. Their tri­bune was no less than Israel’s chief rab­bi blow­ing the sho­far—a ram’s horn blast that stirred Jew­ish souls around the world. 

I remained for sev­er­al weeks to report on the prob­lems fac­ing the vic­to­ri­ous nation, most notably the unfore­seen con­quest of the West Bank from Jor­dan. It was dur­ing that assign­ment that I first met and befriend­ed Yuval Elizur, then the Jerusalem cor­re­spon­dent of The Wash­ing­ton Post and now the co-author of our book, The War With­in. I endured the bale­ful stares in the Mea Shearim, a dozen blocks set aside for ultra-Ortho­dox, then a tourist curios­i­ty because it was wide­ly believed that this anachro­nis­tic sect would with­er away in mod­ern Israel. How wrong we were. Years lat­er, they have become a pow­er­ful minor­i­ty deter­mined to set the tone for soci­ety in the Holy City, and the lead­ers of Amer­i­can Jew­ry have tread care­ful­ly to avoid antag­o­niz­ing them. 

Although the major­i­ty of Amer­i­can Jews belong to Reform and Con­ser­v­a­tive con­gre­ga­tions, the Amer­i­can Jew­ish estab­lish­ment has main­tained con­nec­tions with the Israeli par­ties rep­re­sent­ing the Ortho­dox, which until now were an essen­tial part of the nation’s coali­tion gov­ern­ments. For exam­ple, with­in days of the mil­i­tary con­quest of the holi­est place of wor­ship for all Jews, the Ortho­dox rab­binate took con­trol of the West­ern Wall, banned Reformist devo­tions, and lit­er­al­ly walled off women who came to pray. Even when the women were giv­en access to a small sec­tor, there was no seri­ous crit­i­cism by major Amer­i­can Jew­ish orga­ni­za­tions lest it be seen as an attack on the gov­ern­ment that would give com­fort to Israel’s enemies.

Amer­i­can defend­ers of the Ortho­dox argue that there are many shades of black.” But the deep­est shade have long had the most polit­i­cal influ­ence and in con­se­quence enjoy the most egre­gious priv­i­leges, the largest sub­si­dies, and the great­est iso­la­tion from Israeli soci­ety. No Amer­i­can Jew out­side the Ortho­dox enclaves in Brook­lyn and around New York City — sects with respect­ed elders recent­ly con­vict­ed of fraud and sex­u­al abus­es — would agree to a pub­lic sub­sidy of six­ty per cent of ultra-Ortho­dox males who are unem­ployed, or almost one hun­dred thou­sand able-bod­ied and sub­si­dized yeshi­va stu­dents who escape mil­i­tary ser­vice while they study noth­ing but sacred texts and learned commentary. 

Jews have thrived and won accep­tance as both Jews and Amer­i­cans by adapt­ing our reli­gious obser­vance and cul­ture to the cus­toms of the coun­try. When­ev­er per­mit­ted by local rulers, Jews have always done so. That is a fun­da­men­tal theme of the Tal­mud: how does a Jew in a strange land live as a Jew? Of course it is eas­i­er in a coun­try of reli­gious tol­er­ance like ours, but sure­ly Jew­ish sur­vival does not depend on lit­er­al adher­ence to 613 bib­li­cal com­mand­ments dat­ing back sev­er­al thou­sand years: it depends on adapt­ing those rules to mod­ern life — and cer­tain­ly not on re-cre­at­ing the Jew­ish ghet­toes that we have spent cen­turies try­ing to escape. That is a for­mu­la for alien­ation, irrel­e­vance, rejec­tion, and even­tu­al­ly the dis­ap­pear­ance of all Jews, and it applies with equal force to the embat­tled nation of Israel, which has suc­ceed­ed against all odds by adopt­ing moder­ni­ty as its culture 

It is an axiom of war­fare that the longer one faces an ene­my, the more each side has to adopt the oth­er’s tac­tics to sur­vive and thus willy-nil­ly start to resem­ble the oth­er. Israel will not be strength­ened by falling into the same fun­da­men­tal­ist trap as pro­po­nents of Mus­lim sharia in their own coun­tries; on the con­trary, both sides risk falling back into the past by refus­ing to embrace the present. 

Lawrence Malkin is an award-win­ning jour­nal­ist and writer. Assigned to Jerusalem and the West Bank dur­ing the Six-Day War, his for­eign report­ing has appeared in Time mag­a­zine, The Inter­na­tion­al Her­ald Tri­bune, and The Asso­ci­at­ed Press. He is the author of sev­er­al books, includ­ing Kreuger’s Men, which inspired the Oscar-win­ning film The Coun­ter­feit­ers.” Vis­it him online at http://​www​.lawrence​malkin​.com.

Yuval Elizur is a sixth gen­er­a­tion Israeli, liv­ing in Jerusalem. The author of sev­er­al books, he is a for­mer deputy edi­tor and eco­nom­ics reporter for Israel’s largest dai­ly news­pa­per Ma’ariv, and has served as Jerusalem cor­re­spon­dent for The Wash­ing­ton Post and The Boston Globe. A vet­er­an of two wars, he was the Colum­bia School of Jour­nal­is­m’s first Israeli graduate.