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Thoughts on Judaism and Israel

by - September 15 2010

Since I've now left Israel, I thought this might be a good time to write down some of the thoughts I've been having about Judaism and it's relationship to Israel. I've had only a relatively small amount if exposure to Judaism. And even less exposure to Israel, so I'm speaking largely out of ignorance. Please jump in and comment if you disagree with anything.

There can be little doubt that Judaism is almost unique in it's ability to produce non-conformists who think for themselves. I suspect that a large part of the reason for this is that, until recently, Judaism hasn't been the main religion of a country for two thousand years. When a religion is the national religion it is hard to avoid it turning into a mechanism for government control. Religions designed for central control tend not to encourage disruptive thought.

One Israeli summarized the meaning of Judaism for me as "Judaism is about keeping the tribe together". Another person once said to me that "Judaism is about being a member of the tribe". Another way of putting this would be to say "being Jewish is about being Jewish" and perhaps more importantly about not being whatever the conventional cultural group is. To be a Jew is to be an outsider, an eccentric, a weirdo. Once you've accepted that that is the kind of person you are, it surely makes it easier to be a person who thinks about the world differently in general.

The obvious next question is "how does Israel effect this". In Israel it is possible for a Jew to feel "normal". Does this mean that Israeli Judaism will lose the oddball spark that has caused Jews to contribute so much to humanity? Would Albert Einstein or Sigmund Freud or Karl Marx have grown into the creative thinkers they did if they had grown up amongst other Jews and had to do three years military service?

Right now things seem to be doing fine. The culture in israel seems to have the same creative energy that one finds in American and European Judaism, but cultures take time to change. The ultra-orthodox have shown that it is possible to take the Jewish texts and end up with a very different, and in my opinion, less vibrant religion. In 300 years is it possible that Israeli Judaism will be just another monotheistic conformist religion?