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Ethics and the Essence of Judaism

It is time for us Israelis to reintroduce the view held by the Diaspora that to be Jewish is to be committed to ethical ideals
Prof. Daniel Statman is a Shalom Hartman Institute research fellow, a member of the Institute’s iEngage Project , and a member of the Research Team for Applied Military Ethics at the Kogod Research Center for Contemporary Jewish Thought. He is a professor of philosophy at the University of Haifa. His areas of focus include ethics, moral psychology, the philosophy of law, and Jewish philosophy. Daniel is author and editor of many books and articles, including Moral Dilemmas, Religion and Morality, Moral

The recent survey by the Pew Research Center is helpful is identifying the deep processes at work in American Jewish life. Like other comprehensive surveys, it enables anyone interested in the American Jewish world to transcend appearances and get a grip on the "big picture," on what is really going on – and on what can reasonably be foreseen for the near future.
This survey also affords a great opportunity for a comparison between American Jews and Jews in Israel (“Israelis”) and for a reconsideration of the relations between them. Let me start with the growing secularism of American Jews. According to the Pew survey, 22% of them describe themselves as "having no religion." More important for the future is the fact that among young Jews the rate is much higher – 32% describe themselves in this way and identify themselves as Jewish on the basis of ancestry, ethnicity, or culture.
On the face of it, this development would seem to bring American Jewry culturally closer to Israel, where secularism has long been a defining character of many Jews. That Judaism is not identical with religion has long been a fundamental tenet of secular Zionism, and the notion is essential to mainstream Jewish education in Israel. Only a negligible number of Israeli Jews would define themselves as "having no religion" (the expression used in the Pew survey), but in a 2009 poll, 46% of them defined themselves as secular. As shown by other results of that poll, most of these secular respondents observe central aspects of the tradition, which makes it clear that by identifying themselves as secular Jews, they are implying that their connection to Judaism is a matter of ethnicity or culture – just as with their American counterparts.
However, the patterns revealed by the Pew research concerning Jews-of-no-religion seem to confirm the suspicion that, at least in the Diaspora, Judaism of no-religion is often just a stage on the way to complete exit from Judaism, however defined. Of Jews in this group, only one third raise their children as Jewish (or partially Jewish), and 79% of them have a non-Jewish spouse. Add to this the fact that Jews of no religion have the weakest attachment to Israel, few have visited the country and most are very critical of its politics, and the conclusion is less optimistic about the prospects of this no-religion group leading the way to a new relationship between American Jewry and Israel.
Of special interest – and concern – is the way Jews in the US and Jews in Israel perceive the role of ethics in their understanding of what it means to be Jewish. According to the Pew survey, an impressive rate of 69% of American Jews believes that "leading an ethical/moral life" is "an essential part of what being Jewish means to them." If one focuses on women, the perceived centrality of ethics is even more dominant – 76% – and is, in their eyes, the most significant aspect of being Jewish. This emphasis on morality as essential to Jewish identity may be a partial explanation for the decreasing attachment to Israel among members of the younger generation. While 79% of American Jews, 65 and older, say they are attached to Israel, only 60% of the 18-29 year olds express such an attachment. The settlement project, with all of its ramifications for the Palestinian population, is difficult to reconcile with a serious concern for justice.
How much this association of Judaism with ethics is different from the perception of Judaism in Israel is evident from the fact that the beliefs and practices that were surveyed in A Portrait of Israeli Jews: Beliefs, Observance, and Values of Israeli Jews, 2009 had almost nothing to do with ethical behavior, or with beliefs about morality in general or its role in Jewish identity. The research assumed that, for most Israelis, Judaism is mainly a national-ethnic affiliation, with a unique, built-in connection to religion, with no prevalent link to morality. To be Jewish is to eat kosher food, to fast on Yom Kippur and to light candles on Hanukkah – precisely the kind of practices surveyed in the above research – not to work for justice and equality.
It is thus not suspiring that, in the Israeli context, the stronger the sense of commitment to tradition, the weaker the concern of respondents in justice. I refer mainly to the extent of support for the proposition that Jewish citizens should be granted more rights than non-Jewish ones. Of those who define themselves as secular, 38% support that, while in the national-religious camp, the support grows to 63%, and in the ultra-Orthodox community, it grows even further to 72%. Unfortunately, in Israel heightened self-identification as Jewish does not go hand in hand with a concern for equality among all citizens.
One may suspect that in some cases the focus on the role of morality in Judaism is made at the expense of neglecting the more particularistic practices of the tradition. Yet surely this need not be the case. There is no contradiction between a firm commitment to such practices and a zealous pursuit for justice and equality. American Jews have a lot to learn from Israelis, but here it is Israelis who should learn from the Americans. It is time for us Israelis to reintroduce the view that to be Jewish is to be committed to ethical ideals. It is time to return to Hillel the Elder’s powerful and inspiring view about the essence of the Torah: "What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow: this is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn." Besides being the intrinsically right path to take from both a moral and a religious point of view, it carries the promise of a new relationship between Israel and American Jews.
Published originally in the Jerusalem Post

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