Newly Empowered Religious Can’t Live by Faith Alone

Rabbi Jacob Neusner is a professor of religious studies at the University of South Florida, Tampa, and at Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., and author of more than 700 books, the most recent one "Price of Excellence" (1996, Continuum)

Israelis have voted the religious parties into power--those that insist upon the Judaic-religious, not only the Jewish-ethnic, character of the state of Israel. I’m glad. I only hope that for once, the religious parties behave with wisdom, courtesy and even a touch of humor. Then we shall all survive the millennium.

I’m glad because, in the outgoing regime, powerful voices of the secular left called for the de-Judaization of the Jewish state--the replacement of the national anthem, which speaks of “the Jewish soul” with something more neutral; the removal of religious instruction from the educational system; the withdrawal of the privileged position that, from the very beginnings, Zionism wisely accorded to the religion, Judaism.

Now the nationalism of the state of Israel will have to compete with the religious view of what it means to be the Israel, God’s first love, that the Torah sets forth. For the next four years, no one will be able to resolve the tension between the religious and the secular-ethnic. And that tension is natural to the condition of all Israel, the entire Jewish people. For the Jews constitute an ethnic group, part of which forms a religious community. Judaism is not an ethnic religion, entered only by birth or cultural assimilation. It also is a religion joined by conversion. But it also is the religion that opens the gate to the ethnic group: Join the faith, you’re part of the group.

The tension between the ethnic and the religious keeps Jews together and makes them whole. Jews who do not practice Judaism resolve the tension in favor of the merely ethnic (in the Diaspora) or the merely national (in the state of Israel). A tiny sector of the millions of Jews who practice Judaism, by contrast, turn their backs on all the Jews who differ, disregarding the ethnic Jews altogether. But mainstream Judaisms, whether Reform or Conservative, New Age or Reconstructionist, integrationist-Orthodox or self-segregationist Orthodox, do not give up the struggle. Nearly all Judaisms teach love for all Israel, the people--both those who belong and those who do not. The energy, the dynamism, the passion of contemporary Judaic religious life flow from the vital argument about what it means to be a Jew that goes on everywhere and with everybody joining in.


Today, the several religious parties have a chance to persuade the rest of Jewry that theirs is the right, the godly way. With courtesy, they will make space for others who differ, both within the framework of the Torah and beyond. With wisdom, they will establish priorities that serve the common good. With humor, they will survive to serve in other governments in the future. But with the more familiar disdain for outsiders to their own tiny circles, they will alienate the rest. With stupidity, they will walk backward toward confrontation. With gaucherie they will miss the humor of their leap to the barricades to keep pork out of the Jerusalem Burger King. Their own worst enemies, they will seek trivial victories in inconveniencing the rest of the population. Confrontation works for the powerless, restraint and magnanimity mark power. Emphasize the ethical, teaches the Torah that the Orthodox parties claim to represent.

In the Talmud, Rabbi Simelai puts matters this way: “Six hundred and thirteen commandments were given to Moses; 365 negative ones, corresponding to the number of the days of the solar year, and 248 positive commandments, corresponding to the parts of man’s body.

“Isaiah came and reduced them to six: ‘He who walks righteously and speaks uprightly, he who despises the gain of oppressions, shakes his hand from holding bribes, stops his ear from hearing of blood and shuts his eyes from looking upon evil, he shall dwell on high’ (Isaiah 33:25-26).

“Micah came and reduced them to three: ‘It has been told you, man, what is good, and what the Lord demands from you, only to do justly and to love mercy, and to walk humbly before God’ (Micah 6:8).


“Habakkuk further came and based them on one, as it is said, ‘But the righteous shall live by his faith.’ (Habakkuk 2:4).”