Belief and Bewilderment

by Suzanne Last Stone

Many American Jews are perplexed, and even embarrassed, by the entanglement of religion with state in Israel. It is, after all, so un-American. The official establishment of religion in Israel, and the increasing presence of religion in the Israeli public square, is not only strange to American Jewish eyes, it is also often estranging. And when the Guttman Center report on the beliefs, observance and values of Israeli Jews was released a few weeks ago, the consternation on this side of the Atlantic was palpable. Eighty per cent of Israeli Jews believe in God? Seventy per cent believe the Jews are the chosen people!! Precisely what the survey means is beyond my expertise to opine on, but clearly the survey played into one of the great fears of liberal American Jews: that Israel is fast becoming a theocracy.

Many Israeli Jews, too, are rightly concerned about the increasing role of religion in their state, from the stranglehold of the rabbinic courts on matters of personal status, to religious political parties abusing their power to secure a coalition, to official state privileging of the orthodox stream over other denominations, to the role of the growing haredi population in Israeli society. And, yet despite all that, Israelis are often bewildered by the American Jewish reaction to the role of religion in Israeli public and private life. In their eyes, it is the United States that is religion-obsessed. Israelis who travel to the United States often comment to me in amazement on how religious a country is the United States – and religious in a way that is strange and unfamiliar to them. The public political discourse that surrounds them on American television, in the newspapers, and in the blogosphere is full of reference to religious values. Indeed, if pressed, Israelis would probably say that America is by far the more deeply religious country. No one cares about the personal religious beliefs of the Israeli Prime Minister. A godless American presidential candidate would be toast, no matter how large the size of the superpac. And belief in chosenness – how different is that from American exceptionalism? Indeed, some form of belief in chosenness is a structural feature of the national imagination.

If my Israeli friends are right – and it is hard to deny that the United States is religion-soaked and has been so for over two centuries – what accounts for the two Jewish communities’ mutual bewilderment? A difference in religious style is one possible explanation. Sociologists often divide styles of religiosity, no matter which religion, between ‘Catholic’ – with its tolerance for traditional authority and community norms – and ‘Protestant’ – with its emphasis on inner belief. On this measure, Israel is a ‘Catholic’ country, while the United States is a ‘Protestant’ one. Yet, I wonder whether something deeper is at stake.

America, at the deepest level, is in love with freedom and this love affair has affected virtually every religion on its soil. Over twenty years ago, the literary critic Harold Bloom tried to distill from the varieties of religious manifestations in America a common American religious imagination, which he equated with the American national soul. At the center of the American Religion, Bloom writes, is the American self, alone with the God of freedom. The American love affair with freedom, which has had such profound social and political consequences and enabled so many immigrant groups, including Jews, to find a home and haven here, was made possible by the vast space America had. There was always the possibility, as Huckleberry Finn put it, to “light out to the Territory,” shed one’s prior history and re-invent oneself. But the strength to do so, Bloom claims, comes from a profound sense that each individual American is alone with a God who knows and loves her or him. Nine out of ten Americans, according to a Gallup poll Bloom cited, shared that conviction. Israel, by contrast, is a country that is weighted down by history and by borders and by a feeling of being hemmed in. The American vocabulary of freely lighting out, of re-invention, and of endless possibility is largely absent from the lexicon. And were the Guttman survey to ask Israelis whether God loved them, it is hard to imagine that a vast majority would answer yes, including those who responded that they believed they were members of a chosen people. After all, chosenness is not simply a matter of election and superiority; it is also about increased bonds and obligations.

The proper balance between bondage and freedom is one of the vexing problems in Judaism. Their paradoxical interdependence is the subject of an exegesis of Exodus 32:16, which describes the graven tablets of law Moses brought down from Mount Sinai. Rabbi Aha there makes a linguistic point that the word for graven (harut) can be read as freedom (herut). Are the bonds of the law and of tradition and of the weight of history opposed to freedom or its very definition? The contemporary and intensified version of this problematic is played out differently in the American and Israeli Jewish communities in radically different physical and cultural settings. In the end of the day, arguing over which country is more religion-mad is far less productive than recognizing this longstanding, common Jewish struggle.

Suzanne Last Stone is a member of the iEngage Team of the Shalom Hartman Institute.
cross-posted at Shalom Hartman Institute