Jewry's great - and growing - divide
Petach Tikva, Israel
On one Sabbath earlier this year, this normally calm city of 135,000 people just outside Tel Aviv turned into a battleground. Thousands of religious Jews, with the traditional beards and skullcaps, massed in front of a moviehouse, shouting such things as ''criminals,'' ''dogs, '' ''Nazis,'' and ''violators of the law of God.'' When nonobservant Jews tried to buy tickets, the religious threw rocks at them. An open brawl ensued. Scores were injured.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Week after week such demonstrations have continued. The Orthodox say they will not stop them until the law of God is honored and cinemas and cafes closed on the Sabbath - sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday. The secular have been just as intransigent.
''It's Jewish Khomeini-ism,'' says Dan Ben Canaan, assistant to Petach Tikva's mayor, Dov Tavori. It was Mr. Tavori, a Labor Party member, who triggered the dispute by trying to end the Sabbath restrictions in town. ''We will not let the religious take the law into their own hand and tell us how we should act.''
The battle between observant Jews and less- or nonobservant Jews is growing sharper throughout Israel. The stakes are immense. The outcome will play a large role in determining not only the future shape of the country's society and democracy, but also its foreign policy. Religious Jews, after all, are leading the settlement drive on the West Bank, and secular Jews, the opposition to it.
The division is also important in the Diaspora, the world Jewish community outside Israel. Diaspora leaders worry whether the American Jewish community can retain its cohesiveness and effectiveness if it is being torn from within. Divisive issues are wide ranging - from whether to accept public funds for religious education to what standards should apply to conversions to the Jewish faith.
''The split is affecting Jewish life everywhere,'' says Roland Gittelsohn, rabbi emeritus of Temple Israel, a Reform congregation in Brookline, Mass. ''When I became a rabbi 48 years ago here, I had lots of Orthodox friends. Today , there's not a single one with whom I can sit down at the same table.'' Emancipation posed a crisis for Judaism
The intensity of the struggle and the specific issues between the observant and less observant may be new, but the fundamental question being debated is not.
It dates from the French Revolution of 1789, which led to Jews in the West gaining equal rights with non-Jews. By breaking down the barriers of church and state that kept Jews apart from their neighbors, the emancipation posed a crisis for Judaism - how to adjust one's religious loyalty, which carries with it separation from non-Jews, to Jews' new political and social equality; how to adjust to the new rational, intellectual climate.
Many 19th-century Jews solved the problem either by converting to Christianity or by abandoning religion altogether. Others decided to adapt Judaism by modernizing it and eliminating whatever external differences might hamper the close relations of Jews with their neighbors. They also tried to remove or play down whatever tended to call into question their loyalty to the country in which they lived.
Jewish laws such as the dietary rules and Sabbath restrictions on travel and work were discarded. Religious services were patterned after Christian services, with the sexes no longer segregated, and music and responsive reading added. The idea of completely dropping Hebrew in favor of the vernacular was even considered. This brand of Judaism, labeled Reform, began in Germany in the early 1800s and was brought to the United States by German Jewish immigrants.