It seems to me that if you ask Jewish Israelis how, on one leg, they understand the basic message of Torah, the overwhelming majority would answer: That God gave the land of Israel to the Jewish people. (This would surely not be the Haredi response, of course, though I think it would be the Hiloni view, even if they think the Torah is irrelevant.) This is a reading of Torah under the influence of what Chaim Gans calls “propriety Zionism,”* which Gans believes represents the Israeli-in-the-steet.
That Torah might stand for a different proposition — that it could stand for concern for the most vulnerable, or religious tolerance, or freedom of conscience — seems almost completely foreign to Israeli discourse. It’s for this reason, for example, that at the weekly protests one barely sees any signs quoting any Jewish text. “We are faithful to the Declaration of Independence” is a common slogan — since in the popular understanding it is that document, and not Torah, that guarantees liberal civil rights. Torah doesn’t have an ethical character of any relevance to the protests.
This may be obvious, but in the American Jewish setting — even among most traditional Jews — I think the assumptions are quite different. Even as conservatives rail against “tikkun olam Judaism” and complain that liberal Jews read Torah as no more or less than the platform of the Democratic Party, they generally assume that Torah is a source of ethical values and has a liberal character that is relevant to a just political order. So it’s really striking to me how illiberal the prevailing understanding of Torah is in Israel, and how little liberals look to it as a source of authority.
The way I'm seeing it now is that the way we read Scripture is largely shaped by the larger ideological context in which we find ourselves. Americans are broadly liberal in their ideological commitments; and so Torah becomes in that context a liberal document. Israelis are largely "proprietary Zionists." And so Torah becomes read in that light here.
I don't want to be fatalistic about that. I would hope that Torah itself could exert some pressure on the larger ideological commitments of the society. But I don't know how that counter-ideological reading of Torah emerges in the first place, and what factors will account for its gaining ground.
I think it is undeniable that Torah's "core message" is that the Jews are entrusted with upholding a high ethical standard; for as long as we do, we are permitted to live in the land; when we do not, we are expelled from the land. The land is therefore not ours, not even conditionally. It is God's, to dispose of how He sees fit. And yet, it is exceedingly rare for me to meet *anyone* in Israel who shares that basic understanding of Torah. Religious Zionists seem to simply ignore the conditionality of our tenancy.
Joe Schwartz - Facebook post - July 7th 2023
As I’ve probably shared I’ve ask this question point blank (what is the most important verse or concept in the Torah) to groups of young Israelis and groups of young Americans. The Israelis almost always answer ‘am segulah’ or the like and the Americans almost always answer ‘tikkun olam’ or the like.
Even more so. To most secular israelis "Judaism" is only the orthodox way of life. I have many friends who thinks that, for example, reforms aren't jews. They could be eating shrimps while saying that. If you ask them to draw "a Jew" they will draw an East European Orthodox Jew.
If I didn't have such a profound connection to the American Jewish world, I would probably think the same. Only in my 20s I was exposed to just how versatile the Jewish world actually is.
For Israelis, everything about our Jewish culture is as narrow as a beam of laser. God gave us the Torah which gave us the land of Israel (have you noticed how Pesach is the main holiday of the year here?). And Jews wear long black robes and funny black hats. Even in the summer.
*see: WINTER / 2016, Justifying Israel: An interview with Chaim Gans, by Chaim Gans
For: “An Israeli is someone who doesn’t believe in God, but believes God gave him this land."
Reviewed Work: Judaism, Human Values and the Jewish State by Yeshayahu Leibowitz
Review by: Daniel Rohrlich
Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Jewish Thought, Vol. 29, No. 2 (Winter 1995), pp. 88-92 (5 pages)
Contribution from Rabbinical Council of America (RCA)