Israel’s Orthodox Jewish Crisis

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When I first came into Jewish ministry (June 1972), I had very little knowledge of Judaism. I had the best of Evangelical Christian education and also studied at a liberal Christian Seminary.  My professors taught about Jewish backgrounds for understanding the New Testament, but not about post-New Testament Judaism. I thought I should study Judaism; how else could I be in Jewish ministry.  I read books on Judaism. Then someone gave me an old copy of the Talmud in English translation by Rodkinson. The Talmud is the primary foundation of Judaism; volumes that define the requirements of Judaism based on the debates in the early Jewish schools, Yeshivot.  It claims to preserve the Oral Law given to Moses. This very inadequate abbreviation of the Talmud in 10 volumes did not have the classical pagination so I could not look up references. Therefore, I took a copy of the Soncino Talmud in English and went through the Talmud page by page in both editions and added the page numbers to Rodkinson. As part of this, I browsed through the Talmud and more carefully read some parts. I was amazed! I concluded at that time that the Talmud could be divided into four evaluation aspects. First was the most incredible level of legalistic extension and minutia in legal requirements that the world had ever seen. This was the dominant bulk of the Talmud.  Secondly, was good wisdom in some applications of the Law. Then there were stories that did sometimes bring out good moral inspiration, and finally some amazing superstitions. I also studied the worship texts of the Jewish people, attended a Jewish college and took a full course on this. This part of Jewish tradition was an accurate reflection about God, his mercy, grace, and redemption based in the Hebrew Bible.  It points to Yeshua. God had not left himself without a witness among our people even after our leaders led us astray in the rejection of Yeshua.

Recently I decided to again read through the first part of the Talmud, the Mishnah, which was written down about 200 C. E.   I was even more amazed by the arguments and the detailed conclusions by which life is to be regulated in classical Judaism. There were some who were able to relate well to the larger world despite the restrictions Judaism required (Maimonides as a case in point) but the preoccupation with things that are really irrelevant is again amazing.   Some will take issue with me and defend this first aspect of the Talmud. My conclusion is that this aspect of Judaism is the result of our leaders in the first century rejecting Yeshua. In a sense, it is a punishment that locks our people into this very restrictive structure. As Yeshua said, the Pharisees already were teaching as precepts the traditions of men.  (Matthew 15:9). The punishment was God giving our people up to their choice whereby the precepts of men became multiplied into volumes of unbelievably detailed irrelevant material. One cannot read through the Mishnah with a biblically formed mind and heart and think it shows God’s ideal for His people. It is a great departure from the biblical path.

Orthodox Judaism, the Judaism that seeks to be true to classic Judaism is now established in Israel.  Both Sephardic (Eastern and North African) and Ashkenazic Judaism from Eastern Europe maintained the standards of rigid legalism.  When the Zionist movement began, Jewish religious leaders rejected it. The Orthodox rejected it due to the teaching that we were not to have a state until the Messiah came and led us back to the Land.  Reform Judaism was seeking to break from the Orthodox legal restrictions and be a universal religion. The Zionist nationalism did not fit their desire for Judaism to morph into a universal religion. Only as Zionism succeeded did Orthodox thinkers arise who saw in the re-establishing of Israel a prophetic fulfillment and a foreshadowing of redemption.  Rabbi Abraham Kook led in the establishment, in the 1930s, the formation of a nationalistic modern Orthodoxy that would fully support Zionism and the idea of a state. Modern Nationalist Orthodox today fight in the army, seek to be in the professions and to be interacting with the larger society. Modern Orthodoxy in America, as in Yeshiva University in New York, has the same orientation.  These folks seek to follow Jewish strictures, but in a way that allows for cultural relevance. What is the problem? The problem is that in Israel they are more and more of a minority. Recent statistics indicate that they are not growing. Young people exposed to the larger world can be convinced to leave the world of Orthodoxy. What is growing greatly is the Ultra-Orthodox. The Ultra-Orthodox have displaced the Modern Orthodox in political power in Israel, though most are not Zionist.  The National Orthodox are shrinking in power in comparison. The Ultra-Orthodox lose very few of their children and have large families. Here are some important points.

  1. The Ultra-Orthodox, for the most part, refuse Army service. They claim to be studying Torah and should be exempt.  They mean studying Talmud and Jewish debates on the application of Jewish law (Halakah).
  2. They reject courses in their schools that could prepare them for the workforce.  Yet the state must pay for these schools.
  3. The men in large numbers do not enter the workforce. Therefore these large Jewish families require enormous expenditures of welfare.  The women work to support the family but at low wages.
  4. A very large number of the Ultra-Orthodox are poor.

Article after article in the Jewish press, Hebrew and English, claims that the Ultra-Orthodox are an existential threat to Israel.  Why? Because Israel cannot forever support this growing segment of the population that is projected in future decades to be 30% of the Jewish population.  The present government (Netanyahu) does not respond to this threat, but gives in to them, to stay in power. This is very shortsighted. The Ultra-Orthodox passed the 1 million mark in 2018.  Unless they are economically productive, they will destroy the economy. There is nothing in Jewish Law historically that requires a Jewish observance contrary to personal economic responsibility and productivity.  When this battle is finally engaged, it could lead to devastating conflict in Israel.

The thought comes to me.  Isn’t it amazing that Judaism, as it developed and now is rooted in Israel, is one of the greatest threats to the State of Israel?   And isn’t it amazing that this Judaism grew from out of that ancient Jewish tradition in Talmud that results from the rejection of Yeshua?  It is also amazing that the only answer to the paradoxes of the state of Israel and the secular/Orthodox divide is to look back to where this wrong trajectory was set, back to the first century and to embrace Yeshua.  The continuing rejection of Yeshua has many causes. Anti-Semitism is one. However, before Anti-Semitism from Christians, there was the Jewish rejection of Yeshua. Other Judaism that is not Orthodox and the secular reject Him in part due to their roots in the formation of classical Judaism between 70 and 600 C. E.

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