Israeli society is beset by increasing polarization between haredim and secular Jews, and to a lesser extent between Ashkenazim and Sephardim. Social and political lines are drawn over the debate regarding which of Israel’s democratic or Jewish features should be heightened or relegated to the other. There is a quest for contemporary Jewish identity and Israel’s civic identity to be based upon socio-public responsibility that overcomes the increasing extremism and schisms in Israeli society.
Solutions have been provided by the Sephardic Hachamim of the past two hundred years who were confronted by the political, economic, social, cultural and technological revolutions that occurred throughout Europe from the 18th to the 20th centuries. In the midst of these upheavals, the Sephardic Hachamim had to grapple with questions that arose from the attraction of modernity and in response promoted communal cohesion by understanding that Torah’s dual nature advances the religious and halachic precepts on one hand, and on the other hand promotes more broadly a social, ethical, political, and national ethos. To address this it is essential to consider questions such as how Judaism informs what is social responsibility in a modern democratic society? How do these values in turn affect Jewish law?
To this end, the Rabbis not only taught Torah, but were concerned with the social life, economic status and the unity of the community despite different levels of observance by communal members along with their different occupations or cultural and intellectual approaches. This was expressed via communal obligation towards the weak and acts of tzedek to redress various sources of injustice. The Mizrachi heritage also promotes the social values of Judaism that can infuse social issues ranging from poverty, immigrants, the unemployed and pensioners. This has the effect of strengthening the sense of responsibility for community and society. The Rabbis expounded that serving G-D goes beyond observing commandments to more broadly doing “that which is straight and good in the eyes of G-D” which applies to the social concern of all of humanity.
In Islamic countries there were Jewish communities that had a united form of Judaism with many components existing in tension or even in contradiction to one another. This encouraged diversity where Jews were able to hold a variety of beliefs and values, with approaches of faithfulness living alongside intellectualism. Together they encouraged openness coupled with a clear Jewish identity.
Today, Social Judaism advances an inclusivist approach that social cohesion underpins and contributes to Torah authenticity. This is in contrast to the exclusivist approach of perceiving the Jewish people through the prism of maintaining the authenticity of the Torah which leads to widening polarization within Israeli society.
Social Judaism aspires that the State of Israel be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Shemot 18,6) by promoting humane and ethical values. This is as opposed to an exclusivist attitude that seeks to impose Halacha in a standardized manner on the different sectors of society with different levels and approaches of religiosity.
To this end, the Mizrachi heritage can make a positive contribution by emphasizing traditionalism that treasures the continuity of heritage and fosters a sense of belonging to the community and responsibility to the general public. Traditionalism can serve as a basis for identity and interim stage between Haredism and secularism and more fundamentally as a source of civic identity as Social Judaism causes Israel’s democracy and Judaism not to be merely complementary, but synonymous with one another.
In this respect, all of Kiah’s programs are aimed at fostering civic identity by reinforcing Jewish identity and advancing social mobility, both of which embody Social Judaism.
The Daily Sage is a compilation of teachings/writings from the Sephardic/Mizrachi sages that offers access to a world of Jewish content from Mizrachi Jewry from the past 200 years. The teachings of these sages and their culture have been relatively inaccessible or ignored by the education curriculum in the areas of Jewish philosophy and literature despite their creative and innovative Torah contributions. The Sephardic and Mizrachi Rabbis produced sophisticated works that can offer a much-needed positive contribution to the development of Israeli culture and offers a sense of pride and belonging.
Israeli Rabbis enjoy broad influence across Israeli society and can determine whether to foster unity or promote divisiveness within public discourse. This has been demonstrated by the increasing trend in Israeli society for Rabbis to issue stringent rulings creating an exclusivist religious approach that associates Judaism with only laws rather than broader social Justice. This has the effect of alienating traditional and secular people with differing approaches or levels of religiosity. In turn, Israel is confronted with heightened religious and social polarization leading to extremism. Furthermore, the Israeli Rabbinate does not teach Rabbis in Israel about social, economic and psychological matters that may arise in communities ranging from divorce, drug abuse, domestic violence, youth at risk and poverty.
Often Sephardic/Mizrachi women are excluded from participating in religious practice. Increasingly women are leaders in their communities, whether it be in the synagogues and be considered as an integral part of the congregation, as well as in schools where they can teach Jewish law and life.
Netuim is a two-year Beit Midrash program of MeMizrach Shemesh consisting of 25 study sessions of 3 hours each that reinforces identity and promotes social leadership for young adults who come from 12 peripheral communities across Israel. These areas include: 12 peripheral cities: Hatzor, Tzfat, Migdal Ha’Emek, Afula, Tiberias, Nazareth Elite, Netanya, Lod, Kiryat Malachi, Ofakim, Netivot, and Arad, with 180 student participants. University students each receive a 10,000 NIS scholarship toward their tuition, to assist them in pursuing higher education and are provided tools to become leaders to promote social change.
MAOF is a program that embodies its acronym which is Masoret/traditions, Arachim/values and politics. MAOF believes that the more people are exposed to a more tolerant discourse, rooted in the Jewish social tradition, the more we will be able to overcome the societal polarization and extremist discourse that characterizes Israeli society today. To this end, the MAOF Program provides parliamentary advisors the opportunity to infuse the Jewish and democratic State of Israel with moderate Jewish values within the Knesset.
A prevalent attitude in Israel is to consider Judaism as a religion exclusively which creates polarization between the secular and religious causing traditional people to feel alienated from their religious heritage as they do not fit into either group. Furthermore, Israel’s educational system is increasingly unable to cultivate Jewish values among children and youth. Students who lack strong identity and a sense of secure roots have more limited interpersonal skills and could cause them to adopt racist attitudes.