Israel from the Inside with Daniel Gordis
Israel from the Inside with Daniel Gordis
Has Judaism now become synonymous with Zionism?

Has Judaism now become synonymous with Zionism?

Gol Kalev, in his new book Judaism 3.0, argues "yes."
Gol Kalev (Courtesy)

That Israel plays a looming role in Jewish life — both among admirers and among critics — is obvious. Still, though, Judaism and Zionism are not the same thing, right? Gol Kalev, in his new book, argues “no,” insisting that Judaism has now morphed into Zionism. If Judaism 1.0 was Judaism of the Bible, and Judaism 2.0 was Judaism of the rabbis that preserved Jewish life from around 70 CE until the Enlightenment in Europe, then Judaism 3.0, he argues, the new version of Judaism that has a shot at survival, is “Zionism.”

It’s a provocative thesis, one that’s been getting a lot of attention in Israel, so we reached out to Gol to discuss his book and its edgy thesis. You may agree, or you may disagree, but I suspect you’ll find yourself thinking anew about the relationship between Judaism and Zionism.

The link above will take you to the full conversation, and the machine generated transcript is below, provided for paid subscribers to Israel from the Inside.

I’m from Israel. I was born and raised in Tel Aviv. I'm a third generation “Tel Avivian”. I served in the Israeli military, and after the army, I went to study in the United States. I got my MBA. I lived in New York for a few years to get some experience on Wall Street. I was an investment banker doing mergers and acquisitions and capital raisings for financial institutions in the United States and in Europe and around the world. And after 17 years or so, I came back to Israel. And when I came back, somebody enlightened me that there is a city called Jerusalem. And when you're from Tel Aviv, you are subject to a lot of antagonism that exists against Jerusalem. And so, I decided to check out Jerusalem and eventually fell in love with the city and now I live fulltime in Jerusalem.

I came to write the book, Judaism 3.0 just by, as I mentioned, living in New York and spending time in Europe and talking to all kinds of people. I realized that first of all, people wanted to talk to me more about Israel and those issues then they wanted to talk to me about mergers and acquisitions or JPMorgan's capabilities or anything like that. But also, I got to understand how people relate to Judaism. I quickly recognized that people, Jews, and non-Jews alike, whether in New York, whether in Europe, whether around the world, relate to Judaism through Zionism and through Israel. And that sort of was the impetus.

Judaism is transforming, and Zionism is becoming its anchor. That is the primary conduit through which people relate to Judaism. Some of my friends in New York who are very critical of Israel, they're not religious, they don't go to synagogue, they don't eat gefilte fish, and they don't think about the Holocaust anymore. But they come to their Judaism when they read something in The New York Times and get very upset about Israel, about the settlements, or about our operations in Gaza, and some of them write posts on Facebook saying, “As a Jew, I'm embarrassed about Israel…. “ or something along those lines. But either way, whether it's negative or positive, whether it's Israeli wine or criticism of Israel, whether it's watching Fauda or Shtisel or whatever it is, I'm showing in the book how there is a transformation of the global consciousness of what Judaism is. And it's basically coming down to Zionism in Israel.

Just to give our listeners a little bit of background, you point out, quite correctly, of course, this is not the first time in the history of the Jewish people over the last 4000 years that Judaism has completely reinvented itself. Can you talk a little bit about the transformation from biblical Judaism to rabbinic Judaism as a complete reinvention and a complete reimagination of what Judaism was? What was Judaism before? Why did the transformation happen? And what were we left with after biblical Judaism faded away and rabbinic Judaism entered the picture?

So, until 2000 years ago, until the first century, Judaism was anchored in the physical presence of the Jewish people in Judea. Not everybody lived in Judea, but it was clearly the center, the temple, which was the place where people worship. And even if you didn't worship in the temple, that was sort of your point of orientation to Judaism. And the ritual sacrifices which were performed in the temples, which was the way to connect, to worship, to connect to your religion. So, Judaism was anchored in what I call Judaism 1.0 here in the temple, the rituals, the sacrifices, the physical presence of Judea, and in Jerusalem. All of that was gone once the Romans destroy the temple. There are no more sacrifices. The Jews are expelled first from Jerusalem and then from Judea. So, all the anchor of Judaism was demolished, and Judaism had to transform in order to survive.

It transformed into what I call Judaism 20. And that had two real anchors. One is the internal glue of religiosity what's known as Rabbinic Judaism. So, the synagogues that we know today replaced the temple, the structured prayers, Jews pray three times a day, the ritual of the sacrifices is gone. The insular community has replaced the physical presence in Judea. So that was the internal glue that held Jews for 2000 years. But they also had an external glue which is complete severity. Jews had absolutely no options to leave Judaism. You couldn't say as you do today, “you know what, I'm going to marry a non-Jew or I'm just going to convert out. I'm going to just forget that I'm Jewish and live my regular life.” That wasn't an option.

If 200 years ago about 100% of the Jews were religious to one extent or another or were religiously observant, today it's like ten to 15%, depending on how you count. So, the religious aspect is no longer sufficient to hold Jews together as the internal glue. And the insularity that protected Judaism from the outside is gone. Jews are free to leave. They can do whatever they want, they can convert, they can marry whoever they want, and they can just say, “it's not in my consciousness, it's not in my priority”. So, Judaism 2.0 lasted and was the effective glue in those years in the diaspora where the religious aspects and the insularity kept the Jewish nation religion alive. Now, when those moves are eroded, we have a dramatic increase in the national aspect of Judaism because the Jewish state was reestablished.

I'm showing in the book how for the first 70 years of Israel's existence, we were still in Judaism 2.0. Israel was not the center of Judaism. But hurdles that existed, including trends in Israel such as Zionism's early association with extreme secularism and rejection of religion, that has changed. That has changed as Israel democratizes and there's a shift of power and of Zionist ethics from the secular minority to their religious and traditional majority. There's a shift from rejection of religiosity to consuming religious experience. But it's sort of like a Jewish religious fashion amongst the secular. Other examples used to be the rejection of the Haredim, the ultra-orthodox. Now that's more or less done, and we can talk about it.

So those hurdles are gone. And on the other hand, the reality in America is that Jews have disaffiliated. I mean, there are roughly 10% to 20% of Jews that are engaged, whether they're engaged with religiosity, or whether they're active in Jewish causes. They can be the president of a temple or part of a Jewish organization. But for the majority of American Jews, 80% to 90%, Judaism is important, but it's low on the hierarchy of identities. It's also important for you to be a Cornell alumnus and a member of this club, or another club, or your sexual orientation or your gender or whatever it is.

Let's go to where the other 55% of the world's Jews live. And I want to try to understand in your reading of it, what's the substance of Jewish life? Let’s say, I'm in Cleveland, and Gol Kalev says to me, “You can do whatever you want religiously, and you may be more, you may be less, but the anchor of this new Judaism that's emerging is Israel and Zionism. And I say to myself, “Okay, but I live in Cleveland. What am I actually supposed to do? I'm not moving to Israel. I don't speak Hebrew.” So, the book says there's lots of things that you can do. You can follow Israeli news. You can drink Israeli wines; you can read Israeli literature. There's lots of stuff to be consumed on all kinds of streaming services. I can defend Israel in the public sphere. I can be critical of Israel in the public sphere. That's all well and good, but the question that I want to ask you is, is that enough glue to tie people to Jewishness?

So, first of all, if you're a Jew in Cleveland, I'm not saying top down, that you should center your Jewish identity around Zionism. I'm saying that's the reality. That is what you are. And I obviously had a lot of conversation with Jews in Cleveland, and in other places too, and some of them initially pushed back and said, “Well, I don't like Israel.” But then when you look at your day to day, and if you map out all the interactions you had with Judaism over the last month let’s say, you will quickly find out that most of those interactions had to do with Israel. And I've done this exercise with a number of people, whether it's the activities you outlined, such as watching an Israeli series on Netflix, drinking Israeli wine, complaining about Israel, criticizing Israel, writing an op-ed against Israel, it's an indication of your connection through Zionism.

And Judaism is about the same thing that it has always been about, but it funnels itself through Zionism. Judaism is still about religiosity, but like many people in Israel, many connect to their religious aspects through Zionism. Judaism is about tikkun olam. Tikkun olam is a value that many Americans, especially in the Reform movement, champion, it is their primary connection through Judaism. But most Jews in Cleveland and elsewhere don't practice tikkun olam wearing a Jewish hat. Most Jews, from my experience when I lived in New York, when they volunteer in a homeless shelter, or when engage in activism for the environment or whatever cause they engage with, they do it in a community wide organization. But through Israel, you have an opportunity to be part of the tikkun olam nation, to be part of a collective vehicle to engage in tikkun olam given what everything Israel is doing, both official Israel like sending delegations and helping places when there are disasters and things like that, but also like in the de facto bottom up, for example Israeli technologies that save lives around the world.

So being Jewish, being part of the Jewish nation generates pride and generates belongingness, it helps improve humanity through your affiliation with the Jewish state. Now, because you have this affiliation, it is completely your duty if you choose to do it this way, to be a partner in its endeavor to be critical of certain aspects of what it's doing. You can say “you're not building enough settlements, you're leaving the land abandoned” or you can say “you're building too many settlements,” but you can be a partner. Israel provides the engagement. We live in a time where you can't tell people what to do. We saw how that played out during the corona crisis. So, we don't have the rabbis or anybody saying, “this is what Judaism is” and so we have to come to people and people should choose what they want to do based on their personal preferences. The Judaism 3.0 connectors in the Jewish supermarket are something that you choose. So, the meaning of Judaism or the essence of Judaism is expressed through Zionism. So, it's an ideal that constantly evolves and it's an ideal that is abstract enough that allows you as an individual to make Judaism through Zionism relevant. Not just make it relevant but allow you to express whatever it is that you want to do whether it’s tikkun olam, your religiosity, your communal aspect through the vehicle of Zionism.

So, the point that this place is becoming the center stage, this being Israel, that I think is completely correct, but what would you say to someone who says, “but I still need to know what's the play that's being acted out on the center stage?” The early secular kibbutzim had this phrase “from the Tanach to the Palmach”, or from the Bible to the the strike force of the Haganah in the early part of the 20th century, which was to say, if there was a Jewish thing that was written after the Bible and before the Palmach, we have no interest. You would go to a very well-established kibbutz in the 1950s-1960s with a huge library, and you would not find anything by Maimonides, and you would not find the Babylonian Talmud and you would not find Rashi. That was it. It was either the Bible or the renewal of Zionism. Basically Judaism 1.0 or Judaism 3.0. Judaism 2.0 had been excised because that was the weak Jew, the Diaspora Jew, the fearful Jew, the accommodating Jew, etc. Is it possible though that we need Judaism 2.0 (Rabbinic Judaism) and Judaism 30?

Rabbinic Judaism is intertwined with Zionism. I spoke to a very prominent Haredi rabbi who said there's no such thing as Zionism without Judaism, referring to the religious part of Judaism. But there's no such thing as the Judaism without Zionism anymore. So, I'm not saying erase 2000 years. On the contrary, those 2000 years of heritage and history, the Talmud, and the religious aspect flourishes under the new organizing principle of Judaism, which is Judaism 3.0. I'm saying that the organizing principle of Judaism 2.0 was rabbinic Judaism. There was still national aspect, but that was the organizing principle. Now the organizing principle of Judaism is the national aspect of the Jewish nation religion and that which is Zionism. And that in turn strengthen the religious aspect of Judaism. That is the vehicle to connect to our past as it is to improve the world. Judaism 2.0 saved Judaism 1.0 in a sense.

A lot of our narratives in the Jewish religion is about the temple and it's about the sacrifices. And certainly, until we came back here, it was about the yearning to go back. “If I forget you Jerusalem, I forget my right hand “and “l’shana haba’ah… next year next year in Jerusalem.”

I want to ask you one more question. In rabbinic Judaism, if you didn't believe that God revealed the Torah in classic times, you were a heretic. If you said these laws about what to eat, what to wear, how to sleep, who I can marry, etc. they don't apply to me, then you were a heretic. There were clear boundaries. And you pointed out, of course, that those boundaries no longer exist. I want to know where there are boundaries in Judaism 3.0.

Yeah, well, it's I think there's a fine line. I think opposition to Judaism has always been funneled to the most relevant aspect of Judaism, and now it is funneled through Zionism. So now the opposition to Judaism is anti-Zionism and it has trickled into the Jewish world. Also. We have to understand that many Jews throughout centuries wanted to get out of Judaism, but they couldn't. They couldn't get out except for a brief period at the end of the 19th century, at the beginning of the 20th century, in small sections in Western Europe. But then they immediately got pulled into Judaism. So now, for the first time in history, some Jews just want to say, “you know what? I don't want Judaism, I want out.” And Israel, as I'm suggesting in the book, pulls you into your Judaism. Whether you like it or not, you can't get out. So, if you say, “I don't believe in the Jewish state” or “I don't believe in Judaism”, I don't want to call it heresy, but the self-contradiction occurs when you say, “I want to stay in the Jewish club, but I'm not a Zionist.” So that is to me very similar to what might have happened in the transition from Judaism 1.0 to 2.0. We know that there were people early on, and maybe there were people later that said, “I love the Jews who worship in the temple that hasn't existed for over 1000 years, who do the ritual sacrifices, who live in Judea. But I hate the Jews who are rabbinic Jews, I hate the Jews that celebrate Hanukkah and I hate the Jews that celebrate all those holidays.” You can't say that because that's the most relevant aspect of Judaism. And if you're a Jewish person and you say, “Well, I believe in the temple, Judaism 1.0, but I'm no longer a rabbinic Jew.” I mean, that's just comical.

But there was a group back then called the Karaites that said “We don't accept the transformation from Judaism 1.0 to Judaism 2.0. We don't accept it”. And that's a legitimate view. And I think today we are seeing that the people that you described is what I call in the book neo- Karaites. If all the synagogue members get together and after a year of deliberations, they pass a resolution that says, “This synagogue is anti-Zionist”, that was the primary thing they engaged with that year. Talking about Zionism.  So, I prefer to use the word karaite, people that didn't accept back then the transformation from biblical Judaism to rabbinic Judaism.

But there's a distinction because back then the Karaites had 1,000 years or more of rich Jewish tradition, they were very engaged. These were engaged Jews that just chose not to be part of the transformation. Today, those people who are neo- Karaites tend to be highly under engaged Jews. I mean, there are some who are engaged, but for many of them, Judaism is low in the hierarchy of identities. And therefore, the most likely path for those neo- Karaites is the continuing of the evaporation track that most of American Jewry is on anyway. They're on a track of a similar evaporation that Italian Americans and Irish Americans are on. Some Irish American friends of mine say, “I'm very Irish because I celebrate Saint Patrick’s Day and I drink Guinness”, but so do I and I’m not Irish.

And when I hosted the Rosh Hashanah dinners at my place in New York, most people that wanted to come were non-Jews. So, Judaism is gradually becoming a brand in the overall American array of brands to choose from. And American Jewry is on a path to evaporation. The core of it, not all of it. This structure of Judaism 2.0, I think provides more meaning and relevance to Judaism and perhaps slows the evaporation, and maybe even reverses the path of evaporation. Those neo- Karaites will probably continue the path towards evaporation out of Judaism. So, in a sense, that conversation about that person who says, “I’m anti-Zionist”, it's not that relevant in the long term point of view because those people are probably not going to be part of the Jewish nation in a few decades.

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Music credits: Medieval poem by Rabbi Shlomo Ibn Gvirol. Melody and performance by Shaked Jehuda and Eyal Gesundheit. Production by Eyal Gesundheit. To view a video of their performance, see this YouTube:

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Israel from the Inside with Daniel Gordis
Israel from the Inside with Daniel Gordis
Israel from the Inside is for people who want to understand Israel with nuance, who believe that Israel is neither hopelessly flawed and illegitimate, nor beyond critique. If thoughtful analysis of Israel and its people interests you, welcome!