Sunday, November 05, 2023

Review: The Wondering Jew: Israel and the Search for Jewish Identity

The Wondering Jew: Israel and the Search for Jewish IdentityThe Wondering Jew: Israel and the Search for Jewish Identity by Micah Goodman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A fascinating examination of the complex nature of Jewish identity. In particular, Goodman is focused on the various strands of Judaism and Jewishness that are within Israeli culture. Though primarily focused on Israeli Jewishness, it is rooted in the long intellectual and religious traditions of the Jewish People: from Beit Hillel in the Second Temple period to Maimonides to the 19th and 20th century religious and secular thinkers. I very much appreciate the insight Goodman brings into Jewish and Israeli thought; sharing with the reader many ideas that normally are not accessible (because they are in Hebrew).

The main idea Goodman starts with is that within Israel—and because its Israel, the Jewish national homeland—there are new ways of being Jewish developing. Just as older forms developed in response to the tensions and conditions of the world they were in, being Jewish in Israel is evolving and responding to pressures and tensions in Israel. These include the interaction of tradition and modernity; community and individualism; authority and liberty.

Many know that Israel seems to be divided into two camps: religious and secular. Goodman argues this oversimplifies things. Within each camp there are further divisions, divisions that mirror each other in the other camps. That is, there is a more strident, religious camp that holds fast to the religious laws and traditions as expressed in orthodoxy. This is mirrored in the secular camp by the strident secularists who reject and forswear religious tradition and learning. But as well, each camp has what Goodman calls “alternative” movements. There are religious Zionists who are interested in the more open and dynamic aspects of modern life. This is mirrored by the secularist Zionists who are interested in connecting to the richness of Jewish tradition. The religious are not secularizing: they are not compromising or losing faith. And the secularists are not becoming religious: they want to enrich and deepen their secularism by connecting with the ideas and texts of the tradition.

His main argument is that these alternative threads are, or are potentially, forming a more balanced, middle way of Israeli Judaism.

Goodman argues that that these threads, the alternative and mainline ones, have long pedigrees in Jewish history and roots his analysis in those traditions. This history deals with, in its own ways relative to its time period, the problems and tensions of tradition and modernity; community and individualism; authority and liberty. As such, there is much to learn about how these alternative stands in contemporary Israeli society might deepen and expand: enriching Israeli society, but also Jewish culture worldwide.

And this can move beyond the Jewish world as well. The lesson is that if one is religious, they can enrich their faith with modern ideas and ideals without losing their religion; and if one is not religious, they can enrich their connections and community by exploring and learning about their traditions without having to submit to the authority of the tradition. This helps, as Goodman argues, to balance many of the tensions and values of modern life. That is, at least, the hope Goodman leaves us; and it is one I share. As a secular Jew, who loves learning about the tradition but is not likely to be observant, many aspects of Goodman’s discussion appealed to me deeply. Lastly, it is wonderfully written: clear and approachable even while condensing and articulating complex theological, philosophical, and sociological ideas.

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