Two Jews, three opinions: Doctrine and the Netanyahu speech firestorm

Is there a more desirable photo op for an Israeli politician (excluding Israel's Arab and some of its left-wing Jewish parliamentarians) than one taken at HaKotel, which is the short-hand Hebrew term for Jerusalem's Western Wall?

Oh, never mind; silly question. And ditto for visiting dignitaries who also flock to the mostly Herodian-era stone blocks, the exposed portion of which stands 62-feet high. The resulting image screams identification with Israel's binary raison d'être -- secular contemporary Zionism and traditional religious piety.

Which is why Prime Minister Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu was there the Saturday night prior to his highly charged Washington address to Congress, when he implored President Barack Obama not to sign a deal with Iran that would allow the Islamic republic to retain its suspected nuclear weapon capabilities. The visit dominated the American news cycle for the better part of a week, a virtual eon in this time of 24/7 deadlines.

Yes, it was political theater of the highest order. But it was something more, because anything to do with Israel automatically takes on a religious tone. You know, Jews versus Muslims, the knee-jerk equating of all things Israeli with religious Judaism, the entire Holy Land gestalt.

Not to mention that Netanyahu's visit came just a few days before the Jewish holiday of Purim, which commemorates the saving of Jews from genocide as recounted in the Biblical Book of Esther. Ancient Persians play the would-be villains, just as Iran, the successor nation to Persia, does for Netanyahu in today's nuclear drama. Netanyahu noted the Purim connection in his speech to Congress, and it was hard to find a mainstream news report that did not cite the irony. You can be sure that was precisely Netanyahu's intent.

Interestingly, no where in the Book of Esther is God mentioned. God does not save the Jews, as happens in the Passover Exodus story from Egypt. This time, Jews -- in the form of the Jewish Queen Esther -- saved themselves. That lines up perfectly with secular Zionism.

It also underscores the near impossibility of distinguishing Jewish culture from religious Judaism, the traditional connective faith of Jews worldwide. As a younger religion journalist I used to fret that editors hopelessly confused the political struggles and cultural mores of Jews with Judaism's doctrinal aspects. No longer. As I said, and as I see in my own life, it’s impossible to tease apart the religious and secular in Jews who have any sense of Jewish self-identification.

As the eminent religion scholar Huston Smith wrote in "Why Religion Matters: The Fate of the Human Spirit in an Age of Disbelief":

Transcendence takes the initiative at every turn; in creating the world, in instantiating itself in human beings, and in shaping civilizations through its revelations -- revelations that set civilizations in motion and establish their trajectories.

In other words, there's just no getting away from cultural and religious influences, no matter where you were born, no matter how you relate to the religious lineage from which you come.

Last week, GetReligion honcho Terry Mattingly wondered aloud whether the Netanyahu affair was dividing Jews along doctrinal lines and, if so, what were the doctrines involved in this debate. The answer is, the divisions were already there, sometimes it seems, hopelessly so. As the joke goes; two Jews, three opinions. That goes for religion, politics and even kugel. (I prefer the sweet noodle variety.)

Take the Wall as one example.

The Western Wall -- also called the Wailing Wall (but rarely by Jews) -- is a remnant of the west side of the retaining wall that supported the Temple Mount, site of the two Biblical-era Jewish temples, the second of which was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE.  The Wall is Judaism's holiest site and the direction to which religious Jews everywhere face in prayer. Israel "liberated" -- Muslims would say "seized" -- both the Wall and the rest of Jerusalem's Old City from Jordan in the 1967 Six Day War, thereby fusing the site with Zionist legend. Today, the Wall is where new recruits to the Israel Defense Force (Israel's military) are sworn-in.

But the Wall also has official government status as a traditional Orthodox synagogue. That means men and women are separated, woman are restricted in their range of acceptable practices during prayer, and the norms of Orthodox Judaism's more liberal strains (what's called Modern Orthodoxy in the United States) are banned, such as donning prayer shawls worn only by men in more traditional Orthodox settings. In fact, the government-sanctioned Orthodox stranglehold on Jewish religious practices in Israel has led more liberal Jews in Israel and elsewhere to argue that Israel restricts Jewish religious freedom more than just about any other non-Muslim nation worldwide.

These two links -- here and then here -- that provide fuller explanations. 

As a rule of thumb, the more traditionally observant the Jew -- that is, the more Orthodox in belief and practice -- the more politically and socially conservative and the more supportive on religious grounds of the modern State of Israel. In the U.S., this means that while the majority of Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist and non-affiliated Jews vote overwhelmingly Democratic in local and national elections, the Orthodox cohort -- about 10 percent of the whole -- casts its ballots largely for Republicans in line with the GOP's more traditional social and moral policies and its perceived greater and more unquestioning support for Israeli policies.

There are, of course, self-described secular American Jews who because of economic and/or foreign policy concerns also vote Republican. Likewise, there are left-wing religious Jews, both in   Israel and the U.S., who quote Scripture in opposing rightist policies of the Netanyahu government. Not to be outdone, there are also religious Jews on the far right who cite Jewish religious tradition to totally reject the legitimacy of the State of Israel because it was founded by human activity, rather than God's anointed Messiah.

So are Jews a doctrinally divided people? Another bit of Jewish whimsy makes the point clear:

A Jew is shipwrecked on a tiny island. Years later a passing ship comes to his rescue. When the captain comes ashore he spots two synagogues side by side. "You're alone," he asks. Why have two synagogues?" The Jew responds, "This one is the synagogue I go to. The other, that's the one I would never go to!"

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