As we saw in my previous post, the secular Jewish nationalist movement of the late 19th century was revolutionary by its very nature. It sought to replace a Jewish identity rooted in religion with one rooted initially in ethnicity and ultimately in citizenship. While there were many who failed to appreciate the depth of this inherent conflict, there were others, especially among the rabbinic leadership, who did – and rejected the nationalist movement for precisely that reason.
The growing visibility and popularity of secular nationalism could not leave traditional Judaism indifferent. Even if, as we have seen, secular nationalists rejected crucial elements of the traditional narrative, the fact was that the very return to Eretz Yisrael on a mass level did seem to be a manifestation of at least one crucial facet of the traditional narrative. But, ideological religious opponents of secular nationalism chose to attack exactly at the point of maximal resistance. Secular nationalism was rejected not only for undercutting the continuity of Jewish tradition, but also – indeed primarily – for undercutting the very aspect of the traditional narrative that it appeared to be upholding, namely, that of redemption from the diaspora and the return to Eretz Yisrael. The argument, easily grounded in traditional sources, was that attempts to force premature redemption would interfere with the authentic ultimate redemption and lead to nothing but catastrophe.
Ideology notwithstanding, the history of the 20th century was such that the return of Jews – secular nationalists, religious anti-nationalists and others of various stripes – to Eretz Yisrael became an incontrovertible fact. Under these circumstances, religious objections to secular nationalism took on a more concrete and specific character. There were three aspects of traditional Judaism as it had been practiced in the diaspora that were under direct threat in a state run by Jews.
First, in galuti Judaism, the life of the spirit had been paramount. Jews had redefined power in terms of cultural autonomy, the power to live their lives according to their own traditions and to pass on their cultural and intellectual legacy to their children. The power to move armies was not among their aspirations. Working the land or soldiering were regarded as unfortunate burdens and not acts of personal redemption. Second, the diaspora version of Judaism was wary of any political authority, if not downright subversive. This was both a matter of principle and a matter of bitter political experience. Third, halakhah in the diaspora had adapted itself to a lack of political, economic and judicial autonomy. It functioned reasonably well at the level of individuals or communities, but it had not been tested at the level of the state – and certainly not at the level of a modern state conceived in secular terms.
For better or worse, all three of these crucial aspects of traditional Judaism were now being directly challenged. The response of traditionalist ant-nationalists, who wished to preserve the old model of Judaism despite the manifest change in circumstances, was to try to maintain maximal autonomy from the state. Either for lack of choice or for lack of imagination, they attempted to achieve this by subscribing to the myth that living in a state in Eretz Yisrael run by secular Jews was no different than living in a state in Europe run by goyim. But just as the central myth of secular nationalism – that a community based on citizenship alone is sustainable as a moral community – ultimately crashed against reality, so too the central myth of what I'll call "religious separatism" crashed against reality. As a result, religious separatists have failed completely at achieving their central goal, namely, autonomy. Seldom has a community been so dependent on a state for survival as religious separatists are on the state of Israel.
Let's see how this happened.
The two main mechanisms of social integration in Israel are state education and universal conscription. Thus, separatists established autonomous schools and negotiated means of avoiding conscription. The lack of education and army experience had the secondary effect of rendering separatists less employable than others who had been better integrated into society. This technical limitation was, however, largely surmountable: there are plenty of jobs for which the less-than-perfectly integrated Israeli is perfectly competent. Many separatists chose, however, to postpone working in favor of learning in kollel for a few years as a principled preference, not necessarily as a way of making a virtue of necessity.
So far so good. What happened next is that avoidance of general education, conscription and employment took on a secondary function, namely , that of signaling loyalty to the separatist community. As I previously discussed at some length, all communities – not only separatists – have a variety of signaling mechanisms through which members can signal their loyalty. These signals are effective if the signals are costly to the sender and only worthwhile if the sender intends to remain in the community for the long haul. In separatist communities, the most effective type of signal is bridge-burning: one acts in such a manner that one's options for achieving success outside the community are greatly diminished. Think nose-rings and tattoos. Or, for that matter, think not getting a general education, not serving in the army in a country with universal conscription and not getting a job.
The effectiveness of such signals depends crucially on their costliness to the sender. If not serving in the army is simply a low-cost convenience, then draft evasion, in and of itself, will not be adequate to persuade other community members of my long-term commitment. I might just be lazy or cowardly. Similarly sitting in kollel for a year or two after marriage is an effective signal only if it entails genuine financial hardship. Given that, what happens when the state decides to provide stipends to kollelim? As Eli Berman points out in a very perceptive paper, by ameliorating the financial hardship of learning in kollel, such subsidies undercut the effectiveness of learning in kollel as a signal. The result is that those who might have learned for a few years now must remain considerably longer to achieve the same signaling effect.
Like escalating mishloach manos competitions, it costs everybody more just to keep up and neither the participants nor the subsidizers are happy about it. And the oddest consequence of all is that the competition to prove separatist bona fides leads to total dependence of the separatists on state subsidies. Moreover, it pulls the rug out from under the very myth the separatists wish to preserve. Unless the Polish government was surreptitiously funneling money to the Gerrer beis midrash, Israeli state support for Torah learning – begrudging or otherwise – makes plain what should be obvious for a million other reasons: for Jews, Israel is not like any other state and we ignore that fact at our peril.