Whenever we in yeshiva try to start a discussion with our rabbi or lecturer about issues which we have seen on the Daat Emet site, they weasel out of giving an answer by using the eternal know-it-all answer: “Our nation is no nation without its teachings. This is the whole Torah; now go out and learn the rest,” they answer us with seemingly elegant diplomacy.
“What connects American Jews with Moroccan Jews, Russian Jews with Yemenite Jews, Swiss Jews with Iraqi Jews, if not our holy Torah?” they ask and mock. “Please go ask Daat Emet.”
So we wanted to know what the site says about this. Is our nation indeed no nation without its teachings?
Before we answer your question, which is important and frequently asked, it is important to note that this claim is also heard amongst the secular, who have often internalized the nonsense of religion and its views. In the article Between Enlightenment and Ignorance: Daat Emet Leads a Revolution, published in the Kaveret journal (issue 13), Orna Shani wrote:
One of the conversations held by the organization’s chairman, Yaron Yadan, on that day was with former MK Michael Kleiner. After Kleiner rejected the Daat Emet pamphlet, Yadan asked “Are you against liberalism?” Kleiner answered, with some emphasis, “I’m for religion.” “But religion says that men and women…” [Yadan’s words are interrupted.] Kleiner: “I don’t understand much about religion, I’m secular. I’m in favor of religion. I’m in favor of the Jewish nation, thanks to whom we exist.” Yadan, amazed: “I’m not talking about nationality, only religion. You don’t understand religion, but you’re for it — isn’t that odd?” Kleiner: “I don’t know what the religion says.” Yadan: “The religion says that one may kill the secular. Doesn’t that matter to you?” Kleiner: “I don’t accept that. It’s your interpretation.”
This is the way of people, who view their lives through the lens of emotion: they mock reason and cling to their desires, flee what is revealed and chase the hidden. Come see the manner of the faithful who change their reactions to enlightenment often, in keeping with the spirit of the times and their desires, following “when the evil sprout like grass.” At first, when the enlightenment movement began, rabbis like Nathan Sternhartz of Nemirov (1780-1845, a student of R’ Nachman of Breslov, author of two pamphlets against Enlightenment of his days: Machniah Zeidim and Kinat HaShem Tzivaot) claimed that one may not rely upon human intellect, only upon faith. Green (Baal HaYesurim pg. 293) nicely defined the view of faith after Enlightenment: “Faith is an act of defiance, not a passive admission of the veracity of tradition or of Revelation, but an aggressive means which Man uses to reject doubt.” In our days the claim of “faith” sounds ridiculous, so they exchanged it for a claim which sounds more “popular,” “Jewish unity.” It is as though they defiantly state to those who doubt: forget the truth, run away from your questions, evade the values of equality and humanism; let us indulge our desire which stems from fear, ‘the unity of the Jewish nation’.” [What is amusing in this claim is that their call to unity means division, for their religion and their laws are not tolerant and do not accept the stranger and those who are different, even amongst the Jews, The secular person is considered a heretic and apostate, the traditional person as sitting on the fence, the Reform and the Conservative, from their point of view, are the worst of all Jews.]
Now we will discuss the main point of the claim: “Our nation is no nation without its teachings” (Saadiah Gaon, 882 CE, HaEmunot V’HaDayot essay 3). This was stated in the Middle Ages when religious empires — Christian and Muslim — ruled and the Jews were a religious minority tolerated and protected by the sovereign. Naturally the Jewish community preserved itself primarily through religious symbols, both because of the Christian and Muslim governments and because of the Jews themselves. Scattered communities in Iraq and in Galitzia, in France and in Morocco, had characteristics which distinguished them from the gentile communities — religion and religious rituals, the religious Jewish literature, the Hebrew (Holy) tongue which served for prayers and Torah study, places of residence, etc.
The significance of the word “nation” was mainly religious/spiritual: fulfilling the Divine purpose, with no need for a language, territory (state), or common culture. But it is the way of people and nations to be changeable and their opinions and wishes change over time. Language takes on new meanings in keeping with these changes. Thus, the word “nation” (in the past meaning a group of people of the same religion, lacking a country) has taken on a new meaning — a nation is a collection of people with a shared territory, language, and culture, and a common desire to support it, develop it, and strengthen it in all areas, with no connection to the individuals faith or religion. It is as though the bowl overturned; in the past a person’s religion was the main aspect of his identity, with no connection to the government under which he lived (for example, a group of wandering monks), while today the significance of religion has been overshadowed and is now but a sub-category of a person’s identity. Man’s dominant identity is based primarily on his membership in a group which seeks the welfare of a particular state as a means of man’s happiness.
In other words: In the modern era, since Enlightenment, since the rise of nations in Europe, the separation of state and religion and the rights of man, there has been a dramatic change. The question which Jews asked themselves was whether they would take part in this amazing change, and if so, how? This is not the place to discuss history at large, but today’s reality in practice forced the issue (and woe to he who ignores the reality of the Jews) — the Jews have their own territory and language, they have accepted the United Nations charter, and have in practice announced that they are part of the dramatic change which took place in Europe. They are included in the modern sense of the word “nation” — a group of people within the State of Israel. (It will be interesting to see the progress of the “Ani Israeli” organization’s court case, due up on February 20, 2007, demanding that they be registered on their National Identity cards as having Israeli nationality. This case could only be heard in the “Jewish state” which refuses to accept the modern nationality of Israeli.)
As for the lecturers and rabbis who give you elusive answers (as you yourself have noted): if they honestly mean what they say, then they are not interested in the dramatic change and even oppose it. They prefer exile and pain while fulfilling the commandments over a state and language with enlightenment and freedom to create. Therefore all their behavior here in the State of Israel is as a religious Jewish enclave which aspires to preserve its community as a legal/religious autonomy as it was during the exile of the Middle Ages. They have not realized that no state would agree to the reality which existed in the past — a nation within a nation — a community with legal autonomy separated from the rest of the state’s citizens.
Since questions of identity in general and of Jewish identity in particular are one of the most confusing and complicated issues (because they are emotional) I will try to add another aspect which touches upon the internal world of those who think of themselves as Jewish.
Those who think of themselves as Jews, throughout the world, are divided into denominations and sub-denominations. It is sufficient to list the secular, the Conservatives, the Reform, the traditional, the Zionist Orthodox, the anti-Zionist Orthodox…If you try to find some common ground between them you will seek in vain. The only thing which they have in common is the fact that they each pretend to represent Judaism and to be the Jewish standard-bearer. There is even a logical paradox — each denomination claims the Jewish crown and no two see it the same, but the very desire to be seen as a Jew makes him, in the eyes of all, a Jew.
This glue is weak and insubstantial. The citizens of the State of Israel would do well to strengthen the Israeli nation, to be a nation like all others, with a special culture and a special past all its own.
For more detail, appropriate to this topic, see our answers to Why do you battle the Charedi?, Jewish identity in the modern world, Intermarriage, as well as Conversion is a covenant with G-d and not a means of joining the Jewish nation, The Land of Israel and the Jewish nation created an androgynous state, and Who is a Jew?”.