Interview with James Kugel in il Sussidiario

In your book On Being a Jew you make an argument in support of the value of orthodoxy. What is orthodoxy? What value does it have for contemporary people and societies?

I suppose orthodoxy in general can refer to all sorts of things – sticking to tradition (and, hence, a reluctance or unwillingness to change); fundamentalism or literalism, especially in regard to Scripture; a devotion to established doctrines and rituals, and along with this a certain mistrust of spontaneity or the lack of framework. Any of these can be valuable or harmful in contemporary societies – sometimes both at the same time. I think one of the things that orthodoxy in religion provides is a feeling of stability and continuity, and of belonging to something ongoing that is bigger than oneself.

Speaking in particular of the Jewish situation: Jewish orthodoxy is a broad topic. What is it? Who are the authors of the official line? Who are your points of reference?

Strictly speaking, Orthodox Judaism is a modern invention. This term was first used in the early nineteenth century as a rallying cry against Reform Judaism and the other forces that threatened traditional Jewish ways of worship and Jewish self-definition. But in a broader sense, Orthodoxy today sees itself as the heir to centuries and centuries of earlier tradition; it is the form of Judaism today that most directly and meaningfully continues the Judaism of the ages.

In this sense, its “authors” are the classical texts of Judaism: the Hebrew Bible, the Talmud, and later codifications of Jewish law. Since Judaism is all about serving God and occupying oneself with doing the things that God commanded, these texts are crucial for Orthodox Jews. They try to keep all the laws of ritual and ethical behavior scrupulously – this is sometimes a point of distinction between them and other Jews.

But the “who” of Orthodox Judaism is not an easy matter to define.

Today, the old Orthodoxy (sometimes styled “modern Orthodoxy”) continues, but the line between it and the Haredim has been somewhat blurred. What is more, the rise of the state of Israel, along with the entrance of non-European, Sephardic Jews into the broader religious picture in Israel, has made this matter of “who” far more complicated than it used to be.

Critics of organized religion assert that religion has been a cause, at least ostensibly, of war and division. Indeed, much of the world is involved in a war now that is, in many ways, a religious one. How do you think orthodoxy stands up to this charge?

It depends whose orthodoxy you mean. I do not think that there are many conflicts currently going on that could be blamed on Christian orthodoxy. Jewish orthodoxy, I am sorry to say, is not an entirely innocent bystander in the current crisis in the Middle East, but I hardly think that it is a main factor.

What do you think of Zionism as a project, and what does that have to do with your view of orthodoxy? Do you see the Jewish state as a Messianic project and expression of orthodoxy?

Zionism is the national liberation movement of the Jewish people. It began in earnest in the nineteenth century. Its original aim was to allow Jews to settle in the multi-national, multi-cultural Ottoman empire, along various tracts of land purchased in parts of Palestine, the Jews’ historic homeland. This movement soon came to focus on the hope for a Jewish state,

As for the role of Jewish orthodoxy in Zionism, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries it was rather negligible; Zionism was an overwhelmingly secular movement. As its goals came closer to realization, however, religious Jews found it more congenial, and especially following the Six Day War in 1967, many such Jews saw Israel as nothing less than the fulfillment of biblical prophecy and even the forerunner of Messianic redemption.

I personally support the state of Israel – I am an Israeli citizen and have lived there for more than twenty years – but I am a bit uncomfortable with the identification of the state with any eschatology, Orthodox or otherwise. I’m glad Israel exists, but I await somewhat nervously the judgment of history.

Full version here

dont forget h/t

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