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Remaking Israeli Judaism: The Challenge of Shas.

Remaking Israeli Judaism: The Challenge of Shas, by David Lehmann and Batia Siebzehner. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. 289 pp. $65.00.

The growing research literature on the Israeli Shas phenomenon has been moving over the years from a predominantly political perspective to one focused on it as a socio-religious movement. This volume is part of that wave. The authors do not only address their subject from a broad sociological perspective, but also bring with them expertise in research on Latin American Catholicism and Pentecostalism, and they seek to illuminate the Israeli phenomenon through that experience. The book has an informal ethnographic dimension: over a period of three years the authors visited unspecified numbers of Shas-linked schools, yeshivas, synagogues, study groups, etc., and spoke to activists upon whom they came by "networking."

On the basis of this fieldwork and their reading of the pertinent literature, the authors offer a portrait of Shas which emphasizes its being akin to Evangelist movements, in Jewish terms a "teshuva" movement, of a kind with Habad hasidism. The Shas teshuva movement is linked to ethnic and social resentment. But though both secular and orthodox Ashkenazim have discriminated against Sephardim, the resentment of Shas is focused harshly only upon the secular sector. The reason, the authors suggest, interestingly, is that since relatively few Sephardim in the early decades of the State had personal experience with orthodox Ashkenazim, they remain to this day relatively unaware of the discrimination practiced in that sector.

An interesting finding of the book is that some of the Shas schools, despite the vehement anti-intellectualism of the movement, have modern quality programs in secular subjects such as physical education and science. Also, the authors find, the Shas movement is moderate and gradual in the religious demands it poses to new recruits. Further, in contrast to the situation among Ashkenazic haredim, in Shas returnees are acceptable for positions of prominence and leadership. The authors explain this openness as due to the overall expansiveness of Shas and its consequent need for skilled professionals to man administrative and technical positions (such as in the radio stations affiliated with Shas, and in government positions they command). Similarly, in the area of women's rights, Shas women, while encouraged to high fertility, are invited to be publicly active for the movement, and also to engage in professional work. The movement is involved in private college-level training facilities (separate for men and women).

The book offers many arresting theses based on insights on the Israeli situation, supported by Latin American findings. In both cases, Shas and Latin America, the authors claim, the new religious movements entail the recruits' joining a new community, eventually severing ties with their community of origin, and in time, becoming heavily dependent on the new community. One aspect of this is marriage at a young age (with the support of the religious community) and concomitant parental disempowerment and attrition of kinship. Another thesis is that new religious recruits will be particularly enthusiastic and committed devotees, because of their dependence on their new community. A further thesis is that in common with evangelical movements world-wide, Shas has a marked hierarchical pattern of authority and a centralized system for the interpretation of religious codes. All these assertions are reasonable in theory, but they invite presentation of rigorous evidence, and that we are not offered in this book.

The most sweeping thesis of the study is that "conversion-based movements reshape religion everywhere, including evangelical Christianity, Pentecostalism and Islamic renewal. (p. 3). The universal element of this statement need not concern us, but does it apply to the local Israeli scene, and to Shas in particular? In entitling their book "Remaking Israeli Judaism" and subtitling it "The Challenge of Shas," the authors demonstrate their conviction that the role of Shas in religious change is indeed pivotal. But the issue might have been explored in greater depth. Granting the force of Shas in Israeli religion and politics, the book exaggerates some points and glosses over many reservations. One, the overall Sephardic proportion of Israeli Jews is probably not) much over one-third. Hence, we are dealing with a minority phenomenon, and that presumably limits the spread of Shas activities. Second, the book ignores the fact that there is significant reservation among haredi Sephardim to Shas, both as a party and as the religious movement headed by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef (particularly among Moroccan Israelis, and in the Jerusalem locality). Third, innumerable Sephardic synagogue congregations remain "traditional," untouched by the Shas phenomenon. Similarly, the majority of Sephardic voters do not vote for Shas. As to the influence of Shas beyond Sephardic Israelis, I am not aware that Ashkenazic haredim have been significantly touched by Shas, contrary to the belief of the authors. Altogether, the teshuva movement is not a major force among Israeli Ashkenazim, in contrast to the Sephardim. But the book also exaggerates the role of Shas in the teshuva movement. Beyond Shas, only Habad is given here significant attention as a religious movement. There is also the Bratslav hasidic movement, and the Zionist-messianic movement. These do not quite fit the "evangelical" model in which the authors place Shas and Habad, and the study ignores them. But they too are notable teshuva movements.

For a work published by the prestigious Oxford University Press, the book is marred by astonishingly numerous minor factual errors. I note some of the more egregious ones: Contrary to the note on p. 92, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef was educated predominantly in Sephardic, and not in Ashkenazic schools. Later he hired Aryeh Deri to tutor his son, but of course not his daughter, as bizarrely stated on p. 133. "The well-known French Rabbi Shmuel Trigano" (p. 65) is known as an academic, not as a rabbi. There recur incorrect transcriptions and translations of terms and place names (some of them on p. 105 line 12; p. 133 lines 8, 11; p. 118 line 1; p. 134 line 12 from end). Incorrect names of persons and localities figure on p. 69 end, and line 16 from end; p. 133 line 16; p. 76 line 3 from end, and elsewhere. Questionable historical summaries are numerous. Some appear on p. 15 line 7; p. 55 line 10; p. 57 line 12 from end; p. 62 line 6 from end.

In short, the book gives the impression of having been written hastily, but at the same time it is laced with insights of brilliance. It is to be recommended to scholars of Judaism seeking good ideas worth exploring, and to scholars of religion in general.

Shlomo Deshen

Tel-Aviv University
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Author:Deshen, Shlomo
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2007
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