So far we have spoken of the role of the traditional Jewish community before the modern times. The form of the encounter with modernity, and its chronology, varied from place to place. In general terms, however, we can say that the effect of the encounter was clear: the walls that separated the Jew from the outside world and made the Jewish community the center for the Jews who lived within, started to crumble. The Jew was free to walk away.
Prior to the modern age, the only real option for a Jew who wanted to walk away from the community was to stop being a Jew. We have already mentioned why it would be difficult, if not impossible, for a Jew to live a Jewish life without contact with a community, but there is an additional factor to consider. All over the world, the authorities in the outside world considered a Jew a member of the Jewish community. They considered the community responsible for the conduct of its individual members. Thus it was hard for a Jew to be seen as an individual.
This should not necessarily be seen as a negative attitude towards Jews. It was simply an example of the way that society worked in those times. Society - and those responsible for running it - tended to relate to people as members of communities or corporate bodies. Therefore you could not just opt out of your community and leave: you had to become something else, such as a Christian or Moslem. Contrary to common opinion, many Jews took this route.
Thus the difference between the pre-modern and modern worlds is that, in the latter period, a Jew could walk away from the community and remain a Jew. Many have done that over the last generations and have continued to see themselves as Jewish, despite the fact that they have little or no contact with community institutions. This is one of the Jews’ reactions to the change. It is one of four key alternative reactions to modernity. Let us briefly examine them.
1. Two feet in the Jewish Community, No Feet Outside
Many Jews who have responded to the changes inherent in modernity by ignoring the main alterations and attempting to continue to live a traditional community life with minimum contact with the institutions or the values of the outside world. This attempt to live a completely Jewish life with no more than the absolutely necessary contact with the outside world can be called the Haredi or the ‘Ultra-Orthodox’ response.
2. One Foot in the Jewish Community, One Foot Outside
Many Jews who have accepted modernity continue to consider the Jewish part of their identity important, and live a Jewish life. This group, which runs the religious gamut from Modern-Orthodox to Reform and Reconstructionist, also includes secular Jews who define themselves in cultural, Zionist or political terms. The common denominator among all these people is that they consciously see themselves as Jews and are determined to maintain some Jewish content in their lives, necessitating some kind of contact with other Jews in an organized context, be it religious or secular, cultural or political.
3. No Feet in the Jewish Community, Two Feet Outside
There are many who have responded to the choices inherent in the transition to modernity by leaving Jewish life completely. Many of these have converted to other religious groups over time; but because the modern world, unlike the medieval one, does not tend to require meaningful membership of any religious group, many Jews have effectively left Jewish life without defining themselves as anything else. For many of these people, being Jewish is not something that they would deny, but it has no meaning for their lifestyle. They are biological Jews: they happen to be Jews by an accident of birth rather than for any more meaningful reason.
4. Jews who are not Defined by their Feet
This is the position mentioned above. There are many Jews who continue to see themselves as Jews and are often proud of the fact, but who do not have any meaningful contact with the Jewish community either formally or informally. They may read Jewish books or go to Jewish restaurants; their circles of friends may largely be Jewish. However, their contact with organized institutional Jewish life of any kind is minimal.
These four positions represent the Jews of the present open society. They have no walls around them unless they decide to put them there or unless, in certain situations, outside society somehow re-imposes the walls through anti-Jewish actions. Many Jews no longer feel themselves to be dependent on the Jewish community. Many of the functions that the community once filled are no longer relevant to them. If they are not religious, they can ignore the function of community that was necessary for the maintenance of religious life. In addition, many of the functions of the traditional community have been taken over by the outside state institutions.