Trends in Israeli Judaism
Jews who come to Israel from other places in the world, particularly where liberal streams of Judaism are dominant, are often confused by the different Jewish groups in Israel. This article presents major religious groups in Israel while giving the reader some historical background and current context for understanding them.
Divisions between religious and secular Jews began with the Jewish enlightenment (haskalah) primarily during the 19th century. Until then, Jews in Europe had lived pretty uniformly Jewish lives. However, the modern age created a schism in this unity. Many Jews now felt it was time to throw off what they saw as the archaic and pre-modern values of their parents, and to seize the opportunity to enter the life of their nations as citizens with equal rights and responsibilities. In reaction, some Jews who chose to maintain a traditional way of life clung more tightly to their religious backgrounds and identities. Those who left to forge a new way of life often maintained some form of modified Jewish identity. Likewise, those who chose to maintain a traditional way of life often had to adapt it to more modern realities. Although those two groups diverged in many important respects, as minorities in their countries of origin, they still sought ways to maintain some form of unity.
The secular Jewish population in Israel is a reflection of the anti-religious yet strongly Zionistic roots the early settlers to Israel brought with them from Eastern Europe. Although these Jews dropped many of the observance aspects of Judaism, they maintained a strong tie to Jewish symbols and some religious customs that reflected the Orthodox upbringing of their parents. These traditional symbols were transmuted into Zionist symbolism as way of reinforcing the image of a new, stronger Jew creating a new Jewish society. These symbols were used to create unity among the new citizens of the Jewish state and instill national pride. They saw their efforts as a continuation of Jewish history while also reflecting the unique aspirations and needs of the time. This historical/cultural orientation created the groundwork for the common national culture which is dominant in Israel today. Although the symbols were Jewish, they grew out of a rejection of religion.
The history of the religious populations in Israel is different from that of the Zionists. Before the founding of the state, as permanent settlement was more and more a reality, bitter debates raged in these communities over whether statehood for Jews was legitimate. Religious Jews saw that statehood as an institution was being created by non-religious Jews who used Jewish symbolism to legitimate their endeavors. Some felt that the creation of a state by a secular entity and not through divine intervention, particularly using religious symbolism to justify this, was blasphemous and against the will of God. However, they could not ignore the Zionists completely and, in fact, needed them to provide funding for their institutions. Eventually most ultra-Orthodox groups, as a response to the threat of bodily harm in Europe and Palestine, and needing the monetary and political benefits the Jewish state could offer, chose to work with the Zionists in some form. They are the group that today is known as the Haredim.
Other religious Jews choose to stay within the Zionist movement as they did not object to the political goals of the state, just the religious goals. They felt that their communal religious needs could be met by working with the Zionists and through this close cooperation they could also guarantee that minimal religious demands would be met by the emerging state. Those who recognized the legitimacy of the state needed to create an ideology to support this position religiously. Today they are known as the Dati Leumi, or National Religious.
During the early years of the state, Zionism, although inspired by traditional Judaism, served as a kind of replacement form of spirituality. A civil religion, in place of traditional Judaism, became the way in which secular Jews (about 80% of Israelis fall into this category), expressed their Jewish identity. Although inspired by Judaism, this civil religion was actually devoid of Jewish content. As new generations of secular Jews were born, they became more and more removed from knowledge of traditional Judaism including texts, customs, and halacha [Jewish Law]. Because civil religion is the dominant expression of Judaism in public life, secular Jews, except in matters that fall under Israeli law (such as marriage, divorce and death), usually do not come into contact with religious Jews or religious forms of Judaism.
Most recently, secular culture has seen the failure of civil religion. Israelis are finding that Zionism as a nationalistic movement does not satisfy their need for spirituality or answer deeper theological questions. The old ideology of building the state, absorbing immigrants, and feeling a certain kind of connection to a community with a common sense of purpose has run its course, particularly in the wake of protracted conflicts with Israel’s enemies and a poor reputation abroad. Declining religious knowledge and the off-putting and political nature of religious Judaism has not made a return to religion a viable option for most secular Israelis. In the absence of Judaism or a compelling ideology, globalization, secularization, and individualism has taken hold.
People have responded in a number of ways. In the 70’s there were may well-publicized cases of secular Israelis becoming newly religious (although the number that became secular was probably greater). Many have involved themselves in (largely left-wing) political causes. Some have gone to India and the Far East looking for spiritual gratification. A small minority of Israelis have turned back to Judaism to look for answers. They are not returning to Orthodoxy, which is regarded as backward and coercive, but instead creating new and innovative relationships with traditional sources. Some of these Jews are finding that the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel satisfy those needs. Others are creating study groups and chavurot in which they re-define Jewish sources, traditions and practices according to their own needs and consistent with their belief system. I believe this last group will continue to grow and diversify in the near future.
Of course, most Hilonim have chosen none of those paths. They will continue to practice some form of civil religion, they will continue to participate in the global world, and they will continue to strive to be the model of the Israeli we see in the mainstream Israeli media.
The ideological basis for the National Religious was largely founded by, and based on the teachings of Rav Kook. He affirmed parts of Zionist ideology that could also be seen as religious values such as the importance of hard work, creativity, and heroism in the establishment of the state. However, he went one step further by according sanctity to these values, and by teaching that they signaled the coming of redemption. Because these endeavors had holy significance, national holidays, in particular Israeli Independence Day, became a religious holiday for National Religious Jews. This allowed them to live in what, ostensibly, was a secular state, yet imbue it with Jewish religious significance.
An offshoot of this group developed as a result of the capture of Judaea and Sameria (the West Bank) in 1967. Rav Zvi Yehuda Kook, the son of Rav Kook, and his followers, interpreted these events as a sign of the coming messianic redemption. They attached religions meaning to settling not only the general land of Israel but these specific lands which constitute all of biblical Israel. Of the three classic values of this group, the torah, people of Israel and the biblical land of Israel, land became the highest value. These messages, unlike those of his father, were much less universal and more particular. They emphasized the distinctive nature of the Jewish people in the Jewish nation and the needs of the Jews at this particular time rather than their role in the world. Settlement was now a religious issue leading to a period of settlement activity in the West Bank and Gaza strip. Believers in this ideology are referred to as ideological settlers or Nationalistic Zionists.
These groups are both fully integrated into the life of the state, yet also quite separate. They serve in the army, go to university, work with secular Jews and often live in integrated neighborhoods. However, their children go to different schools and their way of life- which involves halachic observance of kashrut and shabbat- serves as a barrier between them and others. Ideology specific to this group and a need to preserve their religious practices prevented them from truly feeling a part of the rest of Israel. Their position is characterized by being a part of Israeli culture but also holding a distinctive status.
In recent years, National Religious Jews have also faced their own set of challenges. They are dealing with the inherit tension between living a religious life in a Jewish state while also fully participating in secular culture. Often, the two clash and being forced to choose between one or the other presents an unpleasant challenge. In the early years of the state, they saw themselves as a kind of bridge between religious and secular with the unique role of steering a middle path that was both Jewish while being modern and democratic. As religious/secular tensions have increased, this vision has certainly not been realized resulting in the loss of a unique and historic role. They had also hoped to serve as an ideological inspiration with the result of the return to Judaism on secular Jews. Instead, they have witnessed the increasing strength of secularism. They are neither completely accepted by secular culture and are also sensitive to accusations by Haredim of not being religious enough. This insecurity about the legitimacy of their ideological views, the sensitivity to criticism, and the lack of acceptance by other groups in society has led many to search for a more compelling ideological outlook. This has resulted in the adoption of more extreme religious and political views. It is reasonable to assume that certain segments of this group will continue this path. However, like secular Jews, the majority of this group will maintain their way of life.
Haredim from the outset rejected the legitimacy of the state of Israel believing that only the divine could bring about the return of the Jewish state. They could not accept that secular Jews could establish a Jewish state which would be seen as legitimate by G-d. Despite strenuous rejection of the ideological basis of the state, in practice most Haredim recognize the state de facto. This is supported by the fact that all but very few accept money from the state to fund their institutions. This being said, their relationship with the state is purely instrumental with the focus on getting the needs of the community met.
Haredim also share an extremist interpretation of Jewish law. This stringent interpretation completely governs their beliefs and way of life leading them to separate completely from other groups in Israeli society. They go to separate schools, live in separate communities, and interact with people like them. They do not participate in any activity which would bring them into contact with the secular world such as army service or active participation in the work-force. The more they enforce strict separation between their community and the outside world, the less known and the more threatening the outside world becomes. But, the lure of secularism is well-known to them leading them to guard those within the community more closely.
During the early years of the state, relations were governed by what is called “The Status Quo Agreement.” In exchange for their support of the nascent state, Ben Gurion agreed that the state would guarantee certain religious safeguards such as Shabbat observance on a national level. He also agreed to give army exemptions to a few hundred brilliant Torah scholars (today the numbers are in the tens of thousands) studying in yeshivot to rebuild Jewish scholarship destroyed by the Holocaust. This agreement more or less held until the 70’s. Two major changes brought about the breakdown of that agreement. One was a weakening of secular Israeli’s knowledge of Judaism, leading to a strengthening of the Haredi hold on determining the religious nature of the state. The other was their participation in the political life of the state. This participation tends to be limited to internal parochial issues such as funding and the extent to which Israel reflects their interpretation of Jewish law.
However, all is not well in Haredi-land. Like the other Jewish groups in Israel, the Haredim are facing their own crisis. This is mainly due to two factors: hatred from the rest of the country and financial bankruptcy. Because the vast majority of Haredim do not serve in the army or participate as full partners in the work-force, but instead live off of government stipends and hand-outs, they have managed to generate the hatred of virtually every other Jew (who both pays taxes and serves in the army). And, although they have become adept at getting funding for their institutions (and, by proxy, their way of life), it is not enough to sustain the community financially. Most of the community is living in a state of abject poverty. These two factors are the stimulus for gigantic changes in the community.
In the last few years Haredim, slowly and against their will, have been participating in more ‘secular activities.’ The first few groups of Haredim have been drafted into the army. Many Haredim, both men and women, are attending Haredi colleges to learn job-market skills and are entering the workforce. The current Intefada, in which the Haredi community has also suffered painful losses, is one more indication of the common fate which ties them to the rest of Israel. These trends will only become stronger and more acceptable to the community as time passes.
The above three groups mainly represent Ashkenazi Jews. However, they make up only about half of the Jewish population of Israel. Mizrachi Jews, those which came from Middle Eastern countries such as Morocco, North Africa, Yemen and Iraq, make up the other half. Currently, these Jews mainly fall in the Hiloni and Haredi categories.
Masorati (which means ‘traditional’ in Hebrew), is an accurate description of their religious tendencies. The stereotype of a Masorati Jew is one who, on Saturday morning, goes to synagogue and in the afternoon, a soccer game. While observing a lot of the traditions of Judaism such as putting a mezzuzah on the door, going to synagogue, and keeping kosher, they are not strictly halachic in their observance. As a result of their arrival into an environment dominated by different forms of Ashkenazi Judaism, this middle-of-the-road observance has not been given much legitimacy. This has led to two trends that currently dominate this community. A minority of Mizrachi Jews are becoming ultra-orthodox (the popularity of the political party ‘Shas’ reflects this). However, the vast majority of Mizrachi Jews are becoming increasingly secularized. These trends are expected to continue.
Conservative and Reform Movements in Israel
Neither the Conservative movement (‘Masorati’ movement not to be confused with the above) or the Reform movement were founded in Israel nor were their main adherents Jews who immigrated to Israel in the early years. As noted above, the Jews who did come to Israel were either ultra-orthodox, from the Middle East, or strongly secular. Therefore, they did not bring these movements with them nor were these movements designed to address their needs. To this day, that is still the case.
The main adherents of Conservative and Reform Judaism in Israel are recent immigrants to the Jewish State who grew up with these traditions in their native country. For this reason, they remain quite small. In order for them to grow and become significant, they will have to attract native-born Israelis. Only a combination of increased interest by secular Jews in Judaism, (as noted above), and the ability of Reform and Conservative Judaism to adapt to an Israeli reality, will make this happen. Although the Reform movement does seem to be making strides in this direction, I don’t see significant change happening any time soon.
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