In God They Trust?

By Elliot Jager
Thursday, February 9, 2012

Stick an average alumnus of the Israeli public school system into a synagogue during morning prayers, and chances are they would be bewildered. Even if they could recollect an arid Bible class they had to endure long ago, what good would it do them? They'd still be lost.

Israel's secular founders were, on the whole, Jewishly literate.  But for all their practicality, they seem to have supposed that their progeny would become versed in the Jewish canon through osmosis.  Few Israeli secular politicians have pushed for teaching Judaism, broadly defined, in the public schools.  The Orthodox political parties, for their part, are happy to have public money for Jewish education directed to the parochial schools that their children attend.

The result is that what many Israelis know about Judaism and Jewish religion is refracted through a prism of ignorance, folklore, and the handiwork of an obscurantist taxpayer-funded religious establishment.  

Despite these self-inflicted wounds, the latest Portrait of Israeli Jews, a report produced jointly by the Avi Chai Israel Foundation and the Israel Democracy Institute, confirms that Israelis, in overwhelming numbers, see the religion of Israel as a cornerstone of Jewish statehood.  The 121-page survey illuminates Israeli attitudes on identity, religious affiliation, ritual behavior, and peoplehood.  Media coverage has emphasized that 80 percent of the survey's respondents believe in God, 56 percent in an afterlife, and 51 percent in the coming of the Messiah.  Indeed, 24 percent say they have sought spiritual solace at the graves of righteous figures.

But on closer examination, as the study itself notes, the data are replete with internal contradictions.  There is plenty of evidence of Jewish attachment—and its opposite.  Despite their awareness of the cultural differences between Israel and other nations, 73 percent of Israelis express a sense of common destiny with Diaspora Jews.  Almost all Jewish Israelis value religious life-cycle events, from circumcision to shiva.  Similarly, 85 percent like the fact that traditional Jewish festivals are publicly observed.  Most eat only kosher food, at home and outside; and 72 percent do not allow pork to cross their lips.

But Israelis are selective in their practices.  They cherish Shabbat as a day of rest, but not necessarily in ways that are meaningful to Orthodoxy.  With school on Fridays and Sunday a regular workday, Shabbat is the weekend; so Israelis seem to favor a Golden Mean.  Many have a special Friday night meal and light Sabbath candles. Most watch television or listen to radio and dedicate the day to family.  But, by and large, they don't want their cinemas and cafes shuttered on Shabbat; they don't want public transportation to come to a halt or have restrictions placed on cultural or sporting events.

Similarly, though they eat kosher food, they don't approve of the rabbinate's policy of withholding kashrut certificates from restaurants that are otherwise kosher but remain open on Shabbat.

Overall, 92 percent of Israelis agree that people's levels of observance do not determine whether they are good Jews.  About half of Israelis, from all ethnic backgrounds, say their Jewishness trumps any other identity, with those who define themselves as traditional attaching more importance to it.  When it comes to Israeli identity, there are substantial variations: Secular Israelis attach the greatest value to it, Haredim virtually none.

These variations are reflected elsewhere in the survey.  In terms of religious affiliation, 46 percent of Israelis, including most immigrants from the former Soviet Union, think of themselves as secular—though only 16 percent say tradition plays no role in their lives, and a minuscule 3 percent describe themselves as anti-religious.  Seven percent said they were Haredi, 15 percent Orthodox, and 32 percent broadly traditional.  In practice, 14 percent say they "meticulously" observe tradition and 26 percent say they do so "to a great extent," while 44 percent do so "to some extent."

In a country where only state-certified Orthodox rabbis can conduct weddings, half of the respondents want to see a civil marriage alternative.  A majority also want non-Orthodox varieties of Judaism to enjoy equal legal status.  Most appear able to live with the Orthodox rabbinate's monopoly on conversions; but they would not necessarily expect converts to live Orthodox lifestyles, even though such lifestyles are precisely what the conversion authorities require.  Some 48 percent would even accept Jews with non-Orthodox conversions—if this were legal.

Even a rigorously crafted survey like this one must use imperfect categories: Thus, those who are scrupulously observant and those who are insular Haredim are lumped together as "ultra-Orthodox." Also, though the survey has just been released, it was done in 2009, before the latest swell in tensions between the ultra-Orthodox and the rest of Israeli society; it is a snapshot of one moment in time.  One can nevertheless say that secular Israelis are probably not becoming more observant—and that the ultra-Orthodox population, including Haredim, is growing while the number of secular Israelis is declining.

What does all this add up to?  It suggests that if we want Israelis to have a deeper appreciation for Judaism as a religion and civilization, a greater investment is required.  The Israeli advantage of Hebrew literacy does not offset a disturbing lack of Jewish learning.  There is small comfort in knowing most Israelis believe in God if they are woefully ignorant about the sacred history that should inform that belief.  

The good news, however, is that most Israelis are Zionists; and most want Israel to be both a Jewish and democratic state.  One way to pull these strands together and strengthen them is to rethink the way Israelis are exposed to Judaism.  The survey found that Israelis are not fond of the country's "either-or" school system, which forces them to categorize their children as either "Orthodox" or "secular" from kindergarten.  Many want the option of sending their children to schools with more curricular integration.  So, the good news is that the demand for pluralistic, traditional public education is real.  Too bad, then, that such curricula receive precious little government backing.

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