Israelis Are More Traditional Than You Think

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In the midst of Israel’s 70th anniversary celebrations, the state’s constitutional foundations and core identity remain shaky. In the “Jewish and democratic” State of Israel, a heated argument still exists on both sides of the equation in relation to the individual meaning of each of them, and the proper balance between the two. A look at modern day Israel reveals that, in practice, most of the country’s Jews, as well as most of its current leaders, either identify as traditional Jews or express some form of empathy with this construct of Jewish identity. This self-identification, which has practical expressions in the everyday life of an individual, should also be applied to the public domain, making public expression of Judaism in Israel less rigid and more inclusive. This would not only be beneficial for Israeli Judaism itself — as it would reduce public aversion to traditional religion — but it would also alleviate the tension that exists within the democratic identity of the state.

Before the establishment of Israel, and immediately afterwards, a significant and honest attempt was made to draw up a constitution for the country. One of the main factors in the failure of this effort was the struggle between religious and secular groups over how the Jewish character of the state should be expressed constitutionally. The two groups were fiercely divided.

Seven decades have passed, and times have changed; indeed, the picture today is drastically different. Surveys conducted in recent years have shown that Jewish identity in its religious sense is now more widely accepted, and that the connotation most Jewish Israelis have of Judaism and religious practices is positive, with a large majority adopting these rituals themselves. Around 32 percent of Israeli Jews identify as traditional, and together with those who identify as national religious (11.5 percent), these two groups now form the largest group among Jews in Israel.

Surveys examining the adoption of religious practices by Israeli Jews reveal that a large share of those who identify as secular (43 percent of all Jews) view Jewish tradition favorably and perform explicitly religious practices such as fasting on Yom Kippur, getting married through the rabbinate, saying Kiddush on Shabbat, not eating unkosher food and more. This traditionalism also finds expression in the Israeli take on Conservative and Reform streams of Judaism. While the number of Israeli Jews who identify with these denominations is relatively small (around 7 percent), they too observe Judaism, in practice, like traditional Jews with the exception of finely graded theological distinctions. The upshot of all this is that “pure,” hard-core, ideologically secular Jews form only a small part of Israel’s Jewish population.

Traditionalism is also very prominent in the public arena. Most leaders of Jewish political parties in Israel identify openly and vocally as traditional and declare that Jewish-religious practices are part of their lives. Their calendars are arranged around Jewish festivals, rituals such as saying Kiddush are a part of their weekly routine, and their speech is littered with the occasional “God willing” and “thank the Lord.”

But just what is this traditional identity that is so prevalent? That, to our advantage, is difficult to define. The roots of traditionalism lie in Mizrachi Judaism. In the Orient, instead of the dichotomy between religiosity and secularism, there arose a worldview that saw the loose, non-halachic practice of Judaism as a legitimate option. Full halachic commitment was abandoned in favor of a secular lifestyle that included religious practices — out of respect for the past and one’s ancestors — without demanding that one adopt precise halachic practices. With the erosion of ethnic boundaries in Israel, and the mixing of different traditions to form a more general “Israeliness,” traditionalism has become mainstream. Its main components are belief in God, identification with Jewishness, adoption of religious practices — generally without their detailed precepts — and rejection of full commitment to halacha. This is the Israeli traditionalism that now characterizes most Jews in Israel.

More than 25 years ago, the “Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty” affirmed that Israel is a “Jewish” and “democratic” state but did not define either of these terms in the Israeli context. Now is the time for us to turn to the Jewish identity that has been adopted by a large portion of Israel’s Jews and allow it to shape the country’s Jewish character.

This traditionalist identity, with which most of Israel’s Jewish public either identifies or approves of, should also be the identity used to give ideological, political and practical meaning to the “Jewish” component of “Jewish and democratic state,” in both the legal arena and in the public sphere. Adopting it in a national sense would reduce the tension that resides in defining the democratic component of the state. Because traditional Israelis are able to unite around these ideas and see their identity as something worth fighting for, they have the power to define the Jewish character of the State of Israel.

The article was first published in The New York Jewish Week