By Evelyn Gordan
Through 2,000 years of exile, Judaism survived because rabbinic sages reshaped it into a portable religion rather than one anchored to a specific land. But what happens once a Jewish state is reestablished? Judaism is changing once again, Shmuel Rosner and Camil Fuchs argue in #IsraeliJudaism: Portrait of a Cultural Revolution—only this time, from the bottom up.
The book, published in Hebrew in 2018 and English in 2019, is based on a survey of beliefs and practices among 3,005 Israeli Jews. The survey was commissioned by the Jewish People Policy Institute, where Rosner is a senior fellow; Fuchs was the project’s statistician. A book based on a survey could easily become an indigestible mass of statistics, but Rosner and Fuchs have produced a highly readable (and superbly translated) analysis of what this data actually tell us.
What they tell us, the authors say, is that a “new Judaism” is emerging in Israel—one that values Jewish tradition, though not strict adherence to halacha (Jewish law), and that views national identity as a crucial component of Judaism. For instance, 73 percent of Jewish Israelis say being Jewish includes observing Jewish festivals and customs. And 72 percent say being a good Jew includes raising one’s children to serve in the Israel Defense Forces, while 60 percent say it includes raising one’s children to live in Israel.
This fusion of religious and national identity characterizes 55 percent of Israeli Jews, whom Rosner and Fuchs infelicitously dub “Jewsraelis.” The rest divide roughly equally among people whose identity is primarily Jewish (17 percent), primarily Israeli (15 percent), and primarily universalist (13 percent).
Israeli Judaism necessarily differs from both the Diaspora and pre-state versions, since its national components, like army service, aren’t possible outside a Jewish state. Moreover, Judaism is present in Israel’s public square to a degree impossible elsewhere, from public-school classes on the Bible (since it’s part of Israel’s cultural heritage) to the country’s complete shutdown on Yom Kippur. Unsurprisingly, this produces fierce arguments over what Judaism’s public component should look like, including efforts to dictate it through legislative or executive action.
Yet the book rebuts the popular narrative that Israelis are becoming increasingly religious and religious coercion is growing. It notes that the ultra-Orthodox, religious Zionist, and traditional communities are all losing members to less religious groups, largely negating the effect of their higher fertility rates. While the book doesn’t try to explain this trend, years of polls showing that most Israelis would have preferred halachic solutions to the Jewish state’s problems (for instance, conversion) make me suspect that the religious establishment’s unwillingness even to consider such solutions is a contributing factor. Precisely because “Jewsraelis” love their state, they have little use for a version of Judaism uninterested in supporting the national project.
This drift toward secularism means religion is largely losing the battle for the public square, on everything from LGBT issues to commercial activity on Shabbat. And attempts to reverse this through state coercion have largely failed, the authors conclude, because dictates that the public doesn’t accept mostly get ignored.
In general, they argue, economics prevails: “Whatever the public wants, the public gets.” So, many stores now open on Shabbat even though it’s technically illegal in most municipalities, because it’s profitable. Indeed, 70 to 80 percent of secular Israelis go shopping on Shabbat, and around 90 percent travel or go to the beach, despite official restrictions on Shabbat commerce and public transportation. Laws or no laws, “Israelis, all in all, do what they please on Shabbat,” the authors write.
Yet restaurants and hotels increasingly keep kosher, because that, too, is what the public wants: The new Israeli Judaism remains strongly traditional despite its rejection of halacha. Fully 64 percent of Israeli Jews keep kosher at home. Almost all attend a Passover seder, and 64 percent read “the whole Haggadah.” On Shabbat, 65 percent light candles and 68 percent make Kiddush. The vast majority of Israelis bar-mitzvah their children, and even among the “totally secular,” 78 percent have their sons (though often not their daughters) read Torah at the ceremony.
Indeed, though half of Israeli Jews define themselves as secular, around two-fifths of secular Jews are what the authors term “somewhat traditional secular”—by American Jewish standards quite traditional. For instance, 59 percent keep kosher at home; by comparison, a 2013 Pew Research poll found that only 31 percent of Conservative Jews in America (and 7 percent of Reform Jews) do so.
Overall, almost 90 percent of Jewish Israelis think being Jewish is important, feel Jewish to a very great extent, and expect their children and grandchildren to be Jewish. That’s precisely why arguments over the state’s Jewish identity are so heated, Rosner and Fuchs write: “What is at stake is something that is important to them.” And since 70 years isn’t very long in a nation’s life, it’s unsurprising that this issue remains unresolved. Nevertheless, they say, the “Jewsraeli” compound of tradition and nationality clearly exerts “the strongest gravitational pull.” As one example, even half of ultra-Orthodox respondents said being a good Jew includes raising your children to live in Israel.
Rosner and Fuchs offer important observations on differences between Israeli and American Judaism. As the authors correctly note, these are largely shaped by objective reality. For instance, Israeli Jews observe more traditions partly because doing so is easier in Israel.
But the largest differences stem from the requirements of statehood. Thus while both communities agree that being a good Jew includes being a good person, they often differ on what that entails. As an example, Rosner and Fuchs cite the immigration debate. American Jews, “shaped by the feeling of being a minority in their own country, will say that the most moral thing to do is to offer shelter and security to anyone in need.” But Israeli Jews are “shaped by the feeling of being a majority fighting to remain a majority” and deem it “a key moral imperative to safeguard Israel’s security and character.” Consequently, they think the world’s only Jewish state should focus on absorbing Jewish refugees rather than opening its doors to everyone.
The authors also challenge the idea that Jewish identity can be exclusively about values. In theory, expressing one’s Judaism through helping others rather than observing Shabbat sounds reasonable. But in reality, they found, groups that engage in more traditional practices “are also the ones who give more to charity, and volunteer more frequently.”
In fact, they write, “the more we examine what makes Jews in Israel Jewish, what keeps them aware of their Jewishness, and what connects them to the rest of the Jewish people, we find this almost always involves action” (emphasis in original). “Customs or rituals, daily routines, or annual calendars… A robust Jewish sense of self almost always comes together with action: Jews study, celebrate, and congregate.”
But that has always been true. And indeed, what Rosner and Fuchs term a “new Judaism” is in many ways a return to Judaism’s roots. The Judaism of the Bible also fused religious practice and national identity; biblical commandments about Shabbat and kashrut sit alongside commandments about national life, from establishing courts to measures to help the poor to restrictions on the king’s powers.
To take just one example, the Bible required all able-bodied men to participate in “obligatory wars” (as opposed to wars of choice). And despite the inevitable differences between a modern Jewish state and its biblical predecessors, that parallels today’s “Jewsraeli” belief that being a good Jew includes raising your children to serve in the IDF. Both are predicated on the understanding that not only does national survival require an army, but protecting fellow Jews is a moral good.
Zionism, Rosner and Fuchs write, sought not only to rescue Jews but also to rescue Judaism from “exhaustion, paralysis, insignificance, and irrelevance.” Like them, I think Israel’s “cultural revolution” might ultimately revitalize Judaism. But if it does, it will be because it’s less a true revolution than a restoration of Judaism’s original dual nature.
Originally published in the January 2020 issue of Commentary