Religious Pluralism in Israel Rachel Barenblat Culture

local_cafe Religious Pluralism in Israel

by Rachel Barenblat

Published in Issue No. 21 ~ February, 1999

At four in the afternoon on our first Shabbat in Israel, I am in the downstairs conference room of the Jerusalem Sheraton, where we had a sumptuous several-course Shabbat feast on Friday night. Today the room is a classroom, with a podium and rows of chairs – and not everyone in our group is here. Some people may still be at the Israel Museum looking at the Dead Sea Scrolls, or shopping in the Arab Quarter’s souk. (Ironically, the best place to buy silver and gold Hebrew-name necklaces seems to be the Arab souk. These are the paradoxes of which Israel is made.) Those of us who are here have a little lemonade and a cookie or two before we sit down expectantly.

Our speaker, a friendly man with a graying beard, is named Paul, and he teaches sociology at Haifa University. Our trip leader challenges us (“I’ll buy you a free drink…”) to guess Paul’s place of origin by the end of his talk. And then Paul begins to speak.

The current state of religious pluralism in Israel, Paul tells us, can be understood on a microcosmic level by looking at his family. (It’s true, his accent defies placement – not British, not Australian, not South African, although there are vowels that hint at all three…) Paul and his family have Shabbat dinner together every Friday night, and one night several years ago he opened dinner conversation by asking about the Biblical figure of Samson.

His oldest son, then 15 and enrolled in a secular high school, remembered that Samson was in the Bible – and that was all. His middle son, then 11 and enrolled in a school providing some religious instruction, recalled Samson’s strength and the importance of his hair. His youngest daughter, then 8 and attending an Orthodox day school, was appalled. “What is the matter with you? Don’t you lumpheads know anything?” she asked. “You should get out your Bibles immediately! You are a disgrace!” She rattled off Samson’s story, plus commentaries on Samson by medieval scholars like Rashi and the Rambam. Her brothers looked at her, mouths open, stunned by their baby sister’s knowledge – and her level of self-righteousness.

Paul went on to explain that his children were representative of three out of the five categories of Israeli Jews: the Ultra-Orthodox, the Modern Orthodox, the Conservative/Reform, the Traditional Secular, and the Ideologically Secular. We chuckled at his descriptions of family dynamics, but his underlying message was serious; the religious divisions that plague Israel are driving a wedge into klal Yisrael, the “family of Israel” as a whole.

Israel is unique in that it is both a religious state and a democracy. The state religion, of course, is Judaism. Yet there are as many ways to interpret Judaism as there are Jews in the world, and the Israeli Government has largely codified Orthodox Judaism as the “state religion,” creating schisms between Jews and Jews.

Paul’s categories of Israeli Jews provide a useful way to identify these distinct groups. The Ultra-Orthodox are what we in the Diaspora call Hasidim – modern followers of 18th-century rabbis, who pray and study the way their 18th-century rabbis taught, who dress as though they were still 18th-century Poland (imagine wearing a black suit and thick fur streimel hat in Jerusalem’s Mediterranean sun), and who sometimes act as though they were still in 18th-century Poland, too. One sect refuses to speak Hebrew or to acknowledge the State of Israel because the State of Israel isn’t supposed to come into being until the Messiah comes. Most Ultra-Orthodox refuse to fight in the army, a fact which frustrates other Israelis to no end, since military service is compulsory and a major socializing influence within Israeli society.

The Modern Orthodox are more like what we in the Diaspora recognize as Orthodox Jews: they keep kosher, men and women pray apart, and women cover their heads (lately with woven snoods, which my mother says remind her of my grandmother in the late 1940s), but the men cut their hair and some are clean-shaven. They look like they live in this century, and to large extent, they do. They may send their children to religious schools, but they serve in the army with everyone else.

Conservative and Reform Jews in Israel are just like they are here, but in smaller numbers.

The Traditional Secular Jew is what most of us think of when we think of the typical Israeli sabra. These Jews do not attend synagogue weekly, do not keep kosher, do not regard the Sabbath as a “taste of the world to come” – but they go to synagogue on the high holy days, keep mezuzot on their doors, and celebrate all of the Jewish festivals. In America, they’d be lox-and-bagels Jews, twice-a-year Jews. They’re culturally Jewish to the core, but they just don’t see the point of all that religion meshuggas. My mother and I spent time with close family friends in Tel Aviv who fit this bill perfectly – when they took us to dinner they ordered shrimp for the table – but they celebrate every Jewish festival in the calendar, from Sukkot to Tisha B’Av. For them, the holidays are cultural, even national! – just not, well, religious.

The final category, the Ideologically Secular, are those who are anti-religion. The Ideologically Secular consider religion at best irrelevant, and, at worst, detrimental to society as a whole. Why anyone anti-religion would choose to live in a plainly religious state is beyond me, but – at least according to Paul – their existence is a reality. The Ideologically Secular aren’t interested in religious singularity or pluralism; they’re interested in abolishing religion. For this reason I won’t discuss them further.

Because Orthodoxy is, for all intents and purposes, the state religion in Israel, Conservative and Reform Judaism have a hard time there. They are not considered as legitimate as Orthodox Judaism, which is – by rule of law – the Israeli version of “normative” Judaism.

One clash between Orthodoxy and the other branches of Judaism took place last year, when the Israeli Rabbinate (Orthodox, of course) decided that only Orthodox conversions and weddings were legal in Israel. Reform and Conservative Jews worldwide were furious – denying Reform and Conservative rabbis the right to officiate at such ceremonies denies the legitimacy of Reform and Conservative Judaism! Complicating these issues further, the financial contributions of Diaspora Jews (including Reform and Conservative) help keep Israel on its feet.

To the Israeli Government’s credit, it established a committee to address these issues, and the new plan calls for a central “conversion school,” to be presided over by a variety of rabbis from all denominations. It’s a nice solution, but the cracks in Judaism’s supposed wholeness remain.

Stories like this one suggest that it is Israel’s “other” Jews who struggle against the Orthodox, as if there were some kind of loose coalition between Reform Jews, Conservative Jews, and Traditional Secular Jews to combat Orthodoxy. The reality, however, is more complex; the animosities run in both directions. The Ultra-Orthodox are as angry with the rest of the country as the rest of the country is with them. They believe that by their tightly regulated actions and prayers, they are bringing about the coming of the Messiah. In refusing to accept their way of life, the rest of Israel prevents the Messiah from coming.

This Messiah thing leads into the difficult issue of military service. Some Ultra-Orthodox choose to do a stint of national community service in lieu of joining the military, which mollifies the rest of the population – if their religious beliefs prevent them from fighting, at least they serve their country in another manner. (We later met one such young woman, who was serving by helping Ethiopian Jews in the caravan village of Hazrat Yasaf to acclimate to Israeli life.) But some Ultra-Orthodox simply refuse to serve at all. Period. End of story.

Israel’s religious tensions manifest in the Israeli educational system as well as in the Israeli military. Because the Ultra-Orthodox refuse to serve in the army, and because of the disparity in the way the Israeli Government treats the different groups of Jews it governs, the Israeli University system was on strike for months.

The strike took place because the Ultra-Orthodox who refuse to fight are often paid a stipend by the Government, to study Torah in Ultra-Orthodox yeshivot. Meanwhile the other Israelis, the non-Ultra-Orthodox, who serve in the army after high school, pay exorbitant tuition fees to attend the secular university after their military service – with no student loan system to help them. So those who refuse to fight, are paid to study; and those who serve their country, must pay through the nose. (It doesn’t sound fair to me, either. Then again, I don’t believe that yeshiva study is helping the Messiah to come, so I suppose I’m not expected to understand.) Ergo, a university system on strike.

Arguments over who can officiate at weddings and funerals, people refusing to fight in the army but demanding academic stipends, a university system on strike – not exactly the picture of domestic bliss.

One night in Tel Aviv, I went out for a few beers (I’m partial to the Israeli version of semi-dark beer, called Gold Star) with Gali, the daughter of my parents’ Israeli friends. Gali is twenty-one and has just finished her two years of military service, along with an extra third year of the officer’s corps. She is attractive, friendly, and utterly nonthreatening – in other words, just like any other twenty-one-year-old woman anywhere else in the world. I had to remind myself that when she talked about “my soldiers,” she was talking about real soldiers, who are called upon sometimes to fight in real wars.

(Similarly, while in Israel I had to keep reminding myself that the gigantic black Uzi’s slung over khaki shoulders like handbags were real guns that could really kill people. The only guns I’d ever been that close to before were water pistols.)

“So what do you think of the peace process, this whole land-for-peace, thirteen-percent thing?” I asked Gali, curious to know what a “real Israeli” thought of the Wye Accords (approved by the Israeli Knesset a few days before).

“I think it’s the only way,” she said.

“But what do you think about giving up settlements?” I asked. The Wye Accords call for giving land to the Palestinians – land which sometimes contains settlements, frontier-style towns, inhabited (usually) by religious zealots who don’t want any of Israel to go to the Arabs.

Gali snorted. “That’s how it has to be. Besides, those people endanger the lives of my soldiers because they move into Arab territory, and then we have to defend them,” she said. I’d never thought about it that way.

What amazes me is that Gali and the ultra-Orthodox settlers whom exasperate her are both Jewish, both ostensibly of the same religion. That’s what’s fascinating, for me, about Israeli religious pluralism. Although Jews and Muslims have historically disagreed, they get along well enough these days (after all, they share the Temple Mount in the Old City), and Jews and Christians largely do okay as well. The religions don’t tend to mix, but at least people are civil. I don’t want to diminish the importance and ferocity of the Israeli-Arab conflict, but it is one of peoplehood, not religion, as evidenced by the fact that the Palestinians are a mix of Muslim and Christian. But some of Israel’s strongest religious conflicts seem to be between Jews and Jews.

Traveling in Israel affirmed my sense of Jewish identity. There’s nothing quite like standing at the Western Wall as the sun sets over Jerusalem, watching people dance and pray, welcoming Shabbat. It’s kind of neat seeing mezuzot on every hotel room door (although I could live without the Shabbat elevators, which stop automatically on every floor so that religious Jews could use them without having to do the “work” of pressing an elevator button). I found it refreshing that any random person on the street probably knows what Hanukkah is, or Purim, or Simchat Torah. I loved being a Jew in Israel.

But traveling in Israel also gave me some serious doubts about whether the Jews are really one people, and about how we’ll manage to stay that way if in fact we still are. A young Russian immigrant confidently told us that “the only life for a Jew is in Israel,” and expectantly asked when she could expect us to make aliyah and join her there. I thought, `If I don’t want to move to Israel, will you still consider me as much a Jew? A group of Orthodox yeshiva boys danced in prayer at the men’s side of the Western Wall, and I stood on my tiptoes to see them over the mechitzah separating women from men. Such a view makes me wonder. I don’t keep kosher, I shake men’s hands with impunity, I’m married, I don’t cover my hair and I think God is as much a She as a He. Do those men still consider me a Jew?

Incidentally, if you’re still wondering about Paul’s religiously-divided family, it turns out that the following year his daughter fell into a terrible fight with her Orthodox day school. At age 9 the boys and girls were expected to pray separately, and the boys were being allowed to do things (like wear pants, don a kipah as head-covering, and study Torah) that the girls were not allowed to do. The daughter was just as mortified by these restrictions as she had been by her secular brothers’ ignorance, and she left the school, much to the principal’s relief.

And as for Paul’s accent? After much consternation and incorrect guessing on our part, he confided his origins: the former Rhodesia, now a part of Zimbabwe. I thought. `There are Jews in Zimbabwe?’ But I guess there are Jews everywhere – I’m just not sure how much longer we’ll all be the same Jews. Even (or especially) within Israel.

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Rachel Barenblat is co-founder of Inkberry, a literary organization in the Berkshires. She holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars. A chapbook of her poems, the skies here, was published by Pecan Grove Press (San Antonio) in 1995. Learn more at