Israeli Secular Judaism

20 Jul

by Ilan Bloch

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The most problematic aspect of “Israeli secular Jewishness” is that it has become detached from its deep Jewish roots, and can no longer be considered to be an attempt to “carry on [Judaism’s] familiar contours, patterns, and textures in a contemporary idiom.” (Zisser and Liebman) This  was not always so. The motto of Habonim Dror Labor Zionist youth movement, “Do not call us your sons, but rather your builders,” is taken from the Talmud (BT Berachot 64a). Likewise, the credo of the organization is termed “The 13 Principles of Habonim Dror,” with the intention that it replace the Maimonidean “13 Principles of Faith.” (In a similar vein, the statement of philosophical principles of another Labor Zionist youth movement, Hashomer Hatzair, is named “The 10 Commandments of Hashomer Hatzair.”) The youth group’s Passover seder, traditionally held on the third night of the festival, which would use the blueprint of the narrative of the liberation of the ancient Israelites from bondage in Egypt to promote feminism, refugee rights, abolition of slavery and so forth, is no longer held. Members no longer realize that the Zionist culture that they celebrate has its basis in Jewish tradition, for example, the singing of “Ufaratzta” (from Genesis 28:14) or the performing of the Israeli folk dance “Tzadik Katamar” (Psalm 92). Second Aliyah ideologue and educator Berl Katzenelson (1887–1944) lamented the fact that the secular Zionist movement wanted to raise a generation of apikorsim (knowledgeable heretics), but instead produced a generation of ignoramuses. Jewish secularism has become a default option of passivity vis-à-vis Halachic observance, a phenomenon that has only been enhanced by Orthodox hegemony over religious life in Israel, which has led many Israelis to hold Orthodox Judaism in disdain. The secularism of the early chalutzim (pioneers), deeply rooted in traditional Jewish texts, and profoundly spiritual in nature, has largely disappeared.

Even the high level of mitzvah observance amongst large portions of Israeli Jews, notwithstanding their self-definition as religiously unobservant (as noted in the Guttman Report), cannot serve as the foundation for Israeli secular Judaism, or represent the potential for Jewish renewal in this country. The Guttman Report findings do not serve as a sufficient basis to secure the long-term existence of a meaningful secular Judaism. Attendance at Christmas lunch in the US primarily in order to spend time with family, but without marking the festival in any significant intellectual or spiritual sense (which does not necessarily need to include church attendance), makes for a superficial Christianity. In the same way, high attendance rates at Passover sedarim because of familial or societal tradition, do not indicate that Israeli secular Judaism can continue to keep Israelis engaged and active Jews. Hebrew as a shared mother tongue, a connectedness to Jewish history (and the Jewish future in the Land of Israel), and experiences in the Israel Defense Forces cannot alone form the basis for an Israeli secular Jewish identity in Israel. Such a communitarian definition could allow for Druze or the children of foreign workers to be considered proud members of the Jewish people.

Only an embrace of regular learning of Jewish sacred texts can secure a viable secular Judaism; a vibrant Judaism rooted in Jewish tradition and holiness, yet not necessarily committed to Halachic observance. The adoption of Jewish learning is the only thing that can recreate Israeli secular Judaism, making it an appealing deliberate choice for Israelis, rather than simply a default option. Only such a development will facilitate the growth of a Judaism that will be able to generate passion, commitment and enthusiastic dedication amongst Israeli secular Jews.

The Orthodox Jewish establishment cannot serve as an answer for most Israeli Jews, especially considering its corruption resulting from its involvement in politics and budget negotiations, and the religious coercive power this this enables it to wield.

So too, Reform and Conservative streams of Judaism do not offer an alternative. They will always be considered by the vast majority of Jews here to be foreign implants, and will therefore never be accepted. Only an indigenous, organic Israeli Judaism will be able to infuse secular Judaism with meaning.

An Israeli who is disconnected from his Jewish identity, or whose Jewish identity is based on shallow folkways, and is lacking any high culture, will come to see his residing in Israel, his service in the IDF, and even his ethnic identity as a whole, as something which is optional and which can be discarded. Only a renewed Judaism can act against this.

After visiting Bina – the Secular Yeshiva this week and learning texts under its teachers’ guidance, together with a tour group of North American teenagers, I believe that it, and other similar institutions, can serve as vehicles for a secular Jewish renaissance in the Land of Israel.

For information about Bina’s programs visit and

Ilan Bloch is the Director of Teaching Israel.


6 Responses to “Israeli Secular Judaism”

  1. mzk1 August 23, 2011 at 11:34 am #

    And what would be gained by this? Making people feel good? Are you advocating a new heretical movement like those of the Second Temple, or just Torah without Mitzvot? Why bother?

    (P.S. I will ignore the cheap insults stated as “facts”.)

  2. Teaching Israel August 23, 2011 at 11:48 am #

    Thank you for your comment. There is no need to ignore what you call cheap insults stated as “facts” – do feel free to comment on them. (I, for one, would like to know exactly what you’re referring to.) And, for the record, the post is clearly an opinion piece, and I meant no disrespect to anybody by anything which I wrote.

    • mzk1 August 23, 2011 at 12:21 pm #

      The first part is a real question. I am interested in knowing.

      • Teaching Israel August 23, 2011 at 12:51 pm #

        I am not advocating for or against secular, or observant, Judaism. I am arguing that, for those who subscribe to secular Judaism, such a choice should be a deliberate one, which is based on a relationship with traditional Jewish texts, rather than simply be a matter of “not” — e.g. not keeping Shabbat, not keeping kashrut, etc. I think that a life devoted to a new “Israeli Secular Judaism” will be an enriched, improved life, a life filled with greater meaning. I am not advocating “a new heretical movement” but, if we can learn something from the period of Bayit Sheni it is that a multiplicity of Jewish philosophical choices can exist side-by-side, that we can have embrace “Judaisms,” so to speak. Rather than speaking of “Torah-true” Judaism or considering Orthodoxy to be a continuation of historical Judaism, we should understand that it is simply a modern construct of modernity. Judaism is richer with Bina in the picture.

  3. David Turner September 29, 2011 at 3:49 pm #

    The author seems to have some background in Labor Zionism and its tradition of Jewish identity as part of its agenda, as one leg of the Zionist impulse. He has certainly identified religious extremism in Israel as alienating the majority of Israelis, the “seculars,” as he describes them. So it is somewhat surprising that his knowledge of that other leg of Zionism, a universal democratic refuge for the Jewish People is lacking. Zionism was never about building a Jewish state for one particular category of Jews, not about the salvation of the soul of our people. Zionism was a secular response to a perceived threat to the PHYSICAL survival of the Jews, a threat realized mere decades after Pinsker’s Autoemancipation, of Herzl’s first Zionist congress. Over the decades Orthodoxy has transformed from a grudging partner in the Zionist endeavor into a radical minority of extremists demanding the state abandon its refuge mission by defining the majority of the Jewish people persona non grata through its efforts to impose adherence to Halacha as the sole criterion of acceptability. “Who is a Jew” is anti-Zionism. Even were the Law of Return to be retained, and the Knesset Constitution and Law Committee has already attempted to amend and even eliminate it, how many among the 90% of Diaspora Jewry not Orthodox would consider aliya to so coercive and uninviting a “homeland”? When push comes to shove and our Diaspora faces its next threat of extermination, such an Israel would raise doubts at a moment when decision is a matter of life and death.

    Israel’s current policy drift is alienating itself from the Diaspora, and this should raise concern for a despised-because-Jewish state-ghetto in an already hostile world. And how long will the Orthodox State of Israel hold on to its own “secular” children, Israel’s tax base, its military base? How long before those who are already disgusted by Radical Orthodoxy themselves abandon their homeland for the Galut?

    Bina may or not attract some “seculars” to become secular-Orthodox. It will never become a mass movement. Nor, I suspect, will Radical Orthodoxy ever accept the secular-Orthodox as legitimate Jews in their Orthodox, if short-lived, state.


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