‘Jewish Israelis becoming more religious, poll finds,’ proclaimed a recent
headline in The Jerusalem Post (January 27). Haaretz was even more impressed,
using a large bold, two-line front-page headline reporting on a survey that
found a “record number of Israeli Jews believe in God.”
But before we get
either upset or ecstatic that Israel has found religion, we should take a deep
breath, read the survey carefully and then realize that there is nothing here to
get excited about, one way or the other.
Remembering that such a survey
must have some margin of error, a change in those who believe in God from 76
percent in 1990 to 80% in 2009 hardly seems radical – especially when one takes
into consideration the increased numbers of both the national religious and the
haredi (ultra-Orthodox) populations. How many more of them were questioned this
time than before? Furthermore, take the question itself, “Do you believe in
God?” – to which 80% replied that they “believe wholeheartedly” or “believe but
sometimes doubt.” How many were in the “wholehearted” category, and how many in
the “sometimes doubt” one? It makes a difference.
Additionally, what does
“believe in God” really mean? It is such an amorphous concept that the answer to
it can mean much or little.
INDEED, THERE is more hidden than revealed in
the figures that were presented in this article. Eighty-five percent said that
“celebrating the Jewish holidays as prescribed by religious tradition” was
“important” or “very important.” But did they say they celebrated them that way
themselves, and, if so, what exactly do they observe? Which holidays and in what
way? Before we get too excited about an Israeli return to religion, let’s not
forget that the majority of respondents also said they wanted shopping centers
and public transportation, as well as movies, restaurants, etc., to be open on
Shabbat. A majority support civil marriage as well.
I think that this is
a case of much ado about nothing. To prove that there has been a resurgence of
religious belief or religious practice here – both of which I would love to see
– one would have to find out how many people have actually changed their ways of
believing or acting over the years. What this survey shows, if it shows
anything, is simply that the Orthodox and haredi populations have grown over the
past two decades, and that we already knew. What the rest of the population
thinks or does, and how that has changed, remains a great unknown.
IMPORTANT stories about religion and religious observance in Israel are the
growth in the haredi population, which will have profound effects politically,
financially and socially; the “haredization” of much of Orthodoxy; and the
radicalization of the haredi community.
We no longer have a Mizrahi-type
Chief Rabbinate, but a haredi one. The demands that many Orthodox soldiers,
goaded by their rabbis, have made for the separation of men and women in the
army, as well as not hearing women sing, demonstrates a change in behavior, a
radical shift to the Right even among many so-called moderates.
haredim themselves, or at least some of them, have also gone far beyond their
previous demands regarding women and have become physically and verbally violent
in their conduct.
Personally I believe that we need more religion in
Israel, not less.
But the religion we need is one that will turn away
from extremism and emphasize the humanism that is to be found in the Jewish
tradition, rather than the darker hues of superstition and
We need rabbis who will not automatically take the stricter
position when a more lenient one is available. Religion can be a force for good
and for moderation, or it can be a force for divisiveness. What is needed now is
more brave religious leaders who will speak up when Judaism is being distorted
and will lead it in the correct direction.
Such a development would truly
warrant bold headlines.
The writer, former president of the International
Rabbinical Assembly, is a two-time winner of the National Book Award. His latest
book is The Torah Revolution (Jewish Lights).