Israel’s secular Judaism

The most problematic aspect of “Israeli secular Jewishness” is that it has become detached from its deep Jewish roots.

Jewish students studying 521 (photo credit: Reuters)
Jewish students studying 521
(photo credit: Reuters)
As we approach Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, it is appropriate to consider how traditional Jewish learning can be made meaningful to Israelis who are predominantly secular in their outlook and behavior. 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 promote a continuation of Jewish civilization and culture in a modern manner.
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 Brachot 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 Hatza’ir, is named “The Ten Commandments of Hashomer Hatza’ir.”) 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 Aliya 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 halutzim (pioneers), deeply rooted in traditional Jewish texts, and profoundly spiritual in nature, has largely disappeared. During this time of heshbon hanefesh (soul searching), it is appropriate to see whether an Israeli secular hazara (return) to its original, intensely spiritual roots is possible.
EVEN THE high level of mitzva observance among 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 Seders because of familial or societal tradition does 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. Such a communitarian definition could allow for Druse or the children of foreign workers to be considered proud members of the Jewish people.
In this season of Jewish renewal, what then is the key to an Israeli secular Jewish renaissance? 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 among Israel’s secular Jews.
The Orthodox Jewish establishment does not serve as an answer for most Israeli Jews.
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 optional. Only a renewed Judaism can act against this.
After visiting Bina – the Secular Yeshiva this summer 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 rejuvenation in the Land of Israel.
For information about Bina’s programs visit and il/gapyear The writer is the director of Teaching Israel. (Teaching Israel and Bina are not affiliated.)