Are you religious?

In order to truly bridge the gaps, we must create a fundamental cultural shift from the two sided religious-secular mindset, and stop using categorical terms which no longer reflect our multispectral society.

Yom Kippur. (photo credit: AMIT BAR-YOSEF)
Yom Kippur.
(photo credit: AMIT BAR-YOSEF)

MK Aryeh Deri made a public apology after categorizing MK Aliza Lavie as "not religious" during an interview for Kipa website.

Observant Jews would define "religious" as assuming a commitment to Avodat Hashem (serving God) by fulfilling the Mitzvot (commandments). That would make secular people – those who do not.

But what if you believe in God and observe only some Mitzvot? Does it count only if you observe the important ones? What are they?

Most Israelis would probably shallowly define as "religious" someone who wears a kipa (yarmulke, skullcap), observes Shabbat and eats kosher. 

But maybe religion relates more to a person's inner beliefs and spirituality? And if so, how are they measured? On the other hand, why measure and define?

Another point of reference may be community affiliation. You are religious if you are a member of a community which defines itself as such, and act accordingly.

We tend to divide Israeli society into four sectors – ultra-orthodox (haredi), religious (dati), traditional (masorti) and secular (hiloni).
Secularism emerged with the Jewish Enlightenment movement in the 19th century, introducing the idea that Judaism is not only strict observance, but a complex set of beliefs, and relation to community, history and culture.

We find ourselves today in a cultural clash among the above "groups", often characterized by lack of productive discourse, with manifested exclusion, scornful attitudes and mutual contempt.

The Reform and Conservative movements have never been widespread in Israel. This fact has contributed to the distorted mindset that religion is an all-or-nothing issue. Our discourse is like that of two rival camps, although this does not reflect reality.

According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, 43% of Israeli Jews consider themselves secular, but more than 90% declare that they observe Jewish traditions, such as lighting candles, going to a synagogue and fasting on Yom Kippur. So most Israelis have a common underpinning of Jewish identification.

As with all cultural aspects, this too has been cast into our national DNA and cannot so easily be shaken.

Too many secular Israelis view religious people as primitive fanatics, living remnants of a dark age. Too many religious Israelis condescendingly view secular people as wandering in the dark, empty, shallow, non-authentic, valueless and confused.

A significant part of forming each side's identity is negating the other. Befriending and accepting the other is conditional, hoping to show him the right path and lead him to enlightenment. Incorporation of Jewish themes in communities and schools is perceived as a threat, and opposed as religious coercion.

Times are changing. Religion does not necessarily mean fundamentalism, and secularism does not mean a lack of Jewish tradition and spirituality.

Gesher (bridge in Hebrew) has been active for 40 years in promoting and building Jewish unity. Gesher Israel's chairman, Daniel Goldman, explains that definitions of religious and secular have changed.

"It is no longer automatically the case that I would assume being in agreement with someone religious on social or ethical issues, or vice versa. Over the years there has been a polarization, splitting the religious world into many sub-groups, some with highly separatist philosophies, and on the other hand, many non-religious people and communities are looking for a broader Jewish identity, to underpin their existing Israeli identity. These trends are creating common ground and new alliances across the religious divide in the pursuit of a more just Israeli society."

I also spoke with Gesher's Executive Director, Ilan Geal-Dor. "In reality, of course, it is a continuum and not a dichotomy," he explained. "But systems need labeled sectors in order to function, such as the education system, which defines religious and secular sectors."

He told me that from his experience, direct encounters between individuals from different communities lead to openness and finding common denominators, as opposed to group representation, where obstinacy and intolerance rule.

Beit Hillel is a rabbinical organization which promotes building bridges of dialogue and understanding between all segments of society. Rabbi Ronen Lubitch finds new halachic tools to reevaluate the religious perspective on secularism, by pointing to major changes in the Jewish community.

His new definitions, "harmonious with natural intuition," oppose the condescending approach, and look upon secularism with understanding and respect, and relate to non-observers as brothers.

Rabbi Chaim Navon, of the Shimshoni community in Modiin, recently claimed that the religious Zionistic community as a unified block is crumbling due to multiple rifts, while lacking an ideological center of gravity consolidating it.
I asked him to address the issue of dichotomous terminology. "We have taken the issue of religious identification to an extreme and strictly defined place," he says. "But what we now see is a 'traditionalization' of the Israeli society, with the lines between communities blurring." 

Rabbi Navon leads a community which he defines as "Orthodox with flexible sociological boundaries," allowing for inclusion of people who are not strictly mainstream orthodox, including mixed couples (one observant and one not) trying to find common grounds.

Still, with all his openness, Rabbi Navon speaks of respecting others but not bending what he perceives as the truth. He also does not believe the terms "secular" and "religious" will dissolve anytime soon.

Tzav Pius (literally conciliation order) is an organization which promotes conciliation between people "at all points along the religious-secular spectrum." They also stress that conciliation does not mean blurring differences, but enabling coexistence of a range of perspectives and a healthy dialogue between the conflicting perspectives.
Yachad (together in Hebrew) Modiin is a community and educational system which challenges the existing divisive approach and integrates people from heterogeneous backgrounds and world-views.

Interestingly, even Beit Hillel, Gesher and Yachad still use the outdated dichotomous terminology of "religious" and "secular", perpetuating, in a sense, the problem they aspire to solve.

So what should be done?

In order to truly bridge the gaps, we must create a fundamental cultural shift from the two sided mindset, and stop using categorical terms which no longer reflect our multispectral society.

We should promote pluralism, multiculturalism and co-existence, and eliminate feelings of superiority and condescending attitudes. The truth is that no one possesses the only truth.
Religious leaders must not only tolerate secular views, but relate to them respectfully as a school of thought.

People do not need to relinquish or lessen their beliefs when connecting with others, and it is understandable to guard against assimilation into cultures perceived as harmful.

I believe in separation of religion and state and the need to eliminate religious coercion, leaving only minimal issues imposed to allow coexistence, such as kosher food in the military.

National, historic changes cannot be forced overnight, but should be promoted through mutual understanding. Unfortunately, positive trends of openness and inclusion are now being set back due to new legislation aimed at the haredi community, causing a negative reaction to what they perceive as an existential threat.

When people ask me if I'm religious, I ask back: "Are you a good person?"

The writer is founder of Cross-Cultural Strategies Ltd. and project manager at CockpitRM.