Nothing ‘lite’ about me

Anyone who jumps to call me or others “dati lite,” should think twice before making assumptions and do the same.

nachman shai 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
nachman shai 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Ever since I made aliya six-and-a-half years ago, one of the Israeli slang phrases that has bothered me most is “dati lite.” It’s a phrase many Israelis – both secular and religious – use to describe Jews that have the “nerve” to try to adapt to the modern world while adhering to the rules of Orthodoxy.
Or maybe it’s just a woman who keeps Shabbat and sometimes wears pants, or a man who would dare walk into a bar while wearing a kippa. The exact definition is unclear to me, and is probably just as unclear to those who have been using the term to describe me ever since I “dared” to do national service in short sleeves.
What is very clear is that calling someone’s religious observance “lite” is derogatory; even when the person saying it is not intentionally trying to be offensive.
The word “dati” means Orthodox, as in one who keeps the rules of Judaism to some extent. “Lite” implies that something is lacking, that it is “less serious,” meaning less religious. It’s a term that disrespects the legitimate decision to function in the secular world while following Halacha (Jewish law), which, of course, has many interpretations.
Does my clothing, or the fact that I studied in co-ed day schools growing up, mean that my belief in God and the Torah are any less strong? Do they reflect how many mitzvot (commandments) I keep, even if there are Orthodox rabbis that have no problem with women who wear pants and learn Talmud? Whose job is it to define what is more or less religious?
Certainly not secular people, who seem to use the term as a shortcut for “he/she is religious – but still cool.” Orthodox people who use “dati lite” to say “you’re less religious than I am” are ill-equipped to decide, as well.
After all, our sages taught that derech eretz kadma latorah – respect comes before the Torah. Jewish tradition says that being a good person is just as important, if not more, as keeping every little detail.
That’s why, in my opinion, anyone who would judge someone else’s religious observance, especially to that person’s face, should be called “dati lite.” The haredi (ultra-Orthodox) man who was arrested in Jerusalem for calling a secular woman a whore is also “dati lite,” even if his appearance may indicate otherwise.
Clearly, even the ultra-Orthodox make choices about which parts of Judaism to be more or less strict about. Perhaps they, too, should be lumped in the “lite” category with those who keep Shabbat and kashrut but (gasp!) like to dance with the opposite sex.
Or maybe we should just remove the phrase “dati lite” from our vocabulary, and stop trying to define people by the slightest nuances of their faith.
As the Knesset reporter for The Jerusalem Post, I have the privilege of meeting Israelis from all walks of life. I try to see them and report about them from a neutral, nonjudgmental point of view, and hope for the same treatment in return.
In fact, during a recent interview with secular MK Nachman Shai (Kadima), something happened that I’m sure he didn’t even notice, but I found heartwarming.
At the end of our meeting, he asked if it would be all right to shake my hand (it is), explaining that when he first met religiously observant MK Tzipi Hotovely (Likud), she shook his hand, but told him that in the future she would not do so for religious reasons.
Although Hotovely is more “visibly Orthodox” than I am, Shai showed me enough respect to view me as an individual, and ask how I would like to be treated. Anyone who jumps to call me or others “dati lite,” should think twice before making assumptions and do the same.
The writer is Knesset affairs reporter for The Jerusalem Post.