Monday, October 26, 2009

The Religious and Secular Conflict in Israel

The current religious/secular divide in the State of Israel in part came about as a result of secular Jews ignoring their religious past. The Jews who came to Palestine in the late 19th Century were determined to leave behind their history. They arrived from Eastern Europe, where the Jews lived in ghettos, could not own land, and were beholden to Christian rulers. These Israelis wanted to create new Jews, men and women who were farmers and made the desert bloom. They saw the Jews of Europe as weak and timid. An Israeli would be strong, tan and carry a gun.

The new Jew, the sabra, would also have no need for an outdated religion, a Judaism that taught faith in God rather than fighting for yourself. Traditionally, Judaism taught that a messiah would come and lead us back to Israel, and we had to wait for God to bring us back to the Promised Land. The sabras refused to wait. They rejected the religion of their ancestors, which seemed to only promote weakness and faith rather than self-determination.

By ignoring Judaism, the early settlers of Israel planted the seeds of the religious/secular divide that exists in Israel to this day. As an Israeli, you have two choices, Orthodox or secular. Each group looks upon the other with disdain. The religious/secular conflict in Israel plays itself out in strange ways. Occasionally stones are thrown at cars that drive on Shabbat through Meah Shearim, the Ultra-Orthodox neighborhood in Jerusalem. The government of Israel also spends millions of shekels each year to allow adult men to study Judaism in a yeshiva rather than work and support their families. These payments are made to secure the votes of the ultra-orthodox politicians.

Religiously, Israel could grow and evolve if they are willing to learn from the past rather than reject it. While secular Israelis find no use for Judaism, Reform Jews realize that Judaism must change, it must be Reformed, to make it work in our 21st Century lives. That is why Reform Judaism practices equality of men and women, and teaches that we can dress and act like Americans, and yet still practice Shabbat and the Jewish holidays as loyal Jews. Reform Judaism exists in Israel and is growing, although Reform congregations represent only a small fraction of synagogues in the Jewish State.

When starting something new, it is easy to want to be rid of the past completely. The sabras wanted to be rid of the old Judaism rather than adapt and learn from it. Yet we benefit from learning about the past, and the traditions, customs and rituals of those who came before us. My hope is that over time, Israelis will begin to explore Judaism, so that they need not reject our religion, but rather find a way of incorporating a modern Judaism into their lives.


Avraham said...

I agree partially with what you wrote, but I do not think that there is such a great divide in Israel. True there are extremists on both sides of the "divide" so to speak, but they are in the minority in Israel. Reform Judaism has a problem and it has been bothering me for many years. In the United States I used to attend a Reform synagogue for quite a while until the rabbi got up one day a gave a lecture as to why one need not believe in God. In fact according to him, God does not exist. So much for Reform Judaism. A religion that proclaims that there is no God is not a religion, but a movement.

Rabbi Eric Eisenkramer said...

Dear Avraham,

Thank you for your comment. I was sorry to hear that a Reform Rabbi would make such a statement, that one not believe in God. I completely disagree with that rabbi! To be Jewish means to believe in God in some sense. But Reform Judaism gives you more choices than simply the Biblical God, the man on the throne with the white beard. Reform Jews also believe in God as a force, power or presence.

David Greenberg said...

First a Sabra is not a secular Israeli Jew! A Sabra is a Jew born in Israel. That includes all the Haredim and the modern Orthodox too. True, many of the founders of Israel were ant- religious, but were also not sabras as many were not born in Israel. Also, Israel is much more diverse and complicated then you seem to understand.