The New Discovery of the Secular Believer

It's not an oxymoron: Secular Jewish Israelis value a variety of Jewish religious practices.

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Much of the Jewish population in Israel defines itself as secular. Yet a study of the secular Israeli, funded by the Jewish Agency, reveals that although many Israelis define themselves as secular, many see Jewish traditions and practices as a source of spirituality in their homes. They view Judaism as something that can be pluralistic and open to change--a vision of Judaism shared by their co-religionists in the Diaspora, particularly the United States. This article explores the Jewish identity of so-called "secular Israelis" and  was first published on December 9, 2002, in Haaretz Daily. It is excerpted with permission.

When they took part in a study on Jewish identity, students at Ruppin College came up with a term to describe themselves: "secular believer." Most of them--91 percent-- defined themselves as secular, and 10 percent of this group described themselves as "anti-religious secular."  Just seven percent of those taking part in the study described themselves as traditional, and two percent as national-religious. Nevertheless, the study indicated that beneath the secular veneer lies a craving for tradition and religion, if not exactly as Orthodox Jews would understand it. Instead they seek a traditional religious life that is open and liberal--a live-and-let-live Judaism, a post-modern approach that accepts any expression of Jewish identity. 

It's All About Choice

"Should a person feel a need to fast on Yom Kippur, it is equally acceptable as the person who chooses not to fast," write the researchers. "The fact there is a mitzvah [commandment] of fasting on Yom Kippur does not make a person any more or less Jewish than someone else."

soldiers prayingThe study was conducted in November 2001 and involved 278 undergraduate business administration and behavioral sciences students--most of them first-year, aged 21-26. About two-thirds were women and the majority, 88 percent, was unmarried. They were 94 percent Israeli born and 58 percent of them said their parents were also Israeli-born.

Detailed interviews were conducted with 13 students, from which the researchers gained a clear impression--at times a surprise to the students themselves--that they believe in religion and tradition, and wish to impart these values in their children.

The term "secular believer" may sound like an oxymoron. On the one hand secular, on the other believing in God, religion, tradition. Dr. Ezra Kopelowitz and Hadar Franco conducted the study and both are aware of the apparent contradiction. They emphasize that the concept was proposed by those taking part and must be further explored by additional research.

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Daliah Shehori is a journalist in Israel.