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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Nevertheless, 60 percent disagreed with the law that bans restaurants and businesses from selling leavened bread on Passover. About 67 percent would want the youngsters at the seder to be told the story of Exodus from Egypt, as opposed to 32 percent who expressed no such interest. About 56 percent would not want to take a trip abroad on Seder eve, as opposed to 43 percent who would want to. Asked if the tradition could be changed to satisfy all of the participants at the Passover seder, 53 percent responded affirmatively, as opposed to 42 percent who said the tradition should not be changed.

The two researchers feel that the findings on the Passover seder provide an indication of the interviewees attitude to tradition: They have a strong desire to celebrate the seder as a family occasion that has special significance, stemming from positive emotional feelings toward the ceremony and the observance of tradition, more than out of belief in the sanctity of the ceremony.

In the in-depth interviews, it was surprising to hear, write Kopelowitz and Franco, "that when they discuss issues of tradition, festivals, religion and faith, most of the experiences recalled by the interviewees are recalled as values they received, not in their parents' home, where a secular lifestyle was observed, but in their grandfathers' and  grandmothers' homes."

The researchers called this "pattern of spiritual assembly," which young secular Israelis aspire to hand down to the next generation. They differentiate between this and the purely familial assembly, reasoning that "the assembly itself is not important to this group, but the positive sensations and energies that are part of upbringing, from birth to old age; the positive memories from their childhood raise in them the will to grant their children the sense of belonging to an age-old tradition, not necessarily the desire to transmit to them the traditional accepted way of performing the mitzvot [religious commandments or obligations]."

"It seems that the way secular Jews perceive the religion is typified by a high level of tolerance," they write. But asked what exactly the "secular believer" does believe in-- God, religion, tradition, or perhaps liberalism and tolerance, they reply that in their opinion, it is religious faith. "We are trying to put a name on two patterns of answers, which were consistently offered in the in-depth interviews, and were backed up by the results of the questionnaire," says Kopelowitz.

"The one pattern is 'liberal faith,' which the interviewees expressed by saying that there is no one truth, or one path that is better than the other when it comes to Jewish tradition. The other pattern is the declaration of the absolute majority of the interviewees, that they believe in what the tradition symbolizes and not any specific version of the Jewish tradition; that they relate great importance to use of tradition as a means of creating a spiritual and Jewish atmosphere in their homes and families. The combination of the two produces the phenomenon that we call the 'secular believer.'"

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Daliah Shehori is a journalist in Israel.