The New Discovery of the Secular Believer

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

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.

Still, Kopelowitz and Franco say this is an authentic, correct category that has been lacking in public discourse. It is a category that responds to the needs of a very large population of educated secular young people. They want to define themselves as complete Jews with a world view of their own that is not derived from religious or ultra-Orthodox Judaism, and is independent of both.

By this conception, tradition should serve as a source of strength, not a nuisance and not coercion. “When you find such a strong cognitive pattern within a specific population, we can claim that we found its Ani maamin (‘I believe’–essentially the Jew’s mission statement). The Ani maamin we found is liberal, with an integral component of Jewish tradition–the product of the Israeli Jewish experience.”

The study of the secular Israeli Jew is part of a large study of Jewish identity, funded by the Jewish Agency, being carried out by Kopelowitz, who teaches at Ruppin College’s Department of Behavioral Sciences, and who runs a research unit of the Jewish Agency. The study was carried out under his guidance by Hadar Franco, a third-year student of behavioral sciences at Ruppin.

Kopelowitz admits that the study was meant at the outset to see how Jewish identity is expressed by the secular Israeli, assuming that the secular Israeli does in fact have a Jewish identity. Kopelowitz admits this is a weak point of his research. “I am interested in the Jewish side, so I start from there,” he explains.

Only in the Cafeteria

The study examined the students’ attitudes toward general issues of principles and their opinions on specific questions, such as kashrut [Jewish dietary laws], Jewish marriage, Yom Kippur, and Passover seder.

Some 67 percent said the food in their home need not be kosher, and 73.5 percent said they do not make a point of eating kosher outside the home. Nevertheless, 70.5 percent favored maintaining the kashrut of university cafeterias, and about 85 percent said the food in the Israeli Defense Forces should be kosher.

The researchers found a liberal approach that differentiates between the private domain, in which the individuals can do whatever they like, and the public where the participants show consideration for religious and traditional Jews.

Almost 95 percent would like to see a bridal canopy at a Jewish wedding, 92.5 percent would like to see a ceremony in which the bride and groom exchange rings, and 81 percent are interested in a ketubah (a Jewish marriage contract). But 55 percent did not want kosher food at a Jewish wedding, and almost 70 percent would not want Jewish music or singing. About half of the respondents would want both the bride and groom at a Jewish wedding to be Jewish, but this was of no concern to the other half.

Nevertheless, when they were explicitly asked if they would like to see a non-Jewish bride or groom at a Jewish wedding, 80 percent answered no. Most respondents, 78 percent, would like to see some sort of rabbi at a Jewish wedding, although only 28 percent would want an Orthodox one, and 70 percent would not want any [Orthodox rabbi]. Over 60 percent would be willing to have a woman rabbi.

A large majority of the students, 90.5 percent, feel that the Orthodox movements in Israel do not deserve any more privileges than other streams of Judaism, and 56.5 percent replied yes to the question, “Would you be willing to pray in a Reform or Conservative synagogue in Israel?”

When asked “Do we need the ultra-Orthodox because they keep the embers burning?” about 75 percent said no. Approximately 63 percent feel that in order to be a Jew, a person has to undergo a process of conversion, and 52 percent feel that the Reform conversion is equivalent to Orthodox conversion, and a strong majority–94 percent–said that they found the term “secular conversion” acceptable.

As for Yom Kippur, about 54 percent said that a Jew should give an accounting of his deeds before God, as opposed to 39 percent who said that a Jew does not have to do so. Does a Jew have to fast on Yom Kippur? Some 56 percent said yes, 36 percent no, and eight percent did not know. Only about seven percent felt that on Yom Kippur people should take a trip abroad, while 72 percent were not in favor. About 80 percent want the ban on driving kept on Yom Kippur, with only 19 percent in favor of driving. Here it is possible to discern an inconsistency, which stems from an open-minded attitude–disagreement on the question of whether to pray and fast, along with broad agreement on preserving the special nature of the holiday. Not included in the questionnaire was the question of whether the Israeli Jew should even observe Yom Kippur.

Regarding the Passover seder, a large majority of respondents, 80 percent, said they would like to see the Haggadah read at the seder by all of those present, while only three percent would like to see it read only by men. The majority wishes to see the observance of other customs, such as drinking four cups of wine, hiding the afikoman [matzah eaten for dessert], singing Ma Nishtana [the Four Questions] and eating matzah [unleavened bread]. Only 16 percent would like to see bread at the Passover seder, as opposed to 83 percent that would not.

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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