Judaism in Israel: Diversity and Collectivism

Many Jews come to live in Israel expecting to find a place where they can finally just be Jewish. People who have lived through persecution, who have grown up being called a “dirty Jew” come to Israel and find out that in Israel, it’s not enough to be just Jewish; you have to decide what kind of Jew you are.

 Israeli society, as mentioned in my posts regarding Israeli parties and politics (part 1 and part 2), is a divided one. People have a need to define themselves by the groups they belong to. They define themselves through their country of origin, through their political beliefs but most importantly, through their religious inclinations. Judaism is a communal religion. A Jew cannot function as a Jew without his or her community. One’s affiliation with a wider religious community is important to Israelis.

 I’ve written a lot about the Ultra-Orthodox community in previous posts, and as promised, the time has come to set things straight about the various religious groups in Israel. So here it is:

Three groups that are many

 It is customary to think of Israeli Jewish society as being divided into three groups: Secular, Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox. However, none of these three groups are homogenous in any way. Every one of them is divided into sub-groups. I will try to break them down here. I should warn you though, this is tricky ground and the details that I may see as important when defining and explaining a group may not be the details that a member of that group would find important to mention.

Secular Jews

The secular community is perhaps the most non-communal group of the three. They are, for the time being, the majority of the population. A survey conducted by the Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) in 2009 of Israelis over the age of 20 found that they comprise 41% of the adult Jewish population.

As non-observant Jews, the sense of community is a lot less pronounced than what you may find in more religious groups. A religious Jew belongs to a synagogue, a secular Jew doesn’t.

The secular community does not observe the various Mitzvot (commandments in the Torah). However, many of them do observe certain selective customs. They may not keep the laws of the Sabbath, but some may make “Kiddush” (the ceremonial sanctification of the Sabbath over a glass of wine, conducted on Friday night). As many as 90% of the Jews in Israel fast on Yom Kippur. Almost all celebrate the Jewish holidays, even if they do not keep the various religious requirements.

Traditional Jews

The secular group is varied and includes another sub-group: the traditional community. The boundaries of the traditional group are difficult to define. The level of religious observance varies. While some consider themselves more on the religious side and some consider themselves more on the secular side, it is hard to quantify one’s religious observance. The CBS survey from 2009 includes a category of “Traditional- religious” and “Traditional-non-religious”. Together, the two categories made up another 38.5% of the adult Jewish population in 2009. The Reform and Conservative movements both fall under this category.

 The “National Religious” Group

This group can also be referred to as “Religious Zionists” or “Modern Orthodox”. People belonging to this group are observant Jews. They go to synagogue, eat only kosher food, refrain from various activities on the Sabbath and generally strive to fulfill the Mitzvot put forth in the Torah.

They also take full part in Israeli society and serve in the IDF or in national service. However, they have separate schools, in which children study religious subjects such as the Bible and the Talmud, alongside subjects studied in other schools. Many of the schools are separate-sex, especially above primary school.

The National Religious community lives in communities, revolving around synagogues, and in some cases in settlements that are religiously homogenous. The National Religious community made up 11.7% of the adult Jewish population in the 2009 CBS survey.

The National Religious group grew out of the Ultra Orthodox community at the beginning of the previous century. At the time, there were only religious and non-religious Jews. When the non-religious began being swept up with the idea of Zionism and returning to Israel, many of the religious Jews scoffed at the idea. However, some saw the two ideas, Judaism and Zionism as mutually compatible. Thus sprung up the idea of “Torah ve’avoda”- Torah and labor. Some Yeshivas began teaching secular subjects as well as religious studies. Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Hacohen Kook and his son Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook are considered the founding fathers of Religious Zionism.

As a member of this group, the sense of community plays an important part. The synagogue where I grew up has over 100 member families, and most of the 150 guests from my parents’ side at my wedding were members of the community. I grew up in Ra’anana, a mixed city. However, most of the people who lived on my street were National Religious. There are at least five synagogues within five minutes walking distance from my home, accommodating thousands of members. On Simhat Torah, a Jewish holiday celebrating the finishing of the reading of the weekly portions of the Torah and their recommencement from the book of Genesis, it is customary to dance with the Torah scrolls. Every year, my synagogue goes out into the street, dancing with the scrolls, and converges with four or five other synagogues at the roundabout at the end of my street.

A knit Kipa (scullcap, Yarmulka), worn by Religious Zionists. In fact, this is a photo of my Kipa and with it, the back of my head. This Kipa was knit by my wife. She has also made me one in green and black and another in white.

I paint a picture of a unified community, however over the past few years this group has been slowly separating into two major sub-groups. One group is slowly levitating towards the Ultra-Orthodox community in its strictness in many issues, especially in the mixing of the sexes. Another group remains more open and advocates mixed schooling. The first group has been dubbed “Hardal”, which is an abbreviation of “Haredi-Leumi”- National Ultra-Orthodox, and encompasses many of the settlements in Judea and Samaria, where Religious Zionists live in closed communities. The second group does not have a name for itself yet and is more prevalent in cities, where they live among other groups. There are also various schools of thought within both groups, based on the different Yeshivas in the National-Religious community.

The Ultra Orthodox community

 The “Haredi” (Ultra-Orthodox) community may seem like a homogenous community, but it too, is divided into many sub communities.

In general, the Haredi community puts observance of the Torah above all other considerations. Extra precautions are taken in order to observe all Jewish laws. This means that schooling is completely separate-sex, from the age of 3. The community is almost entirely cut off from the outside world, which is considered to have a harmful effect on children, who may be swayed by what they see. Most Ultra Orthodox men refrain from enlisting in the IDF and study in Yeshiva instead, as a way of life. Almost no Haredi women serve in National Service.

Hassidic children. Photo: wikipedia

The Haredi community puts a great emphasis on physical modesty and separation of the sexes. There have even been attempts by radical Haredi groups to enforce separate sidewalks on Jewish holidays, and it has become commonplace for men and women to sit separately on public transportation: the men in front, where they cannot see the women and think immodest thoughts. Many Haredi families do not have internet access by choice, almost none have televisions and many only use cell-phones that have been pre-approved by Rabbis, in other words, that do not have access to the internet, where they may be exposed to content that they consider to be harmful.

 The Haredi community also puts an emphasis on raising the next generation as good observant Jews. The community, which has one of the highest birthrates in the world, invests most of its resources and political power into ensuring their children receive Haredi education.

 As a closed community, living in all-Haredi neighborhoods, it has developed an impressive array of charitable organizations for helping its poor. Because many Haredi men choose to spend their lives in the study of Torah, while the women provide for the family and raise vast numbers of children, many Haredi families are extremely poor. The Haredi community has developed its own internal economy by which those who have the means help those that don’t.

 An important figure in the Haredi way of life is the Rabbi. One will consult with one’s Rabbi on almost any subject, including the most private issues, and the Rabbi’s word is the law. One may not agree with what the Rabbi has dictated, but once it has been said, there is no way around it.

 As I said, the Ultra-Orthodox community may seem homogenous, but it is made up of many sub-groups and sects:

The Sephardic Haredi community

This group is quite likely the least strict in the Haredi world. They are less closed to the outer world and interact with it more often. Sephardic Ultra-Orthodox Jewry is represented in the Knesset by the Shas party, and they ultimately defer to Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.

The members of the Sephardic community are descendants of Jews who were expelled from Spain during the time of the inquisition and settled mainly in various Islamic countries. Despite having a magnificent history of their own, the Sephardic community often feels inferior to the Ashkenazi community. For instance, it is considered more prestigious to have studied in an Ashkenazi Yeshiva.

The Hassidic community

The meaning of the word Hassid is devotee. The Hassidic community is made up of many factions, each following their own supreme Rabbi, the “Admor” (an abbreviation of “Adoneinu, moreinu verabeinu”- our lord, teacher and Rabbi), who is the ultimate authority on all things. A Hassid is one devoted to God, but he adheres to his Rabbi, who tells him how he must conduct himself and best serve his maker.

Each Hassidic group has a different outlook on various issues, including their relation to the State. There are extreme groups such as “Satmar”, which do not believe in the State of Israel at all, while other groups, such as Lubavitsch could almost be considered Zionist.

There are many such groups, each with their own distinctive form of attire, that may be expressed in as small a detail as the shape of their hat, or the way they wear their socks.

The Hassidic movement was founded in the 18th century by Rabbi Yisrael Baal-Shem-Tov. You can read all about its history on wikipedia- here.

A list of Hassidic groups include among others: Satmar, Toldot Avraham Yitzhak, Belz, Vizhnitz, Gur, Lubavitsch, Breslev, Vovov, and many more, each originating in a different town in eastern Europe.

A Hassid. Judging by his attire, this man belongs to the Hassidic group of Toldot Avraham Yitzhak, if I am not mistake. Photo: wikipedia.

The Lithuanian community

The Lithuanian community is the Ashkenazi Ultra-Orthodox group that does not adhere to the ideas of the Hassidic movement. The community was led, until last week, by Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv. The Rabbi died last week at the age of 102, with over 1400 descendants spanning six generations.

 The Ultra Orthodox community accounts for 8.2% of the adult population in the 2009 survey. However, the community has an incredibly high birthrate and is growing quickly. It is expected that they will become the majority within less than two decades. They are centered mainly in Jerusalem, Bnei-Brak, Elad, Beitar-Illit and a number of other towns.

My attempt to make things simpler. This diagram sums up the major groups. The size of the circles is random and is not indicative of the relative size of the various groups.

Rifts and bridges

There has been a rift between the different groups for as long as they have existed. The gaps become wider or narrower as they are influenced by events. A major turning point in the relationship between different social groups in Israel was the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. Rabin, a secular and leftwing Jew, was assassinated by a National Religious rightwing Jew. All at once, all the hatred and anger that had been bottled up for years boiled over. Religious Jews were verbally attacked just for wearing a Kippa (Scullcap) and being part of the religious collective.

 I vividly remember a loud argument between the National-Religious father of one of my classmates and a secular woman on a public bus, a few months after the murder. She accused ‘his lot’ (my lot) of murdering Rabin. He accused ‘her lot’ of murdering a taxi driver in the neighboring town of Hertzeliya (a couple of secular fourteen year-olds had recently murdered a taxi-driver out of sheer boredom). Many of the passengers on the bus joined in the yelling session and all I wanted to do was get off the bus and not have to be a part of such hatred.

 But the assassination also started a healing process. Many people suddenly understood that the gulfs between the groups needed to be bridged. Organizations sprouted up all over the country, organizing dialogue sessions in which religious and non-religious Jews could meet each other and have civilized discussions. Quite often, the most important thing is just to meet the other side and realize that he is not the monster that we believed him to be. This process is still ongoing and sadly, only encompasses those who want to be a part of it. Over the past few years, I feel that the rifts may even have widened. I have recently joined a dialogue group, in which for the first time in my life I’ve had the opportunity to meet Haredi people and truly get to know them.

 In last week’s post, I described a discussion I had with a Haredi man, regarding enlistment of Haredi men in the IDF. I did not know the man, and throughout the whole discussion I felt as if we were transmitting on different wavelengths. We each had our basic assumptions, which were non-compatible, and we just weren’t getting through to each other. Tonight in my dialogue group, however, I realized just how important getting to know each other is. Yossi, a Haredi participant in the group, and I have different views, but after getting to know each other, we were able to have a productive discussion in which we each gave each other food for thought. I suspect I’ll be telling you more about my dialogue group in the future.

 My American friends who had a hard time understanding why they had to choose what kind of Jew they are were right. The religious definitions that we have constructed for ourselves are artificial divisions. In Hebrew, the word for definition- “Hagdara”, and the word for fence- “Gader”, have the same root. Defining ourselves according to our religious belonging creates fences between us. These are social divisions and if you don’t want to choose a definition for yourself, that’s quite okay with me.

Have any questions or comments about this post? Please feel free to leave a comment!

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6 comments

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  6. […] Regardless of the outcome of the negotiations, the 20th Knesset was sworn in on March 31st. The main party blocs have remained mostly unchanged, but the new Knesset has 39 new members, which will have to learn to play the parliamentary game. The newly elected Knesset also has 29 women and 91 men, 104 Jews and 16 Arabs, who are represented in four different parties. Of the Jewish members, at least 11 are Orthodox and 13 are Ultra-Orthodox (for an explanation of the different religious groups in Israel, see my post- here). […]

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