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VCU Menorah Review Winter/Spring 2015
Number 82
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

Judaism in Israel

A review essay by Philip Hollander

Between State and Synagogue: The Secularization of Contemporary Israel by Guy Ben-Porat
Cambridge University Press

When asked about Judaism’s place in Israel, many Israelis would respond that since the Labor Party’s electoral defeat in 1977 religious parties, a religious agenda, and religious practice have become increasingly dominant in the public sphere, a change that has come at the expense of secular Israelis whose contribution to the state outweighs that of their religious brethren. Rather than accepting this widespread belief prima facie, Guy Ben-Porat carefully investigated Judaism’s place in Israel and his new challenges popular conceptions of Judaism’s place in Israel, the way that contemporary Israeli politics function, and the nature of secularization.

By distinguishing between secularism and secularization, Ben-Porat introduces an effective way to investigate the place of Judaism within the Israeli public sphere. Although the State of Israel’s founders were proponents of a form of secularism, an ideology or worldview grounded in a lack of religious faith, the state they created neither developed a pluralistic public sphere guaranteeing individual freedom nor hermetically sealed itself off from religion. Rather the famed “Status Quo” agreement and the subsequent laws and agreements on related issues made in its spirit gave religious Jews authority over all Israeli Jews in diverse areas including personal status, burial, food consumption, and observance of the Jewish Sabbath. While staunch secularists always found the state’s decision to cede its authority in such areas as onerous, the overwhelming majority of Israelis saw these instances of ceded authority establishing “rules of the game” for Israeli society and failed to question them. With the immigration of a million Jews from the former Soviet Union, the introduction of a neoliberal economy and the globalization of Israeli society, and the development of religious and spiritual alternatives to those offered by conservative Jewish religious authorities starting in the 1980s, pressure developed to change these rules of the game, and secularization which can be understand as a process whereby religious institutions are challenged and religious authority is eroded, began to make inroads in Israel.

By the early twentieth-first century secularization’s pace accelerated, despite the decision of many Israeli Jews to maintain or develop ties to spirituality. Multiple options for marriage ceremonies administered in accordance with the participant’s desires, easy facilitation of civil marriages abroad, and easier recognition of common law partnerships by state authorizes reduced the Israeli rabbinate’s control over marriage; the opening of private cemeteries, where secular Jewish Israelis can be buried in a manner they and their loved ones find tasteful, and civil cemeteries, where Israelis, including non-Jewish Israelis and Israelis whose Jewishness is question by religious authorities, can find burial alongside Jews, and the opening of crematorium undermined the previously monopolistic authority of religious burial societies; easy access to pork products and other non-kosher delicacies undermined state-supported kashrut laws grounded in religious and nationalist doctrine; the opening of diverse entertainment and shopping venues on the Sabbath undermined Sabbath-observant Jews efforts to restrict how other Jews spend their leisure time.

One of Ben-Porat’s important insights concerns how the secularization process gathered strength and made its mark on Israeli society. While it would be easy to assume that Israeli secularists achieved these widespread changes through an all-out war against the religious parties and their conservative agendas, the current secularization of Israeli society took place largely outside the political system, because secular-religious cleavages present within it created general paralysis concerning matters related to religion. Both legislative initiatives and legal challenges taken to the Supreme Court were capable of bringing about only limited change and were also available to those looking to strengthen religious authority. As a result, as Ben-Porat effectively demonstrates, secular entrepreneurs motivated by factors like financial gain, the opportunity for greater spiritual expression, and the freedom to marry whom they wanted and to eat what they enjoyed, began working on the margins of the law to achieve their aims. Loopholes in the political system allowed entrepreneurs to develop spaces where religious authorities had only limited powers to reign in secular initiatives. Examples of such secular entrepreneurship include the opening of stores on the Sabbath in shopping malls outside of urban centers; the offering of fee-based burial of non-member Jews in kibbutz cemeteries following funeral ceremonies conducted in accordance with the deceased and their relatives’ wishes; the opening of supermarkets selling pork and other non-kosher foods in urban industrial areas where municipal authorities could not argue that they offended religious inhabitants’ sensibilities. Ben-Porat’s discussion of secular entrepreneurs clarifies the need to adopt a broader definition of politics that encompasses more than the formal arena of parties and elections to get at changes underway in Israel.

Finally Ben-Porat pushes readers to reject a monolithic view of secularization and its effects on individual identity. While proponents of secularism view secularization’s spread as a part of a political project committed to the development of tolerant liberal citizens, Ben-Porat’s discussion of personal status, burial, food consumption, and Sabbath observance in Israel points to the haphazard nature of secularization that doesn’t always align itself with liberalism or tolerance. Instead “secularization unfolds in a bricolage of changing beliefs, practices, and affiliations that do not always move in lockstep with one another.” Such a view of secularization goes a long way to making sense of the lives of the majority of Israeli Jews existing between the poles of secularism and ultra-orthodoxy whose identities mix secular and religious elements in diverse ways.

The theoretical sophistication, complex modeling, meticulous organization, lucid presentation, and innovative conclusions of this work make it one of the most important books published in Israel Studies in recent years.

Philip Hollander is Professor of Hebrew and Semitic Studies, University of Wisconsin, and a contributing editor.

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Updated: Jan. 24, 2013

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