Rising Streams: Reform and Conservative Judaism in Israel

There is a well-known expression in Israel (said partly in jest) to explain the religious identity of the average secular Israeli, and to explain the limited presence of Reform and Conservative Judaism: “the synagogue most Israelis don’t attend is Orthodox”. Before presenting the claim that this paradigm is in the process of changing, we must first briefly explain the reigning paradigm.

For most of its existence, including in the pre-state decades, Israel’s religiosity breakdown described a spectrum of observance from secular to observant. This meant that secular Israelis, and certainly traditional ones, when they desired or demanded the occasional religious experience or ceremony did so according to traditional Orthodox Judaism (or not at all). Orthodox Judaism was viewed as the authentic, normative Judaism – to take or leave. Secular Israelis cared too little about Jewish practice (in the religious sense) to effect change, and traditional Israelis generally respected Jewish practice and the authority of observant Orthodox Jews over it. However, there is more to it than this.

In order to understand the “synagogue Israelis don’t attend” paradigm, it is crucial to look at the origins of the early Zionists. Zionism originated as a solution to maintaining Jewish identity and purpose in lands where it was increasingly untenable for Jews to live. The Zionist identity became an all-encompassing one, as it developed and expanded largely in the Jewish centers of pre-enlightenment Eastern Europe. Identities and ideologies born in this environment, like Communism, tended to be all encompassing in their rejection of the old, as opposed to post-enlightenment societies that embraced concepts of reform. By contrast, Jews in post-enlightenment Protestant countries embraced Reform or Conservative Judaism more readily.51

These Zionists sought to shed Diaspora Jewish identity, shaped over centuries of powerlessness, rootlessness and victimization and create a new, rooted and powerful Jew. To do so, they needed to shed all vestiges of Diaspora Jewish life, including the Jewish religion, which they saw as part of the problem. They did however keep some symbolic aspects of the religion for the sake of cohesiveness, out of a sense of tradition, or in order to construct a new national culture centered on the return to the land and a physical existence. Their occasional usage of Jewish traditions and symbols did not define their identity; rather, it became a part of a new secular Judaism, or Hebrew culture that emerged.

There were in Israel’s founding years, going back to the pre-state Yishuv, a small number of Dati and Haredi Jews. (In 1948, three percent of Israel’s population was comprised of Haredi Jews.52 Alternatively, we can estimate Israel’s overall Dati and Haredi population in 1948 by considering that in the first Knesset elections in 1949, the United Religious Front, comprised Dati and Haredi factions, took 16 seats out of 120.)53 The Haredi largely rejected Zionism while some Orthodox Jews found compartmentalized means to balance a pragmatic Zionism with traditional Orthodoxy. This, combined with the physical lack of Reform or Conservative Jews in Israel, created a dichotomy in which religious Jews were by default the guardians of Judaism, whose authentic representation was Orthodox.

We can juxtapose this with the Jewish experience in primarily Western Europe and later Protestant America, where most Eastern European Jewry migrated. The Protestant tradition, born out of the Reformation, is itself an agent of reform and modernization. The founding Americans saw it as a useful tool to shape a modern, democratic and pluralistic society. The dissenting Protestant tradition, widespread in America, privileges individual conscience and interpretation of scripture. It was out of this atmosphere that Reform and later Conservative Judaism were born in a Protestant environment, where the religion itself can be an engine of change and constantly adapts to modernity. “Anyone can start a religion”, according to JPPI’s Shlomo Fischer, in this sense, and so an inherent pluralistic approach is part of this world-view, and for a long time was alien to the Israeli reality.

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