Gabriel Abensour


The Masortim have always existed in Israel, but until recently their influence on Israeli public life remained small in proportion to their population share. The Masortim have now become a group that receives growing scholarly, cultural, and political attention, thanks to underlying processes that have changed the face of Israeli society in recent decades and fostered the emergence of a lively Masorti web of discourse. An intellectual-cultural discourse is naturally elitist, and we may say that most Israelis, including Masortim, live their lives without being aware of it. However, this discourse and its attendant cultural and educational activity are gradually permeating Israeli society – and changing it.

The process by which Masorti identities have appeared should be discussed as a broader part of the crisis of secularism underway in the Western world generally, and in Israel specifically. This crisis may be described via a question that has generated much discussion in recent decades: Is Israel becoming more religious, or more secular? The question may be simple, but the answer is a matter of deep disagreement between the secular camp, which laments what has been conceptualized in recent years as hadata or “religionization,” and the religious camp, which senses a hostile secular takeover of the basic areas of consensus in Israeli society. The controversy over chametz (foods with leavening agents) in hospitals during Passover, when Jewish law forbids it, exemplifies this tension. The secular side opposes new coercive legislation while the religious side maintains that a broad consensus had until now prevailed in Israeli society regarding chametz in the public space during Passover, and that that consensus no longer exists.

Despite the hard feelings at both ends of the spectrum, Israel is not more religious than it was, but at the same time it is not becoming more secular. This is what the data show, as demonstrated by Rosner and Fuchs, among others.83

If Israel is not gradually becoming a halachic state, if the number of its secular citizens has remained stable, and if an absolute majority of Israelis say that they do not want a coercive halachic state, then why does one side feel that the nation’s religious voices are resounding more and more loudly in Israeli public life? This question is broader than the Israeli case and pertains to the West as a whole. In order to understand what is happening, scholars have proposed distinguishing between secularization as a comprehensive paradigm that became exclusive in the Western world, and secularism as an ideology and an identity currently mired in an ever-deepening crisis. Secularization is not an anti-religious ideological current but rather an all-embracing political-historical process that places man at the center and brings down to earth the lofty values formerly ascribed to the Kingship of Heaven.84

In secularism, by contrast, the aim is for a distinct ideological identity which in Israel has manifested through contrast with religiosity and via the aspiration to establish a new Jewish identity, one based on a national approach to Judaism and liberated from the yoke of tradition.

An extensive literature, general and Israeli, has developed over the past few decades on the “crisis of secularism” that vexes Western societies. At the same time, a post-secular discourse with sociological, theological, and historical aspects has appeared. It has emerged against the background of a return to religion, which undermines the thesis of an unequivocal and unidirectional modernity leading ultimately to secularism.85

The extensive engagement with post-secularism and with the crisis of secularism in Israel does not attest to a decline of secularization as an all-embracing process, but rather to secularism no longer being an invisible default. Now that Israeli society has become more multicultural, those aligned with secularism, and in particular with ideological secularism, have to formulate their ideology and market themselves to the Israeli public like other groups.

Secularization as an all-encompassing paradigm is flourishing in Israel not only among the secular but also among the Masortim and the Datiim. Guy Ben-Porat, for instance, has shown that secularization as a set of “everyday practices” is gaining traction and shaping the public sphere.86 That is, instead of studying secularization as a distinct and ideological identity, Ben-Porat argues that it can be viewed as a practice manifesting primarily through the actual preferences and choices of Israeli Jews. Thus, large swaths of the population that choose to shop on Shabbat and eat at non-kosher restaurants, or that support civil marriage or non-religious burial, do not necessarily self-identify as secular from an ideological point of view, though in practice they evince the adoption of secular outlooks. However, this is a non-identity-defining secularization that does not formulate itself around a rigid ideology or is based on a total negation of religious tradition. These “secular in practice” Jews can embrace religious practice or beliefs without withdrawing from the secular public.87

This is a return to the distinction between secularization as a process and secularism as a worldview and a way of life. Secularization is deepening, but secularism as an ideological identity is in deep crisis.

Ben-Porat’s social observations are reinforced by the sociological-philosophical analysis of Eliezer Schweid, who described the Israeli secularism crisis as an identity crisis that resulted from secularism’s victory on the practical level.88

According to Schweid, because secularism became Israel’s economic, cultural, legal, and social reality, it ceased to be an explicitly formulated ideology requiring advocacy in order to be realized. For this reason, Israel has few ideological secularists; the vast majority shift to and fro within a Masortiyut that manifests primarily in dialogue with tradition and in a non-hostile attitude toward religion.89

Furthermore, secularism’s victory as an undisputed Israeli paradigm makes all Israelis effectively secular. This is a contention similar to that of Ben-Porat regarding the secular practice of Israel’s Jewish majority, but Schweid took it a step further in arguing that even those who define themselves as Dati or Masorti are secular ex post facto. That is, they are people who have adopted the assumptions of secularization in many areas, and do not try to oppose them.