Article Library / 2016

2016 Annual Assessment

The most noticeable thing about the rise of the current strain of integral nationalist Religious Zionism 40 and 50 years ago was the increase of religiosity and rigor in religious observance. This had very concrete and palpable expressions. Young men, upon reaching manhood, went off to study Torah within the confines of yeshivot. Observance of the mitzvoth and the Halacha ceased to be a generalized marker signifying loyalty to the religious outlook and its construction of the Zionist endeavor. Thus, young men began to observe with care and attention those laws which had hitherto been treated fairly laxly such as wearing tzizit the entire day and not only during prayer, and consistent participation in communal prayer. Among young women, the change was perhaps even more palpable. Despite the fashion of mini-skirts in the late 1960s and early 1970s they lengthened their skirts and sleeves to conform to the legal-textual dictates of “modest dress,” ceased wearing trousers, and, after marriage, covered their hair, all this in contrast to the previous generation. In many religious neighborhoods and settlements, a more serious religious ambience began to take hold – characterized by classes in Talmud and Torah and widespread attendance at communal prayer.

The last 15 years have seen a relaxation of religious rigor at least in certain circles in the Religious Zionist community. Again, women’s dress and appearance has played a signifying role. Many married women today do not fully cover their hair, but more symbolically put on a kerchief or wide ribbon through which most of their hair is visible. Some married religious Zionist women have removed their hair covering altogether; Similarly, in certain circles there has been a return to women’s trousers and short sleeves. The religious press has treated these changes not as deviance but as legitimate social developments.

A certain change has also been introduced into relations between the sexes. Mixed-sex “salon dancing” has also been introduced into some Religious Zionist weddings (toward the end of the evening). Even premarital intimacy (to various degrees) seems to be somewhat more prevalent and acceptable. Again, the religious media has highlighted these developments and treated them as legitimate human interest stories, without unequivocal condemnation.21

There have also been widespread reports in the religious press and media about certain behaviors, among some young people, including alcohol and drug use, sexual relations, pornography, and participation in rock and roll or pop culture. In contrast to the past, not only is there more willingness to discuss such phenomena, writers and educators attempt to understand them and what (legitimate) needs they serve.22

Perhaps the most striking measure of diminished religiosity is the vastly increased enlistment of religious women in the IDF. From 2010 to today, the number of young women entering military service has more than doubled, from 935 to over 2000.23 Many of these young women come from institutions that are publically identified as strictly Orthodox and even Nationalist Haredi. These young women also do not restrict their service to units that were traditionally reserved for Orthodox women soldiers such as soldier-teacher units. Today, they serve in a wide variety of units, especially in intelligence and even in combat units.

The resulting picture is a much wider spectrum of religious observance than was prevalent (or at least was presented as prevalent) 20 years ago. Indeed, there are groups that continue to strictly adhere to all the stringent practices, and even intensify them. At the same time, there are many groups and individuals who are quite lenient (Leitim in Religious Zionist slang) and there is a huge population in the middle that adheres to various gradients of strictness.

Alongside these differences in behavior (for which it is very difficult to obtain hard data) there is also awareness, journalistically, academically and among the subjects themselves of different ideological streams and orientations, mainly in regard to the degree or extent of religiosity. Newspapers that appeal to the Religious Zionist public periodically publish articles asking whether the Religious Zionist public indeed consists of a single group or whether it is helplessly divided among different sub-groups. Academically, various studies assume that the Religious Zionist public is organized into a number of subgroups that can be ordered according to a spectrum of more or less religiosity or conservative to liberal religious orientations. We will look at two relatively recent surveys: The survey published by Tamar Herman and her staff at the Israeli Democracy Institute (IDI) in 2014, and the 2007 survey conducted as part of Hanan Moses’ doctorate.

The IDI survey first asked a large representative sample (4,597) of the general Jewish Israeli population whether they belong, both in their outlook and their way of life, to the National Religious sector. Twenty-two percent answered that they did to a large or very large extent. The survey then asked those who did identify as national religious to identify themselves in terms of the degree of their religiosity. The group that identified as modern/liberal National Religious turned out to be twice as large (12 percent) as the group that identified as Haredi/Torani National Religious (6 percent).24 One of the surprises of the IDI survey was that the segment that identifies as “National Religious” is much larger and more variegated than is commonly supposed. From our point of view, what is especially interesting is that fully 24 percent of those who said they “belonged to the National Religious sector” defined themselves as “traditional religious,” not as fully Orthodox. According to this survey at least 37 percent of the sector is either liberal Orthodox or not fully Orthodox (another 12 percent is either “traditional-not religious” or “secular”). Thus, the spectrum that we saw above in regard to religious observance repeats itself in regard to self-definition.

The implications of this extend to the authority of rabbis in regard to political issues. While 58 percent of the Religious Zionist total population reports that it to a great or very great extent, attributes importance to the rulings of rabbis on political issues, over a third reported that it, did not attribute such importance. This attitude was especially characteristic of the liberal Orthodox population.25

We can see this ideological spectrum in regard to other issues as well; the survey Hanan Moses conducted in 2007 inquired about a whole range of issues. He too, divided his population into three main groups: Torani Nationalists (corresponding to Haredi nationalists in the IDI survey), Religious Zionist Bourgeoisie (corresponding to “just” Religious Nationalists) and Modern Orthodox. These classifications were confirmed, more or less, by the respondents themselves when asked to provide religious self-definition. Moses asked the respondents about a whole range of issues26, and their answers more or less organize themselves according to the three main group classifictions with the Torani Nationalists giving the most conservative answers, the Bourgeoisie in the middle, and the Modern Orthodox being the most liberal. This pattern repeated itself in regard to attitudes regarding women; the Arab minority; the secular population; America, the West and Western values; rabbinic authority; change in the Halacha; and homosexuals. Such differences emerged with great force in the summer of 2016. R. Yigal Levenstein, the very conservative co-head of the mechina in Eli, savagely attacked the LGBT community in a speech that was widely circulated on YouTube repeatedly calling them “perverts.” In response a significant number of liberal Religious Zionists joined the Gay Pride Parade held in Jerusalem in July.