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2018 Annual Assessment

One of the accomplishments of the Jewish state in its 70 years of existence is that it has created new expressions and forms of Judaism and Jewish religious and cultural practice. Some of these new forms are of a public or political nature and have been covered extensively by the Israeli national and even international media, such as the Shas Party (The Ultra-Orthodox Sephardic party) and Gush Emunim (the Religious Zionist movement for settling and annexing the West Bank – Judea and Samaria). Yet many of these uniquely Israeli expressions are practiced by the general public and often are “under the radar” of both media coverage and academic analysis.

With this is mind, JPPI inaugurated an extensive in-depth survey of “Israeli Judaism.”1 This project extensively surveyed the Israeli Jewish population with respect to the celebration and marking of holidays, religious and civil, and other practices such as those relating to food and kashrut, Shabbat, education and other topics. The surveys were very detailed and are still being analyzed. We present here some preliminary findings in order to provide a much fuller picture of Israeli expressions of Jewish religious and cultural practice than is generally available in the media and research literature. These preliminary findings are supplemented with those already published in the Pew Israel Survey (2016).

The first of these findings is that Israeli Jews have a relatively high level of observance, especially in relation to American Jews.2 Thus, according to the JPPI survey of 2017, 67 percent of Israeli Jews fast the whole of Yom Kippur as compared to 40 percent of American Jews who said that they fasted in 2012.3 Similarly, 97 percent of Israeli Jews participated in a Passover Seder, while only 70 percent of American Jews did in 2012. This disparity carries over into areas such as Kashrut and Shabbat observance: 63 percent of Israelis keep kosher at home while only 22 percent of American Jews do; 45 percent of Israel Jews report that they do not handle money on Shabbat while only 15 percent of American Jews refrain from doing so (Pew). According to the JPPI study, around 30 percent of Israeli Jews do not travel on Shabbat.

Undoubtedly, many Israeli Jews observe these practices not necessarily as religious behaviors, but find in them national, cultural, familial, and community meaning. Indeed, according to recent surveys about half of Israel’s Jewish population identifies as “Hiloni”(Secular), while the other remaining half identifies as either “Masorati” (Traditionist, about 30 percent), “ Dati “ (Religious, 12 percent), or “ Haredi “ (ultra-Orthodox, about 12 percent). This is reflected in the JPPI study, according to which 43 percent of Israel’s Jewish population see “religion” as the central component of Jewishness and 57 percent see either “nationality” (26 percent), “culture” (20 percent) or “ethnicity” (11 percent) as such. Furthermore, approximately a third of the Jewish population had not set foot in a synagogue in the past year.

It is important to note that secular Jews also engage in practices associated with the Jewish religion, assigning them national or cultural meaning. Thus, according to the JPPI study, 93 percent of Israeli Jews identifying as Hilonim Lachalutin (completely secular) participate in a Passover Seder. A cultural, national, or familial approach is particularly prominent in regard to holidays, and it affects how holidays are celebrated. Thus, 97 percent of Israeli Jews participate in a special family meal on Rosh Hashana that includes the custom of eating an apple dipped in honey. At the same time, many fewer non-religious Israeli Jews attend synagogue for special High Holiday services than American Jews. According to the Pew Israel Survey, 35 percent of American Jews report that they “attend synagogue a few times a year such as for the High Holidays,” while only 14 percent of Israeli Jews do (but many more Israelis attend synagogue services on a weekly basis).

The cultural, national, and familial meaning holidays have in Israel partially results from the fact that the official calendar is organized according to the traditional Jewish conception of the week – it starts on Sunday, a work day, and ends on Shabbat, the official day of rest – and reflects both major and minor Jewish holidays. Thus “minor” holidays such as Purim, barely noticed by the non-Orthodox population in America, are major events in Israel. Children and adults wear Purim masks and costumes in a carnivalesque atmosphere, Orthodox and Non-Orthodox Israelis throw Purim parties characterized by liquor, music and dancing. According to the JPPI surveys, fully 66 percent of Israeli Jews observe the custom of sending gifts of food and sweets (Mishloach Manot) to their friends and neighbors. This custom is not understood in necessarily religious terms (its origin is in the Book of Esther 9:22), but as expressing neighborly and community sociability and solidarity.

Lag B’Omer is another “minor” holiday that practically goes unnoticed in America but has an appreciable presence in Israel.4 Not only does virtually every Israeli school child make a bonfire, but tens of thousands participate in the annual pilgrimage to the Tomb of R. Shimon Ben Yochai on Mount Meron. According to the JPPI surveys, 14 percent of Israeli Jews say that they participate in this pilgrimage when they can. Furthermore, 25 percent of Israeli Jews report that they make pilgrimages to the tombs of saints (Tzaddikim – righteous men) and holy men, a practice which is almost wholly absent from the Diaspora Jewish scene (with the exception of the veneration surrounding the tomb of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, R. Menahem Mendel Schneersohn.)

The spread of this practice, which is shared by Traditionist (Masorati) and Secular as well as Orthodox Jews, in contemporary Israel should not surprise us. In traditional Judaism the religious phenomenology of the Holy Land and sacred sites (such as the Kotel (Western Wall and the Temple Mount) entails a religious conception of graded or hierarchical holiness. In other words, certain sites are holier than others. This conception is indicated by a well-known Mishna:

עֶשֶׂר קְדֻשּׁוֹת הֵן, אֶרֶץ יִשְׂרָאֵל מְקֻדֶּשֶׁת מִכָּל הָאֲרָצוֹת….לִפְנִים מִן הַחוֹמָה (של ירושלים) מְקֻדָּשׁ מֵ[מנו]… הַר הַבַּיִת מְקֻדָּשׁ מִמֶּנּוּ….קֹדֶשׁ הַקֳּדָשִׁים מְקֻדָּשׁ מֵ[כולם], שֶׁאֵין נִכְנָס לְשָׁם אֶלָּא כֹהֵן גָּדוֹל בְּיוֹם הַכִּפּוּרִים בִּשְׁעַת הָעֲבוֹדָה. (כלים פרק א ז’-ח’)

There are ten degrees of holiness. The land of Israel is holier than any other land…inside the wall [of Jerusalem] is more holy …. The Temple Mount has greater sanctity…. The Holy of Holies has greater sanctity than [all], because no one may enter there except the High Priest on the Day of Atonement at the time of the service (Mishna, Kelim, 1:7-8).

In traditional Judaism this graded conception of holiness also extends to persons. For example, priests (Kohanim) have a greater degree of holiness (in regard to certain areas) than other Jews. This conception which had been downplayed but not abolished in the Rabbinic Judaism of the Diaspora during the hundreds of years of the Exile, seems to have returned with renewed force with the return to Eretz Yisrael. It was adopted and extended in certain forms of Israeli popular religion in a framework of “holy” men and women and especially sacred sites and tombs associated with them, including of course, those associated with the Fathers and Mothers of the nation such as the Tomb of Rachel and Mearat HaMachpela (Cave of the Patriarchs).

A related development is the sacralization of national concepts such as the national homeland, Eretz Yisrael and the state itself, among significant parts of the population. In other words, sacredness and sacred meaning do not only attach themselves to traditional Jewish ritual objects such as tefillin (phylacteries), or the lulav and Etrog and the commandments associated with them, but also to national concepts such as the Land of Israel, the state and the Jewish people. Along with such sacredness also come commandments, that is, normative imperatives. Thus, attributing sacredness to the Land of Israel, for many Jewish Israelis, seems to be connected to a mitzvah – settling and incorporating the greater Land of Israel.5 This approach manifested itself in the JPPI survey: fully 55 percent of respondents stated that to a large extent or to a very large extent they identify with the statement: “To be a good Jew one has to support settlement in the greater Land of Israel.”

Similarly, among a significant portion of the population the very rationale behind the existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish state is couched in religious terms. Thus, 36 percent of respondents answered that the main justification for the existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish state is “to realize fully the religious and national nature of the Jewish people.”

The point is that Judaism is not merely practiced in the State of Israel, as we have seen, life in the Jewish state transforms central aspects of it. Thus, the Jewish religion in the state does not only consist of individual and communal practices but also relates to the national and political spheres. Furthermore, unlike Diaspora Judaism, which as Heinrich Heine pointed out, is truly portable – Sabbath observance was essentially the same in Poland or Morocco, Israeli Judaism is to a certain extent place-bound: The Land of Israel and central locations within it (e.g. The Western Wall) generate experiences and practices which are very specific to them.

Opinion is divided into two main approaches to the nature of the transformation of both Judaism and Jewish identity that Israel effects. One approach claims that the national political framework replaces [ethno] religion as the overarching authoritative framework of Jewish life and collective identity. The other approach states that the national political framework, i.e. the State of Israel, expresses or realizes traditional Jewish ethno-religion.