Article Library / Special Reports

Rising Streams: Reform and Conservative Judaism in Israel

Another important element we suggest contributes to this trend is Hiloni Israelis’ dislike of Orthodox, especially ultra-Orthodox Judaism. This is a sense the researchers get, primarily based on anecdotal findings and conversations with many Hiloni Israelis, as well as some correlative data. We know, for example, that Hiloni Israelis are uncomfortable with the thought of their child marrying a Haredi – even more than marrying a Christian (93 percent expressed discomfort with the thought).45

Similarly, there are few close friendships reported between Haredim and Hilonim and Datiim and Hilonim in surveys.46 We also find that among totally secular Israelis, more than three-fourths believe that Haredim and Hilonim should not live in mixed neighborhoods in Israel, while among Haredim only 43 percent did not think the two groups should live in the same neighborhoods. As a point of comparison, few Israeli Jews had a problem with right-left or Ashkenazi-Mizrachi living in mixed neighborhoods.47

While secular Israelis may be interested in, or at least less antagonistic and more open to Jewish practice than before, the Orthodox approach, with its interpretation of Jewish law, seems archaic, restrictive, and alien to many secular Israelis. The average secular Israeli is generally liberal and modern in their world-view. Therefore, a religious system, at least in its practical applications, that is not similarly modern, or that places significant emphasis on the study and discussion of what are perceived as outdated practices or religious minutiae, holds little appeal to the Israeli public.

Reform and Conservative leaders claim that, secular and traditional Israeli Jews increasingly want to (re)connect to Jewish practice and text, but from a place of individuality, meaning, or tradition, and when convenient, rather than a place of obligation and blind observance. They assert that secular Israelis increasingly seek a Judaism that fits better with their generally secular worldview, with respect to the role of science, non-literal approaches to Torah, and egalitarian gender models. Reform and Conservative Judaism, according to Gilad Kariv, seek to marry these very modern global values together with Jewish tradition, viewing them as inherently Jewish values, with Jewish traditions acting as moral anchors in a world of free will.

At the same time, it seems that the rabbinic, religious establishment is growing increasingly unpopular with secular Israelis. Alongside what is perceived as continued attempts by the ultra-Orthodox population to impose religious restrictions on the general public (regarding the Sabbath observance, especially), it seems, to secular Israelis, as if there are numerous cases of corruption in the press involving high level Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox figures, further bolstering the image of a “Judaism that has lost its way”. The cases of corruption fuse together, in the Hiloni Israeli’s mind, with the everyday culture clash with the Haredi public, or the obstinacy of the State Rabbinate when they must interact with it, to create a general reticence of most things Dati, especially Haredi.

Therefore, to some extent, we can surmise that many of those secular and traditional Israelis identifying as Reform or Conservative are not seeking liberal religious practice or looking much into the underlying theology. Rather, as JPPI’s Survey of Israeli Judaism and the Pew Israel study show, as non-Orthodox Israeli Jews reject the Orthodox establishment for various reasons, tthey turn to the increasingly visible Reform or Conservative Movements in protest but also perhaps because they prefer the more user-friendly and practically comfortable aspects. Secular Israelis are in that sense, quite similar in identity and attitudes to religion as most Reform or Conservative Jews in America who belong to such communities as a “normative” option of Jewish affiliation. The difference is, that in the Israeli context, they do not articulate or express their identity as primarily religious. Alternatively, as Rabbi Meir Azari, of Beit Daniel in Tel Aviv commented, “most secular Israelis are Reform Jews already, they just don’t know it.”