Being a Secular Jew in Israel
By DAN MAHLER
On the surface there seems to be antagonism between the terms "Jew"
and "secular." Most people accept "Judaism" as a religion,
or at least as something strongly connected with religion. Although secular
Jews are recognized, in Israel many people refuse to accept the existence and
legitimacy of “secular Judaism.”
As a result the secular, the atheist, or agnostic Jew finds his identity
questioned: he is free to define himself as a secular Jew, but his community of
Secular Judaism is still not officially recognized here.
This unique politicization of Judaism in Israel has historical origins. From
the early Israelite kingdoms of the bible, to the later establishment of the
Jewish diaspora all over the world, Jewish people have been heterogeneous in
their religious belief, consisting of various religious and secular elements.
Being in diaspora, the Jewish people had no official or practical national
foundation, and the various Jewish communities searched for a common, unifying
factor, which was Judaism, including its religious components. The community
center—the synagogue—was for many a location for social gathering, not
obligatorily a religious space. Before the Renaissance religious scripts were,
for all peoples, the only cultural source. Since then, however, art and science
have become the common property of many, and the effects of this knowledge have
become part of what it is to be a modern human being, including, of course, the
For the Jewish people the rebirth of its ancient language—Hebrew—by Eliezer
Ben-Yehuda at the end of the 19th century, was a turning point when literature,
arts, science and social studies became for many the natural components of the
Jewish individual's identity. At the same time the archaic, irrelevant,
unnatural, and sometimes objectionable Jewish religious identity, including the
belief in God, together with God's commandments and religious rituals, ceased
to be necessary factors.
However, despite this, the Orthodox Jewish religious establishment, like any
other religious establishment, did not stop from advancing its objectives. This included the rejection of any
definition of Judaism that did not link with their Orthodox beliefs. The terms
"Judaism" and "religion" became so firmly equivalent in
people's minds, that in 1948, during the process of establishing the newly born
Jewish state of Israel, the secular leaders of Israel transferred control over
marriage, divorce, food production and import, transport on the Shabbat, and
other matters, solely to the Jewish religious establishment. The Jewish
religious establishment has also rewritten Jewish history according to their
perception, leading people to believe that the Jewish Orthodoxy was, is, and
will be the only representative of Judaism.
Today, the secular Jew in
contemporary Israel finds himself torn between two forces: on one hand stands
his legitimate rights to define himself as a secular, atheistic, or agnostic
Jew; and on the other hand there is the state’s powerful religious
establishment responsible for how and with whom one can marry or not, how to
divorce and when it is forbidden, what will be the fate of many outsiders
wishing to marry or divorce, what to eat and what it is forbidden to eat, etc.
In Israel the state gives this
ultimate power to the religious Orthodox establishment.
Secular Jews, those who accept
the world without a superpower God, nevertheless participate in religious
rituals and ceremonies. This renders it nearly impossible to debate secularism,
or the existence or nonexistence of God, in an ideological and philosophical
manner. Instead, it is a political battle, in which those who believe that
there has always been one type of Judaism try to mute the discussion on secular
This article originally appeared in http://www.eclipse.co.uk/thoughts/danmahler.htm.
This adaptation appears with the author’s permission.