Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Daniel Elazar Papers Index

Israel: Religion and Society

Why Reform and Conservative
Judaism have Not Worked in Israel

Daniel J. Elazar

The unexpected victory of the religious (meaning Orthodox or ultra-Orthodox) parties in Israel's elections surprised many people. No doubt because of the way that verbal and operative attacks on Judaism had taken place under the previous government coupled with the opportunity that voters had to split their vote under the new system, there was a massive rallying on behalf of religious parties, not only by more of the religious voters than had ever voted for those parties before, but also by many other Jews, either traditional or concerned about Jewish tradition, in support of the parties that appeared to be the most in favor of preserving and strengthening Jewish tradition in the Jewish state. On the other hand, Meretz, the one party that actively espoused and espouses full support for Reform and Conservative Judaism by the Israeli government in Israeli law, lost seats and moved from being the state's third largest party to fifth place, behind Shas and the National Religious Party. Indeed, the religious parties made their strongest showing ever, taking more than 20 percent of the vote for a total of 24 seats. Since the other parties also had religious candidates, fully a quarter of the new Knesset is religious. All of this points to the need on the part of the diaspora, especially American Jewry, to understand why Reform and Conservative Judaism have not worked in Israel and are not likely to in the near future, despite the fact that both movements can freely establish congregations and have, and can even get funds from the Jewish Agency and the government.

The conventional explanation for this is the refusal of Israel's government to recognize Conservative and Reform Judaism, or, more precisely, to recognize Reform and Conservative rabbis, for political reasons. While there is no denying that Israel's religious establishment opposes recognition of non-Orthodox rabbis, even the halakhic activities that those rabbis might undertake in Israel, the real answer lies in a fundamental difference in outlook between Americans and Israelis.

I must confess to great hesitation even trying to write about this subject analytically for fear of being misunderstood. There is so much emotion invested in it One can understand the feelings of people whose own paths to Judaism mean so much to them yet are not as fully recognized in Israel as they would like. Nevertheless, as they wage their campaign for full recognition, fairness alone requires that they understand the situation as it really is.

When diaspora Jews say that there is no pluralism in Israel, they are almost inevitably referring to religious pluralism of the American kind. In fact, Israel is hardly monolithic in any respect and enjoys a deeply rooted pluralism, including a religious pluralism, in it's own style that must be recognized for what it is. Israel is a country with a least half a dozen different recognized religio-ethnic communities which in the Middle East are the primary manifestations of pluralism. These include Jews, Arabs, including Muslims, in cities and towns, Bedouin, and Christians, each distinct in their ways of life; non-Arab Christians of various denominations, from Armenians to Mormons; Druze; and Circassians (Muslims of Russian rather than Arab background).

Among the Jews there are ultra-Orthodox of many varieties, religious Zionists (the equivalent of the modern or centrist Orthodox in the diaspora), traditional, and secular groupings. There are Conservative, Reform and humanistic Jews, each of whom have their own functioning and successful congregations and associations even if their religious leaders are not fully recognized.

Perhaps most overlooked by outsiders is the pluralism within the ultra-Orthodox/Orthodox camp. For those who see all Orthodox Jews as dressed in black, whether they are or not, it is hard to see the many serious groups into which they are divided. There are something like a dozen different hassidic "courts" ranging from the extreme unbendingly anti-Zionist Satmar, to Habad, strongly Zionist in a very nationalistic way and dedicated to "keiruv," that is to say, bringing all Jews closer to Judaism as they understand it. There are hassidic courts like Bratslav whose leader, Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, has been dead for 200 years and who are highly spiritual and quietist; others like Gur and Belz noted for their political activity both within the ultra-Orthodox world and often outside of it; small courts such as Sadigorer which are the preserve of certain families and include members of those families who may not be in any way ultra-Orthodox in their behavior.

There are other communities gathered around "Lithuanian" yeshivot ranging in orientation from the ultra-religious and nationalist like Mercaz HaRav Kook to the militantly anti-Zionist yeshivot of groups like Toldos Aharon. These are misnagdim (those who have opposed hassidism since the eighteenth century), most of whom have become more active in Israeli affairs over the last decade and a half. The political leader of the mainstream yeshiva world is Rabbi Eliezer Shach who has been given much attention in the last few years.

There are the older customary differences between Ashkenzim and Sephardim, often further divided by country of origin, manifested in different synagogues, and for the larger groups, other institutions as well, in which different sets of religious customs are maintained. There are the hardal groups, that is to say, haredim leumiim (ultra-Orthodox nationalists) who pride themselves both on their Orthodox devotion and on their willingness to take on such tasks of nationalist commitment as combant service in the IDF and settlement in the territories. There are the very moderate religious of the religious kibbutzim, most of whom come out of the socialist religious Zionist background of Poalei Mizrachi, long traditional allies of the Labor camp. There is the Meimad group of peace-oriented modern Orthodox intellectuals. One could go on almost endlessly.

Then there are the differences from city to city. For example, if Jerusalem is the place where religious conflict among ultra-Orthodox and other Jews is hardly concealed, Safed is a place where all groups seems to live in harmony and consciously pursue harmonious sharing, while Hebron is a place devoted to religious ultra-nationalism. These differences may not seem that important to the diaspora, particularly in North America where religious differences are of a different order, but these are the differences that speak to Israelis.

In certain respects the differences between the extremes of this group and the ultra-Orthodox/Orthodox camp are far greater than those between Conservative and Reform Jews in the diaspora. But they are all united in their acceptance of the traditional understanding of Halakhah and the Torah and in their rejecting non-Orthodox claims to equal religious legitimacy. All told they represent about 25 percent of Israel's population.

The single biggest bloc of Jews in Israel are those who define themselves as "traditional." They represent about 55 percent of the population according to the most recent surveys. These are people who may be deep believers and observe all the commandments except that they use electricity or drive their cars on Shabbat (many of the men in this category put on tefillin every morning), to those who observe the family Sabbath and holiday traditions and little more but who do whatever they do out of conviction rather than merely out of habit.

Finally there is the 20 percent of Israelis who define themselves as "secular" in matters of belief. Matters of practice is something else again. According to the surveys, three-quarters of them observe Jewish customs at least as fully as the average conservative Jew in the United States and probably more. Only one quarter (or five percent of all the Jews in Israel) are really secular, which usually means that they are non-believers and confine their Jewish practice to only the most basic. Part of Israel's particular brand of pluralism can be seen at circumcisms, weddings, and funerals where there often appear men not wearing kippot and the women dressed in ways considered immodest by Orthodox and traditional Jews and nobody says a word about it or even pays attention to them,, which almost assuredly would not happen in equivalent situations in the United States.

These secular Jews and at least some of the traditional Jews, if asked, would not object to the official recognition of Conservative and Reform Judaism in Israel, but, except for a minuscule handful, they do not seek it for themselves nor do they respond to it positively. One example is Kol Ha'ir, the Jerusalem weekly newspaper which, as every Jerusalemite knows, hardly overlooks an opportunity to take a poke at Haredim and the Orthodox establishment, has a weekly column which "reviews" a different synagogue and its services each week as a critic would review a performance or a play, giving each a rating at the end of the review. The number of different kinds of synagogues that the columnist has identified is vast, ranging from a classical Sephardic "minhag Yerushalayim" congregation in Talbieh, where the President and Prime Minister of Israel reside, to a Moroccan Bratslaver hassidic synagogue in the Katamonim, a working class neighborhood, to the various non-Orthodox congregations, is not merely impressive but overwhelming, and he has hardly scratched the surface. The reviewer, who himself is not Orthodox and is writing for a paper that is even anti-Orthodox, wrote his most critical review about one of Jerusalem's Reform synagogues, saying in essence that he thought he was in a church and he did not understand what was Jewish about the service, a far better or worse typical Israeli attitude.

If the truth be told, Conservative and Reform Judaism, after more than 60 years of struggle, remain confined to a few major public institutions supported by and principally serving their diaspora adherents and a few dozen small congregations, some with devoted members but many are active only for the high Holidays primarily serving olim from English-speaking countries, plus a few others attracted to them. Try as they might they have been unable to broaden their appeal, and they have tried.

It is not just that the religiously Orthodox Jews in Israel have not found satisfaction in those two diaspora-originated movements, but, perhaps especially, neither have the religiously moderate traditional or secularist Jews.

The issues that dominate the Conservative movement today, especially those of egalitarianism and liturgical reform, simply do not speak to many Israeli Jews. Israel's Sephardim, many of whom are traditional in their behavior but not orthodox and whose traditional religion is much more moderate and more accepting of the contemporary world than the more militant Ashkenazic orthodox are not concerned with either of those issues. Thousands of Sephardim are perfectly capable of going to services Saturday morning and then to the soccer game or to the beach Saturday afternoon with scarcely the blink of an eye, but they would not want to end separate seating within the synagogue itself, much less accept even Bat Mitzvah, not to speak of active womens participation in the service. Most do not even like changes in traditional melodies, many of which go back to Spain more than 500 years ago.

Reform, with its notions of voluntary individual religious choices, is simply incomprehensible for them either in concept or design. For most Israelis, an individual may choose what he or she will observe, but the religious tradition itself is fixed by Divine law.

An American may marvel at the contradictions implicit in this view of the world. Nevertheless, it is the view that is dominant among the vast majority of traditional Israelis and even among those who reject the tradition in their own lives but have a certain view as to what "real" Judaism is. There are exceptions, of course, but they have been too few to make a difference.

Conservative and Reform Judaism were successful responses to popularly expressed needs in the Central European and American diasporas. When Jews arrived in the United States in large numbers and sought new forms of Jewish life, most, too, moved away from traditional orthodoxy to build indigenous Reform and Conservative movements.

Why has no such effort ever been tried, much less has succeeded, in Israel by other than olim from Germany or the United States?

The ideas that lie behind Reform and Conservative Judaism can be traced back to the Protestant Reformation, to a need that arose in Central and Western Europe not only to purify the Church but to reconcile belief and practice in a way that never found expression in Eastern Europe, the Mediterranean world, or the Islamic world. In Eastern Europe and the Christian Mediterranean world, for the average person, the emphasis was more on impressive church rituals and not on personal piety or doctrine, while the Islamic world, like the Jewish, emphasizes the communal, legal, and traditional character of religious behavior over matters of individual attitudes. Thus Northern European Protestantism influenced the Jews in that part of the world to seek greater consistency in their religious lives, something which became absolutely critical in the United States where anything less is considered hypocrisy.

In Israel's part of the world, what counts are critical behavioral acts such as birth, marriage, and burial rites, and not necessarily for reasons of belief. In Judaism this is compounded by the intimate connection between nationality and religion which has been so substantially severed in the Protestant world and most especially in the United States. Thus Israeli Jews can perform acts for national reasons that would be deemed "religious" in the United States. On one hand, this eliminates the need for them to confront disparities between belief and action. It also makes it more difficult to change tradition without damaging national as well as religious ties.

Hence, the percentages for both religious belief and observance are high among Israelis, much higher than one would guess looking at the Israeli or world media descriptions of the subject. According to the latest studies, some 98 percent of Israeli Jews have their male children circumcised as Jewish tradition requires and some 96 percent put mezuzot on the doorposts of their dwellings, even more than those who claim to participate in a Pesach Seder, whose percentage is in the low 90s. In fact, many Israelis who go abroad during Pesach, which means that they are not that concerned with keeping kosher for Pesach, would not think of leaving before Seder night. All of that is impressive enough, but can be matched in many diaspora communities.

What is even more telling is that according to the last survey conducted by the Guttman Institute for Applied Social Research in 1993, 54 percent of Israeli Jewish adults stated that they believe that the Torah was revealed to Israel by God at Mt. Sinai in the most literal sense. At the same time, over 70 percent do not believe that violation of God's commandments will bring Him to punish them, even though some two-thirds claim to believe in the validity existence of those commandments. Both the statistics and the qualitative evidence Israelis see around them show a people still quite bound to its tradition which is a religious tradition, and who pursue their freedom not by being bound to it in an Orthodox manner or formally changing it, but by allowing themselves as individuals the informal right to pick and choose what they observe.

In short, the tradition stands as it stands in their eyes even though they may not care to observe every jot and tittle of it. Nor would they change that tradition, which is, of course, what non-Orthodox Judaism does to make the tradition more attractive to their potential constituencies. That is the way it is in the Catholic world in the Mediterranean region and in the Islamic world more generally. In this respect at least, Israel is very much part of its larger region.

This is very hard for American Jews in particular to understand since Americans, perhaps more than any other peoples, insist upon a convergence of belief and practice. Where they diverge, most Americans see "hypocrisy." That is not the case in Israel. As a Mediterranean country Israel almost thrives on that kind of "hypocrisy." Most Israelis expect to pay serious attention to the maintenance of the continuity of Jewish tradition even if they have no intention of living according to all of the rules of that tradition.

This may be unfortunate for a very large segment of the diaspora which does not find its favorite expressions of Judaism fully recognized in Israel in the way that they would hope. By the same token, Israelis feel that Zionism as they understand it cannot be fully expressed in the diaspora, especially the American diaspora.

Of course there are some Israelis who, because they have come from elsewhere or because they are attracted to a different way, do seek the Reform and Conservative solution, but they are too few to allow either movement to establish itself significantly in Israel. In both cases there would be much less activity and support for either than there presently is without diaspora pressure on the Israeli government and diaspora support for non-Orthodox institutions.

Not that this obviates the legitimate demands of non-Orthodox Jews, but they must remember that for all Orthodox and the vast majority of tradition Jews in Israel, Judaism is a religion based upon law which must be guided by people who are trained in the law. Thus for them, empowering a Reform rabbi to perform a wedding would be like allowing a non-lawyer to conduct a trial. In this context, what non-Orthodox Jews can legitimately demand is that anyone who demonstrates that he (and perhaps she) is learned in halakhah be permitted to act in a rabbinical capacity. That is where the interdenominational politics operates to maintain Orthodox exclusivism in Israel today. But to demand that Israel adopt a version of Judaism which the vast majority of Israelis regard as unauthentic is a kind of hutzpah and leads to the present angry standoff.

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