Reprints from the Jerusalem Post; By Gol Kalev, July-28-2015

As Judaism becomes increasingly fashionable and old templates are abandoned, more secular Israelis are incorporating religious elements into their lives.

Mahaneh YehudaJerusalemites at different levels of observance come together at Mahaneh Yehuda.. (photo credit:JACQUES KEMPIN)

About 40 percent of Israeli Jews define themselves as secular, according the Central Bureau of Statistics.

Yet contrary to the strict definition of the word, many of these engage in religious practice to some extent.

The commonly accepted religious continuum in Israel has long run from “secular” to “religious” to “haredi,” with those who are traditional inserted at times between the first two. But these divisions are growing increasingly blurred.

On the right side of the continuum, many haredim are no longer as isolated as they were in past decades.

Some are adopting behavior patterns more common to the national-religious movement: employment, military service, living in settlements, believing in the centrality of the Land of Israel. This is especially the case among Sephardi haredim, Chabad and parts of the Breslov Hassidic sect.

Meanwhile, the blurring of lines is occurring on the national-religious end as well. Many individuals in that community are adopting behavior patterns similar to those of the haredim while maintaining Zionist leanings, becoming known as hardal (an acronym for “haredi national-religious”). This is partly a result of the 1970s and ’80s, when much of the national-religious leadership took a turn toward stricter religious tones.

Such a turn has also contributed to a counter-reaction, with the recent rise of the so-called dati-lite (religiouslite).

Many of the religious-lites are now finding more in common with those to their left – the traditional and secular communities – than with the hardalim to their right. This is evident in their social networks, voting patterns, and even whom they opt to date.

In addition, those who have left the religious community – the datlash, which stands for dati l’she’avar, or formerly religious – bring a religious flavor to their new secular communities, since many of them keep elements of their previous lifestyle even after taking off their kippot.

Now the far left side of the continuum – the secular side – is beginning to see some clouding of the spectrum as well. Increasing numbers of secular Israelis are engaging in ad-hoc religious experiences while keeping their secular lifestyles. They are selectively choosing religious practices that suit them – whether related to Shabbat, Halacha, rituals, learning or philosophy. In other words, sometimes they are secular, sometimes they are religious.

These are the datlaf, or dati lifamim – the “sometimes religious.”

ELISHEVA MAZYA, CEO of New Spirit (Ruah Hadasha) – a nonprofit committed to keeping young people living and working in Jerusalem – was raised on Moshav Nahalal.

“Growing up, I felt I could either be religious or secular, not both,” she recalls. “But then spending time in the US, I saw that you can actually go to synagogue and still be secular.”

Since moving to the capital, she has been studying at Kolot, a pluralistic beit midrash (Torah study institution) serving both secular and religious participants from a broad spectrum of society.

“I envy my datlash friends, because while they are secular, they have the knowledge and Jewish understanding. I want to stay secular, but to be a person who has Jewish knowledge, including talmudic knowledge. And that comes from someone who only a few years ago did not know what exactly Talmud was,” she relates.

In addition to her own learning, she has started a New Spirit initiative called Secular Community, where young seculars living in Jerusalem can learn about Judaism, attend Shabbat services with guidance and get broader exposure to Judaism.

The datlaf phenomenon is not limited to the Holy City.

Ari Gutmark, who grew up secular in Ramat Hasharon, has been taking a strong interest in Bible studies and Jewish learning for many years. Attending occasional religious seminars and lectures in Tel Aviv, he has noticed a change.

“Ten years ago, the people around me were religious or from traditional families, but in the last few years, at these lectures I notice more and more of the people who I also see in the bars, parties and cafes of Tel Aviv,” he says.

Unlike those in the traditional community – who, as the name suggests, are motivated by tradition (such as respect for their grandparents’ practices) – the datlaf’s motivation is organic. It is not a reflection of the past, but a conscious choice of behavior in the present.

Dr. Ari Engelberg of the Hebrew University’s sociology and anthropology department underscores this distinction: “The datlafim are typically seculars who are beginning to adopt selective behaviors of the religious community, with a particular focus on learning and keeping certain halachot. The traditionals have been mostly associated with religious rituals and Jewish folklore.”

Yair Sheleg, head of the religion and state program at the Israel Democracy Institute, points to two external factors that have contributed to the spiking interest in Judaism.

“Firstly, the decline of socialist influences in Israel led to a void in organic identity, and Judaism was a suitable replacement for this void,” he says. “In addition, the rise of the capitalist society led to overly materialistic behavior; people felt a need to balance that with spirituality.”

This search for Jewish content and spirituality has contributed to the evolution of a “Jewish fashion” in Israel.

It is reflected in secular attendance alongside religious participants in yeshivot and study groups; participation in Bible-reading programs such as 929, the daily study of the Bible’s 929 chapters (over 100 such groups have been created throughout the country in the last year); selective observance of halachot and rituals; involvement in Kabbala centers; and participation in holiday programs such as Shavuot evening Torah study sessions.

More broadly, it includes a change in the perception of religiosity itself.

“In the past, the image of a young religious person was influenced by Kuni Lemel [a 1970s-’80s film series about an anemic, stuttering yeshiva boy],” Engelberg comments.

“But now it is not only socially acceptable to be religious, it is a cool thing to do.”

Recalling his childhood in Jerusalem in the 1980s, Engelberg says that “being a religious kid wearing a kippa, I felt like an outcast, and at times was subjected to harassment by bullies. But today things are different, to a large extent because the bullies themselves are now wearing kippot.”

Gutmark echoes such sentiments from the secular side.

“When I grew up in the 1970s, you were either secular or religious – and if you were secular, you were typically anti-religious,” he says. “As someone who always had some interest in religion, I feel that today is a much better environment for me. Back then, my interest in Judaism was an exception. Now it seems like the norm.”

ANOTHER FACTOR contributing to the “coolness” of being religious might be the changing composition of the country’s military command.

If in the 20th century the admired commanders and war heroes were typically secular people from kibbutzim and moshavim, today there is a high number of religious heroes. The commander, as a role model, shapes much of the narrative of a 19-year-old soldier; hence, a commander with a kippa tends to contribute to the destigmatization of religious Judaism.

While much of the datlaf’s origin can be attributed to Judaism’s suddenly being in style, the datlafis also a product of “desecting” in Israeli society – a trend in which the strict delineations between sects are increasingly relaxing. The melting-pot narrative dominated the Jewish state’s early days, with a narrow definition of the homogeneous “Israeli icon” (one popular model, for instance, was Srulik, a 1950s cartoon character who has been compared to the American Uncle Sam). As a result, those groups that did not fit into the parameters of this icon became even more pronouncedly sectoral.

One such group was the national-religious.

Engelberg takes it a step further: “Zionism wanted nothing to do with religiosity – so if you were a proud Zionist, you would have a tendency to downplay your religiosity.”

Yet in an era of postmodern influences, the decline of the “party voice” and the shift to a more pluralistic and diverse Israel, an Israeli can now pick and choose a la carte from the various Israeli experiences available to him – including that of religion. He can stay secular but keep Shabbat in his own way, just like he can stay Ashkenazi and adore Mizrahi music.

Rabbi Michael Feuer – the educational director of Sulam Yaakov, a Jerusalem yeshiva offering rabbinical and leadership training – claims that the breaking down of such divisions is a reflection of consumer society.

“The individual’s agency has trumped the sector identity,” he says. “Individuals are now willing and able to access experiences that have been denied to them before, because it was in a package that was unpalatable.”

Sheleg believes this mentality is a key enabler in creating a spectrum of new Jewish frameworks that did not exist before: “The identity axis became less ideological and more existential. It is no longer a package deal; every person can craft his own religious fusion.”

Arguably, this goes hand-in-hand with a rebellion of the younger generation against the old guard. This has manifested, for example, in the summer 2011 social justice protests, and in election results over the last two decades, which have seen the rise of post-ideological parties at the expense of the large parties.

Part of this rebellion might also include a latent insurgency against idealizing secularism and suppressing religiosity.

Feuer justifies such idealization in a historical context: “There was ideological momentum that was needed in order to break away from Europe; it was critical to break away from religion. But it is very possible that we are now seeing a correction.”

Mazya is very much in tune with this observation.

“Growing up on a moshav, it felt as if the founding fathers made sure they erased not only any trace of religiosity, but even traces of Judaism itself,” she says. “I, for one, feel that I have been robbed of much of the Jewish experience. To me, Zionism must have more of a connection to Judaism in order to be relevant.”

THE EMERGENCE of the datlaf might be an expression of such a correction. It is likely also a reaction to internal post-Zionists and external delegitimization threats – both of which lead Israelis to solidify their national Jewish identity. Part of that may involve solidifying their religious identity by incorporating selective religious experiences.

But unlike in the past, the secular Israeli can incorporate such religious experiences without being perceived as becoming observant, a hozer bitshuva. Unshackled from the pressure to adhere to norms, there is no longer a need to be “religious at home and secular on the street”; now, one can openly be sometimes religious and sometimes secular.

This phenomenon can also be viewed in a global context. Arguably, the majority of secular Israelis are less like their European counterparts, and more like American religious Christians.

Unlike secular Europeans, most secular Israelis today do not reject religion, which, after all, is intertwined with their national identity.

Many of the self-identified religious Christians in America view their religion as a central part of their identity, even though some of them may not engage in the full gamut of Christian practices on a regular basis. In this sense, the so-called religious “Cafeteria Christians” are similar to the Israeli datlafim.

Feuer is not afraid of importing the “cafeteria model” to Israeli Judaism.

“Every mitzva stands on its own, even if it is accompanied by a sin,” he explains. “Every action matters. If you make kiddush and watch TV after, it does not negate the mitzva.”

He warns, however, against absurd situations that might arise from datlaf behavior (“Do I say a blessing on the bread when I eat on Tisha Be’av?”). While he believes happy relationships always have a committal component to them, he maintains that the cafeteria behavior is not limited to datlafim: “Everybody picks and chooses – some do it consciously, and some as a function of social and religious strictures. Of course, there is a much stronger consciousness in religious communities.”

That is an important distinction. Datlaf behavior is a subset of secular behavior; it is not an extension of religious-lite. A person who genuinely states that he fasts on Tisha Be’av by not having snacks between meals is not considered to be fasting, yet his statement indicates that he has some degree of consciousness regarding the Halacha to do so. The same is true of the datlaf: He cannot be considered “religious between the meals.” He is still secular, but he sometimes consumes religious experiences.

THE DATLAF trend brings with it an ancillary question of finding datlaf-friendly rabbis – or perhaps it marks an erosion of the role of rabbis. Notwithstanding that “every mitzva counts,” the concept of “sometime observance” is fundamentally contradictory to the halachic core. This is an issue that has emerged in the last two decades among the traditional and religious-lite sectors as well, given the nonexistence of traditional and religious-lite rabbis in Orthodoxy.

According to Engelberg, “the traditionals addressed this by consulting with haredi Sephardi rabbis. This was logical, since those who are traditional have historically been Sephardi. The religiouslites, on the other hand, have a more difficult time in finding their natural rabbinical home. They have tended to gravitate toward the somewhat less conservative of the Orthodox rabbis.”

What does seem clear is that secular Israelis choose to stay within the realm of Israeli Judaism with which they are familiar – Orthodoxy. They do not gravitate toward the Reform or Conservative streams, which comprise the vast majority of affiliated American Jews. They instead choose a point in the “sometimes” Orthodox continuum, as opposed to abandoning the continuum and going elsewhere.

That trend is not just limited to secular individuals who are taking an interest in Judaism, according to Sheleg, who examined this phenomenon as part of his research for his book The Jewish Renaissance in Israeli Society: The Emergence of a New Jew.

“Groups in Israel who would be natural candidates to join the Reform Movement, such as secular prayer communities and study groups, have deliberately refrained from connecting to the movement,” he says. “They want to be purely spiritual, free of any sort of institutional or political affiliation.”

There is no doubt that the range of “sometimes” observers is broad. As the datlaf trend progresses, one might see variations such as the “datlaf-lite” and “hardalaf” (sometimes haredi/nationalreligious).

The datlaf-lite might mark Shabbat by watching a TV program about the weekly Torah portion, with selective practices such as saying Kiddush or refraining from checking his emails.

For the hardalaf, religiosity would be a more central part of life. Whatever practices he chose, he would execute them with greater zeal. He might go to off-site religious seminars or join a Maimonides study group. While not wearing outwardly religious garb and choosing to stay secular, the hardalaf would have a much higher religious consciousness and maybe even view religiosity as a utopian value, a point of orientation (analogous to a vehement American Zionist who chooses to stay in the US).

Regardless of where on the “sometimes” continuum a secular Israeli chooses to park, it is becoming increasingly evident that the “never” attitude and anti-religious sentiment of the past are fading. Does this mean an end to the secular era here? Says Feuer: “There is always a pendulum in history – especially in cultures that value children forging their own paths. Modernity was about certainty, but in this postmodern era, there is no more certainty about anything. To an extent, there is the return of mystery to the world. A secular stance of certainty is just as ideological as a religious stance of certainty.”

The datlaf, meanwhile, increasingly dwells within this maze of uncertainties – gradually shaping his course in Israeli society.

The writer is chairman of the America-Israel Friendship League think tank. The views he expresses are his own and not those of the AIFL.


For more articles by Gol Kalev:

Please see follow-up article: Israel abandoning its secular roots

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