When I say non-observant I mean Jews who have crossed the universally agreed-upon Orthodox ‘cut-off’ points (not holding to Shabbat, Kashrut, the 13 ikarim) and cease to follow minimal halachic instruction on a regular basis. I use this term because it is more inclusive and it is meant to convey the complexity of the non-Orthodox public in Israel.
Contrary to stereotype, the non-observant population is quite varied in beliefs and attitudes towards observance of Jewish custom and ritual. Only a part of this population comes close to the left-wing, anti-religious (and anti-Jewish), atheist and completely non-observant straw-man that RWs like to knock down and some far LWs like to admire. Hence this guide, which is meant to provide a window into the world of the majority Jewish population in Israel.
First, some ground work:
A Jew can be non-observant in two ways: become non-observant, or OTD, or be born to a non-observant family. There are various reasons – emotional, intellectual and social – for Jews to leave observance. For some, it comes as a result of a hard break – an intellectual crisis, an emotional breakdown or a suffocating social atmosphere. For many others, the process is more gradual – more a slow drift rather than a sudden earthquake.
Just as the causes are varied, so are the results. Jews who go OTD can end up anywhere on the scale, from traditional to cultural to civilian (all terms that will be explained in later posts). A lot of it depends on the severity and nature of the break, the attitude of the community and family as well as the social group the non-observant Jew joins after leaving the fold. Most of all, it depends on whether or not the OTD Jew retains any emotional or intellectual attachments to his or her Jewish identity.
The second option, being born into a non-observant family, also has different shades. There is a sliding scale regarding the nature and intensity of non-observance: by default and by design, with most being somewhere in the middle. Non-observance by design was far more prevalent in past generations, especially among the highly ideological secular groups (think Hashomer Hatza’ir, various socialist youth groups). The first generation of such was composed of people who grew in (to varying degrees) religious homes and became non-observant once they grew up. This generation, especially in Kibbutzim and among the more ideology minded, created an entire alternative ‘secular Jewish culture’ as a counterpoint to religion, even using religious language to drive home the point (‘redeeming the land’ being an obvious example). This generation and those who sympathized with them, saw to it that their children receive a thoroughly secular education free from religious interference.
Fast forward about 2-3 generations. Yaacov Chazan, a leader of the militantly secular MAPAM (which thought MAPAI wasn’t socialist enough, don’t ask) expressed the following complaint about the secular youth: “we wanted to raise a generation of apikorsim, and we got a generation of am-aratzim“. This quote is often used triumphantly in religious circles as showing the bankruptcy of the idea of Judaism without religion. Crowing aside, it did point to a real problem, one which has not really been resolved to this day – how to ensure that secular Jews know of their heritage in a meaningful way without involving religion. Education Ministers of Israel have tried to cut that Gordian Knot for decades with limited success.
In the meantime, more and more secular Jews are secular simply because they are born into secular families and communities. They are, as Menahem Friedman has said on numerous occasions, secular by default. Unlike their forbearers, much of this generation feels no need to engage in theological or any other kind of debates with religious Jews or prove the validity of their lifestyle and world-view. Much like many people who are ‘socially Orthodox’, this is who they are, no extra confirmation needed. As long as everyone leaves each other alone (‘live and let live’), they could care less.
So there you have it: these are the non-observant Jews. What types of non-observant Jews are there? More on that in upcoming chapters.
NEXT: Chapter One: The Traditionalist