A Partial Guide to Non-Observant Israeli Jews: Chapter One: The Traditionalist

[Previous posts: Intro]

Before I begin, I should note that the people described in this guide are largely ideal types. They are meant to convey the different attitudes towards Judaism among non-observant Jews. Most usually combine different attitudes with regard to different things.

OK, now that we have that disclaimer out of the way, let’s get down to the first type of non-observant Jew: the traditionalist. The traditionalist, much like the searcher (whom I will discuss later), is something of a frustration for people who like to put all Jews in neatly defined boxes.

The traditionalist drives to shul on Shabbat, says Kiddush and then goes to watch TV and fasts on Yom Kippur while watching their favorite movies. He or she is often familiar with religious Jewish sources on a level equal or higher to non-yeshiva educated Jews. They often attend shi’urim and learn Torah on various occasions. Many of them often have a more heightened sense of God-awareness and inner religiosity than frum Jews who just go through the motions.

Some attempts have been made recently to explain what traditionalism is in current scholarship. Personally, I think it is a “family name” that adheres by the following guidelines:

1)      Traditionalism is not a doctrine. There are few, if any clearly defined rules, and most traditionalists ‘pick and choose’ which traditions they adhere to.

2)      Traditionalism is neutral on the matter of God – one can be a traditionalist regardless of the nature of one’s belief in God (atheism, agnosticism, Orthodox or otherwise).

3)      Traditionalism is focused on observing customs and rituals (albeit selectively) that have been practiced for generations, i.e. ones which have religious significance or undertones such as Kiddush, a traditional sedder &c. Even if the acts (such as sukka-building) are not by halachic standards, the concept is still there.

Contrary to popular perception, this phenomenon is most certainly not an exclusively Mizrachi (as in Middle Eastern Jewry) one. There were many ‘traditionalist’ Jews in generations past among Ashkenazim – just read any history of Polish Jewry between the wars or of American Jews in the first half of the twentieth century. They were the Jews whom Prof. Hayim Soloveitchik spoke of in his famous essay ‘Rupture and Reconstruction‘ – the old Jews who cried in shul on Yom Kippur even though they weren’t observant. Even among the so-called ‘secular Jews’ of the Yishuv and later the State of Israel – carefully read their biographies and you’ll find that many of them kept at least some traditional customs.

Now, that caveat aside, it is nevertheless true that the phenomenon of traditionalism is far more recognized and public and possibly more prevalent among non-Ashkenazic Jewry. Why is that? In my opinion, there are two key reasons:

1)      For a variety of reasons, Middle Eastern Jewry places far more emphasis on inductive aspects of religion – experience, religiosity, family and community. While hard truths are certainly no less important, they are not the only focus. As a result, many people who go OTD do so as a matter or drift or laxity rather than a hard break. Also, it means that much of the meaning of religious experience has a greater chance of survival, since it based on personal experience rather than hard, objective analysis.

2)      More importantly, most families (and many Rabbis) in that cultural milieu do not share the “my way or the highway” attitude of Ashkenazim whereby you are either frum or nothing. Rather, both families and shuls have an “open door” policy that lets non-observant Jews attend meals and ceremonies without looking askance at them.

So that’s the traditionalist Jew. Next week we’ll discuss its kissing cousin: the cultural Jew.

Shabbat Shalom



Hi, my name is Avi Woolf. I'm an American-Israeli MO Jew living in Israel. I have a background in Israeli (as in Land of Israel) and Jewish History and an insatiable need for knowledge. I also have professional experience as an editor, translator and indexer. Enjoy the ride! If you are interested in using my services or just want to drop me a line, contact me at: opdycke1861NOSPAM@yahoo.com
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12 Responses to A Partial Guide to Non-Observant Israeli Jews: Chapter One: The Traditionalist

  1. Pingback: Non-Observant Israeli Jews « Menachem Mendel

  2. I am looking forward to this interesting series. You might find Meir Buzaglo’s lecture interesting.

  3. Shlomo says:

    3) Middle Eastern Jews have been exposed to modernity for less time. As you say, 50-100 years ago there were many traditionalist Ashkenazi Jews. Now, not so much.

    This implies that the phenomenon may not last.

    • AIWAC says:


      This is a good observation. However, there are quite a few forces that are keeping this phenomenon alive and strengthening it (the relative cohesion of the Mizrachi family, the legitimacy and popularity of Mizrachi forms of religious expression such as piyut &c).

      In any case, the purpose of this guide is to provide a social snapshot, not a prognosis.

      Kol Tuv

      Avi AKA AIWAC

      • Shlomo says:

        Another factor, a variation of 1):
        For many Mizrahim religious expression is an expression of cultural identity and pride. They are proud to be Jewish, unlike many people of any religion in the Western world who are on some level embarrassed by association with their culture and heritage. In my experience, even the Mizrachi bums who stand around on street corners smoking will indicate their respect for rabbis like R’ Ovadyah Yosef, not because either the rabbi or the bum values the other’s lifestyle, but because the rabbi is a figurehead for Jewish identity. Another good example is Beitar Yerushalayim fans, who use religious imagery, but are best known for their intolerance towards non-Jews and particularly Arabs.

        Re “personal experience rather than hard, objective analysis” – Perhaps the purest form of the “objective analysis” camp is Aish Hatorah, who using methods like Bible Codes intend to prove that the Torah is Divine, and thus induce people to follow it. I’d point out that there is nothing specifically Jewish about that approach: If Aish’s proofs of the Torah are valid, they should equally convince non-Jews to follow the commandments God has given to “bnei Noach”. Whereas the factors promoting Judaism among Mizrahim do tend to be relevant only to people of a certain background. They are not necessarily “emotional” instead of “logical”, but even the logical approaches rest on postulates and data that are not universally valid/relevant.

      • AIWAC says:


        That is a very good point. We Ashkenazi frummer yidden would do well to learn some “Jewish pride” ourselves instead of constantly apologizing for believing in God and His Torah.


  4. fred says:

    im with shlomo. you do discuss some of the history of this type of jew, and you neglect the effects of the cultural riptide of modernity, something which the sefardic world really did not experience in any way remotely similar to ashkenazim.
    at this point, traditionalism has kind of hit its stride, and seems to a permanent part of the landscape. probably for the better.
    also, i doubt searchers or hafifniks rate being traditionalists, either because traditionalism implies, per, haym solo, a certain amount of instinct, gut, lack of self-awareness of observance [this rules out searchers] and if you drive on shabbat, guess what, you are not a hafifnik-religious.

  5. Tyson says:

    I know the focus is on Israeli Jews, but want to add that in much of the diaspora, many Ashkenazi Jews fit into the traditionalist mold.

    Look at South Africa, Australia, or much of continental Europe, and one can find many an orthodox synagogue where the majority of Ashkenazi (along with the non-Ashkenazi) congregants drive there to attend shabbat services. Some of these people may not be ‘traditionalists’ but I would most certainly defend that many of them are, and with them ashkenazi traditionalism is alive and well in diaspora communities.

  6. Pingback: A Partial Guide to Non-Observant Israeli Jews: Part Two: The Cultural Jew | QED

  7. Pingback: A Sober Assessment of Conversion in Israel | QED

  8. Pingback: A Partial Guide to Non-Observant Israeli Jews: Epilogue and Select Bibliography | QED

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