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5 Perplexing Things About ‘Secular Orthodoxy’

The arrival of Passover brings about the need to outline the guiding principles of what was – and may still be – the largest Jewish denomination in Israel: orthodox secularism.

This comes in spite of the fact that over the years this denomination hasn’t bothered others (and for the most part not even its own) with its Jewish laws and worldviews, because it considered them self-evident to any secular Israeli. This community hasn’t created a formal doctrine or Shulhan Arukh (a 16th century codification of Jewish law that is the traditional source for Jewish religious practice).

Today, the dual challenges facing orthodox secularism – a strengthening traditionalism on the one side; a Jewish revival on the other – are forcing it to do something it has no desire to do, especially with the crowds, humidity and general sense of Passover unease: explain itself.

Not everyone understands why secular people insist on circumcision and a bar mitzvah ceremony without believing in God; why they accept shopping malls closing on Shabbat but make a fuss every time a Chabadnik tried to convince them to lay tefillin at the entrance to one; why they read the Haggadah but fill the freezer with rolls and pita bread. In light of demographic and cultural changes, what used to be intuitive is now beginning to look like a series of internal contradictions. So what is the place of religion in the Israeli secular narrative?

1) Judaism as nationalism

If you ask an orthodox secular person how his Judaism is expressed or how an atheist like him is even a Jew, he will be surprised. For him, a devoutly religious person who observes all the laws is no more Jewish than a complete heretic who has never observed a single commandment – and perhaps the opposite, too.

That is because Judaism – or more precisely, Jewishness – in the modern sense is no longer a religion but a nationality, like being French, Swedish or American.

This drastic surgery from religion to nationality, which changed the foundation of Jewish identity, was gradually completed by the Haskalah, or Jewish Enlightenment, in the cultural sense, and Zionism in the political-diplomatic sense. The operation was a success, and now there is almost no need for religious elements: Not for commandments, customs, ceremonies or beliefs, and not for constructing a total Jewish identity. On the contrary, religious elements are likely to weaken nationalism since they cast doubt on its independent validity.

It sounds paradoxical, but according to this system, when someone doesn’t fast on Yom Kippur or remove chametz from his home, he doesn’t lose his Jewishness. It’s just the opposite: He shows that it’s possible to be a Jew even without the crutches of religion and demonstrates self-confidence in his Jewishness. The Jewish religion doesn’t disappear. It continues to exist alongside Jewish nationalism and retains a certain functional role even in the secular world (see below) but has been pushed aside as the source of authority and significance of the Jewish experience. Nor is it any longer necessary for guaranteeing the survival and continuation of the Jewish people, because sovereign life in the State of Israel does a better job of guaranteeing the physical and cultural future of the Jewish collective.

2) Nationalism as politics

For orthodox secular people, the consolidation of Jewish nationalism through Zionism is the crowning glory of modern Jewish history. Nationalism finally united the dispersed, isolated and weak Jewish individuals and communities into a nation – in other words, into a political unit which developed into a sophisticated society in Israel. Political survival is the height of collective human survival, including that of the Jewish collective, because it allow for the highest level of solidarity, the greatest degree of independence (along with responsibility) and the best social structure.

This structure is not founded on benevolence and charity – the voluntary interactions in the traditional Jewish community – but on a democratic-contractual mechanism of a binding partnership among citizens. Nationalism defined and established the realm of solidarity and spelled out the rights and duties of members of the national family. For the first time in Jewish history, the new framework could serve as a permanent and stable address domestically, and a legitimate diplomatic actor internationally. In answer to the question “What is Judaism,” an orthodox secular person will first of all reply: the framework of my political commitment.

3) The political role of Judaism

Secularism does not deny the duality between religion and nationality that has long existed in the definition of Judaism, that has been unique to the Jewish people since the divine revelation at Mount Sinai and that created a mingling between the two aspects of their identity. Even when the emphasis has switched to nationality at the expense of religion in the modern definition of Jewishness, when God and the halakha have been ousted in favor of the vision of nationalist-secular-Western normalcy, elements of religion are clearly still an integral part of the national ethos.

Religion is still a certain part of the platform that feeds nationalism, as is true in other nations. It is neither possible or necessary to find a substitute for every religious component, especially when the substitute is liable to erode the Jewish political-national dimension. The attitude toward religion must be practical. It must preserve what strengthens the political aspect and remove the rest while ascertaining that religion is aware of its limited place and remains under control.

4) The public and the private

This is the rule: If it’s public, preserve the necessary minimum. If it’s private, omit it. Anything related to public behavior and the connection between the individual and the group is important. Anything related to the intentions, beliefs and personal integrity of the individual should be omitted, because these matters have been transferred from the sphere of religion to that of nationalism. In short, the outer packaging belongs to religion and the content belongs to secularism.

That is the essence of the famous status-quo compromise of Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, and the religious community: The official public space, from restaurants to Shabbat, will be conducted according to tradition, as will personal status and conversion laws, as long as there is no official government alternative. The country itself, on the other hand, will be administered for all intents and purposes as a secular state, and the education of the majority will be secular. It wasn’t a perfect compromise, but the logic of the system of secularism was clear: The secular community would encounter religion only a few times in their lives: when they are born, marry, divorce and are buried. The rest of the time, they would be exempt from it. The inspirational and exciting part of life in Israel – the Zionist, pioneering and cultural content – would be concentrated in the hands of the secular community.

Israel’s orthodox secular community thereby agreed that the entry gate to the Jewish people would remain halakhic conversion. There was no option: they conduct circumcisions and traditional bar/bat mitzvah ceremonies for their children; marry for the most part through the Chief Rabbinate; and are buried in a religious ceremony. They gather for the seder, respect the prohibition against travel on Yom Kippur, accept the fact that the food in the army and hospitals will be kosher, and that Shabbat is the day of rest.

How come? Because the common denominator in all this is that they belong in the public sphere, and therefore the political and essential dimensions of Jewish life. They enable the coexistence of a shared, rather than divided, community of religious and secular people, and reinforce social life itself. For these values, the secular community was willing to sacrifice part of its personal expression and to suspend part of its criticism. It understood that complete freedom on these private matters would dilute the social glue and would thus empower religion, which flourishes when nationalism is weakened. Unlimited freedom would spell the end of secularism, and therefore the end of freedom.

On the other hand, everything relating to the personal and spiritual aspect of Jewish survival – eating matza on Passover; refraining from eating pork and seafood; fasting on Yom Kippur; observing the Sabbath; reading Psalms … these are of no significance for secular people. These are commandments between man and God. And many secular people believe there is no point to them because for them there is no God; there is no value to the individual’s gestures and discourse with the “higher power” or “the great truth of the universe”; and that these commandments make no contribution to the political aspect of the Jewish people. The orthodox secular community suspects these are compulsive rituals of people who are unsure of their identity.

5) Intention vs. action

The debate between secularism and Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism is reflected here. Reform and Reconstructionism, under the influence of Protestantism, offer a Judaism that converts the idea of the precedence of actions and halakha (which is public in essence), guided by the idea of intention and personal meaning, which focuses on the spiritual and ritualistic experience of the individual believer. These denominations send the Jew to find the beauty and meaning in his life with the help of Judaism, and to choose the religious menu that works for him.

Even if these directions are similar to secularism when it comes to the liberal lifestyle, they present two dangers. One is the privatization of the meaning of Judaism from the public domain to that of the individual and his consciousness, usually in the form of New Age and kitsch, and therefore leads to the depoliticizing of Judaism. The second is the introduction of religious elements, even if in progressive garb, into the layer of content of Jewishness. Only through the efforts of generations was religion cast off from it thanks to the nationalist revolution – and not only outwardly. This way, Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism endanger the tremendous achievement of severing Jewish identity from religion, the rift that gave rise to secular Israel and thanks to which it succeeded, and create a slippery slope that ultimately will lead to the domination of religion over nationalism.

So what does the orthodox secular person do on Passover? He suffers. But with love. He is not attracted to alternative Haggadot about the occupation, international brotherhood and feminism, because he doesn’t accept the status of the Haggadah and the existential importance of religious ceremonies for secular people – except for their linguistic and historical value. He is not interested in renewing tradition, because what is of personal significance to him are secular texts and the secular world.

On the other hand, he will never miss a seder – because of its public function, linking him to Jews from Nahariya to Colorado – and he will tolerate the Haggadah, while hinting to whoever necessary, by banging a foot under the table, that the time has come to serve the gefilte fish. That is the quiet heroism of the secular person, and that is the real beauty of the holiday: the logic of monotony.


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