Judaism Without Labels

Officially, Jews come in five flavors of religiosity. Unofficially, categories are more numerous than stars in the sky

Every year before Yom Kippur, the Central Bureau of Statistics publishes its "religion survey," and as usual last week, the press focused on three figures only, the number of Israelis planning to fast this year, the slow continuing rise in the number of those describing themselves as "Haredi" and the decline in self-professed "secular" Israelis.

But hidden within the statistics were some other interesting facts that while not totally contradicting the trend towards religiosity, certainly puts it in another light. According to the figures culled from the CBS annual Social Survey for 2009, 21 percent of Jewish Israelis say that they are more religious now than they were in the past. But at the same time, 14 percent report that they are less religious. So if it shows anything, it proves that religious mobility goes both ways.

Another interesting point is that only 5.4 percent of Israelis regard themselves as baalei teshuva, or returnees to the religious fold, which means that only one out of four Israelis who feel they have become more religious actually think they have made a complete "return."

But the most intriguing detail in the new report wasn't a statistic, but a new category.

When asked to define their level of religion, the CBS questionnaire offered them no less than five categories. They could choose from secular (hiloni ), Haredi, national-religious or modern Orthodox (dati ) and sandwiched in between, instead of the previous traditional (masorti ), were two new categories: traditional religious (masorti dati ) and traditional not so religious (masorti lo kal kach dati ).

I'm not sure why the guys at the CBS felt this year that they had to split the masorti category into two, but there is definitely a trend here, and it's not just methodological.

So now there are five and I am old enough to remember when the statisticians added that fourth category over a decade ago, finally recognizing that large group who prefer to embrace tradition on their own terms.

And if you look back at the accepted parlance of the early days of the state, there were only two categories then. The majority called themselves "free" (hofshiim ) and they called the religious minority "rigid" (akudim ).

It's official, we come in five different flavors and don't mix them up. But here's where it does get mixed up. There is no standard whatsoever that you comply with in order to belong to one of the categories. The survey is based simply on how the respondents chose to describe themselves.

Defining secularism

So how secular are secular Israelis? It seems that very few of them are total secularists, since to another question in the survey, "To what degree do you observe Jewish tradition?" - Only 14 percent of secular Israelis answered "none at all" and 29 percent answered to a "large" or a "very large" degree.

At the other end of the scale, 89 percent of Haredim answered "to a very large degree" but you have got to ask yourself, what kind of a Haredi is not totally religious?

You have by now probably reached the same conclusion I have, that all this business of labeling a person's religious persuasion is a mug's game. I don't have a survey to back me up on this but there are growing numbers of Israelis who simply will not be tied down to one category and in recent months it seems almost as if I have been meeting people like this every day.

Heretics, nomads and refugees from the category of their birth, after trying life out in a different group, or sometimes two or three, they are comfortable in a life where they define their relationship with religion for themselves.

In many cases, they made the journey both ways. Some repented and accepted mitzvoth, others shed all that away, but after a period of euphoria on the other side, became disillusioned and the pendulum swung back somewhat.

In other cases, marriage between members of two different categories, a widening phenomenon, created a new status quo, especially when children came along. Three years ago, I tried to compile for a magazine story a glossary of all the new Israeli religious brands and strands and reached 20, today I could easily get to twice that number.

Diehards on both ends of the spectrum are dismissive of "pick and choose" Judaism but they are already losing the fight. The leaders of the Haskala movement and then Reform Judaism as well as David Ben-Gurion and his secular Zionist colleagues all believed that religious Jews were destined to become an archaic and dying breed.

At the same time, the rabbis have long promised their followers that secular Jews are a transient group, who will ultimately either assimilate or repent. Not only are both sides rapidly being proved wrong, but any exclusivist interpretation of Judaism is also increasingly irrelevant.

There's something about this labeling which is peculiar to Israelis. For many Jews who have lived all their lives abroad, things come much more naturally. While there are Orthodox communities all over the world, there is much less of a clear secular identity outside Israel.

A Jew in America or Britain who does not keep Shabbat or kosher nonetheless feels a lot less weird about attending a synagogue or other religious events occasionally. Parents feel no need to apologize for educating their children in a Jewish, usually nominally Orthodox school if that is their choice.

Belonging to a clearly defined minority in a wider non-Jewish society, they seem to have a better adjusted to the idea of deciding their own personal relationship with religion. In recent years, I have heard a number of Israelis, struggling with their own religious angst, express envy at their cousins of the Diaspora.

That Israeli unease though seems finally to be receding. In today's Week's End section, I have a feature on the Ein Prat Academy's program for post-army men and women. The academy's founder, Dr. Micah Goodman (disclosure - we have been friends since childhood ) and his staff have succeeded in building an environment which combines the fervor of a yeshiva with the skepticism and objectivity of academia.

The students immerse themselves for 13 or 14 hours a day in the great texts of Judaism and the Western canon; the Bible, the Talmud, Greek philosophers, Maimonides, Shakespeare, Spinoza, Freud, Kant, the early Zionist thinkers, Rabbi Kook together with a smattering of New Testament and Koran and a whole lot of others.

Most of the students are from secular backgrounds and have no interest in becoming religious, but they traveled to India and Central America after the army and came back wanting to understand a bit more about the place they came from.

For the many religious students, it's about trying to form a more individual outlook, one not prescribed for them by rabbis and parents. The fact that in its five years of existence the program has grown ten-fold and they are turning away twice the number they can accept proves there is a generation who want to be Jews without labels.