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New Book: Between State and Synagogue


In Moment Guy Ben-Porat writes about his new book, Between State and Synagogue: The Secularization of Contemporary Israel. Ben-Porat discusses secularization in Israel not as reflective of less religion, but of the weakening of religious authority.

The expansion of commerce on the Sabbath, a thriving non-kosher culinary culture, marriages performed outside the Orthodox rabbinate, civil burials and even an annual lively gay pride parade, all relatively new developments, allude that religious hold on public and private life may be changing. What is unique about these developments, and explains why they remained under the radars of social scientists is, first, the fact they are not necessarily related to a secular ideology; second, they occur alongside a religious resurgence and, third, they advance outside of formal political processes. These developments in aggregate fall far short of religious freedom or a liberal order, but since the early 1990s secular Israelis have gained new freedoms and choices that defy religious authority.


Secularization of the past decades took off without being wedded to a liberal ideology or a secular identity and by entrepreneurs and individuals whose goals were often concrete and practical. New secularized spaces were not the result of struggles but rather of the ability to take advantage of loopholes and circumvent rather than confront existing institutional arrangements. In these new comfort zones, secularized spaces, Israelis had new choices regarding significant rituals and everyday practices of shopping and leisure. This de-politicized secularization is unlikely to usher neither a secular nor a liberal Israel. Religion, especially in the current political atmosphere, will continue to serve an indispensable role in consolidating and demarcating national boundaries, guaranteeing secular ambivalence.

New comfort zones provide secular and non-religious Israelis, especially of the middle class and in the Tel Aviv area, freedoms for religious authority so they can live much of their life (and even beyond), if they choose to, free of religious interference. Ironically, these processes seem to provide the political protection to sustain the status quo and the Orthodox monopoly as struggles against religious authority are jettisoned for the purchase of an alternative, a private cemetery or a wedding abroad. Women are still discriminated by the religious establishment, especially in divorce processes that must take place in the rabbinate, regardless where the marriage took place. Separation (or segregation) of men and women continues in different places and last week women were arrested for wearing a tallit at the Western Wall. Israel, is far from liberal when measured in discrimination against its Arab citizens and in public attitudes towards “others.” A liberal and tolerant Israel would require a committed secular public ready to affirm its Jewish identity, inclusive to Jewish and non-Jewish citizens and ready to step out of the comfort zones established in past two decades.

One Response to “New Book: Between State and Synagogue”

  1. 1
    Jeffrey R. Woolf:

    This is WAY off the mark. There may be a new mode of Jewish self-image under creation, but the most profound issue is the massive Jewish renaissance the country is undergoing. The issues noted are all about the decline of the religious establishment. They have nothing, absolutely nothing to do with the deeper trends in Israeli life, some of which have been described in Yair Sheleg’s new book.




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