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The Formulation of Contemporary Tradition

Jewish Renewal in Israel’s secular sector can give positive meaning to what it means for them to be Jewish
Dr. Naama Azulai, a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute, received her PhD in Sociology and Anthropology in 2010 from Bar-Ilan University, where she completed her studies with distinction.  Her research deals with the religious renaissance within the secular population in Israel, examining its historical, social, and identical aspects. Dr. Azulai has published articles on the new Jewish revival social movement, which is forming among communal groups of young secular people in Israel. Her


A recent weekend for university students in northern Israel devoted to dialogue between religious and nonreligious Jews concluded with a study session led by Bini Talmi, Dean of Oranim and the head of Kehilat Nigun HaLev, a nonreligious Jewish prayer house.

Bini, who is one of the leaders of the Jewish Renewal Movement in Israel, explained that the Bible belonged to him, a nonreligious Jew, as much as it belonged to any traditional Orthodox Biblical commentator. He described that week’s Torah portion, Tazria-Metzora (Leviticus 12-15) – blood-drenched tales of death and destruction – as “dead Torah portions” that have no meaning for him.

He did, however, note that the Torah portion often falls between Holocaust Memorial Day and the observance, one week later, of Israel’s Memorial Day and Independence Day. He described this period as “between the straits,” alluding to the period of mourning that traditional Jews observe between the Fast of Tammuz and Tisha B’Av, which commemorate the destruction of the Temple. When he spoke, some of the people in the audience moved uncomfortably in their chairs.

It was a reminder that some Orthodox (and also non-Orthodox) Jews react critically to modern Biblical commentary – reactions based more on the identity of the innovator than on the innovations themselves. There continues to be a religious hegemony in Israel that engenders a perception that only the Orthodox establishment should offer religious interpretations and determine religious ritual. 

The nature of today’s Jewish-Israeli religiosity has been shaped by a dichotomy that emerged long ago between Israel’s religious and nonreligious populations. The polar identities of secular and religious Jews created a discourse with distinctive social terms – for example, rational vs. irrational, or progressive/modern vs. traditional.

The increased strength of Israeli Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox political parties over the years, and the attempts made by these parties to assert their forms of Judaism in control over state practices, further intensified the binary nature of these categories. In this milieu, those seeking to establish religious identities not based on Orthodox Judaism were often viewed as deviants. 

Over the years, confrontation with the Orthodox establishment has made many Israelis antagonistic toward any activity or practice related to traditional Judaism. This situation is being challenged by the Jewish Renewal Movement in Israel’s secular sector. 

Leaders and members of this movement challenge the dichotomous view that one has to be either religious or secular – and, more specifically, that only religious Jews can be the proprietors of traditional Jewish texts and Jewish culture. The movement’s members are attempting to change the discourse around which secular Judaism is perceived as an inherent contradiction by those who define Judaism exclusively in religious terms, or, alternatively, by those who view Israel as a post-secular society.

They are trying to bring Judaism back to the masses by creating a multifaceted Jewish identity for secular society that is based on Israeli culture as well as on traditional Jewish sources, and to do it in a positive and unapologetic manner. The hope is that this will help nonreligious Israeli Jews become more engaged with their Jewish heritage. 

Jewish Renewal in Israel encompasses two processes. One is the renewal of the connection between secular Jews and their Jewish heritage, tradition, culture and sources. The second is an ongoing process of renewal in which innovation and tradition are combined in order to produce a meaningful Jewish life for Israeli Jews who live in a modern, egalitarian and democratic society. 

Participants in the movement feel that their approach to Jewish texts, symbols and values as an integral part of their cultural heritage does not contradict their identification with the Israeli secular sector. Indeed, there are now increasing numbers of secular Jews who regularly study Talmud and other Jewish sources in secular frameworks.

They analyze Jewish canonical texts by reading traditional commentaries but then examine the texts from personal perspectives to explore what they mean to them. There is also a small but growing number of secular Jews who congregate regularly in what are commonly called secular prayer communities or who perform Jewish life rituals and ceremonies. 

All these activities include conscious attempts to incorporate traditional elements with modern Israeli cultural sources and symbols. They enable the movement to manifest an identity that imbues Jewish tradition with an Israeli character. For Jewish activists, these two realms become bound up in a single sphere. Tradition is not discarded; rather, it is used as a platform upon which a flexible construction of Jewish expressions and involvement can be built. The integration and merging of Jewish and Israeli cultures helps facilitate acceptance of practices that might otherwise be rejected out of hand.

Contemporary sources give new meaning to tradition and make it relevant for those who have had little personal involvement with Judaism. The importance participants place on these practices becomes even more resonant when they engage in rituals not formally recognized by the state (such as wedding ceremonies). 

The movement’s confrontation with Israel’s Orthodox hegemony aims to change the rules of the game in the religious arena. In order to succeed in this struggle, leaders of the movement have sought allies from among other heterodox actors within the arena of Jewish identity – mainly the moderate Orthodox and the liberal movements.

At the same time, the Israeli Jewish Renewal Movement has tried to establish a degree of inner solidarity by differentiating itself from any other agents of Jewish renewal. This situation has led to an unresolved conflict in which the various groups and organizations are seeking to cooperate in a common movement with shared goals and aspirations while also retaining their independence from one another. 

The strength of the new discourse offered by the Jewish Renewal Movement in Israel derives from the alternative it offers to Israeli polarity on issues of religion and secularization. Even though its impact is still limited, the movement offers an existential home for communities viewed in the past as illegitimate and inauthentic.

The movement carries the seeds for the growth of a multi-dimensional society that would incorporate a multicultural approach to the complexity of contemporary existence in the Jewish state. While the Orthodox establishment will continue to negate alternative forms of Judaism, the Jewish Renewal Movement in Israel can assist nonreligious Jews alienated from Israel’s Orthodox hegemony in giving a positive meaning to what it means for them to be Jewish.

Naama Azulai , Ph.D., is a research fellow at the Institute’s Kogod Research Center for Contemporary Jewish Thought.

Ephraim Tabory, Ph.D., is Chair of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Bar Ilan University. 

This article is reprinted with permission from the Summer 2012 (Volume 14, Number 3) issue of CONTACT, a publication of The Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life." Click here for more information about Hartman Institute contributions to CONTACT.

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