A newly-released study shows that while Israel continues to achieve major secular advances in fields such as science and technology, agriculture and economy, the populace is more religious now than ever before.
In a study called ‘Beliefs, Observance and Values among Israeli Jews’ commissioned in 2009 by the AVI CHAI Foundation and released on January 26, the Guttman Center at the Israel Democracy Institute reported that 80 percent of Jews living in Israel believe in God, more than ever reported in the two decades the study has taken place.
In comparison with the last studies on the subject, conducted in 1991 and 1999, more Israeli Jews consider themselves religious or “ultra-Orthodox” than previously. Just 3% considered themselves “anti-religious seculars” down from 6% in 1999, with 15% calling themselves religious (up from 11%) and 7% Haredi (up from 5%), with 32% describing themselves as traditional.
Overall, members of the Sephardic community (Jews of Middle Eastern, North African and Spanish descent) had more religious respondents and fewer seculars, with former citizens of the Former Soviet Union expressing more secular sentiments and more removal from traditional practices.
Despite a large percentage of the population calling themselves secular, a whopping 72% agreed that prayer can help a person’s situation, 67% believe the Jews are God’s chosen nation, and 65% think the guidance prescribed by the Torah comes from God. Just over a third of Israelis believe failure to observe Torah commandments puts fellow Jews in danger. On the flip side, 80% believe that God rewards good deeds and 51% believe in the coming of the Messiah. An overwhelming 92% agreed that one can be a good Jew even if one is not religiously observant. Only 40% said a child of a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother could be considered Jewish.
While 61% believed that Conservative and Reform streams of Judaism should have equal recognition to Orthodoxy in Israel, less than half (48%) accept non-Orthodox conversions as sufficient for being recognized as Jewish.
The study shows that Jews typically adhere to Jewish customs, with 94% calling ritual circumcision highly important, 92% saying the same about the Jewish mourning ritual of sitting shiva, 91% agreeing bar mitzvahs are highly important, and 90% believing it is crucial to say Kaddish for deceased parents. While 80% called having a Jewish marriage with a rabbi important, 51% said Israeli should enable civil marriages without rabbinical supervision. One third of respondents said they observe the Sabbath scrupulously, though 65% said they watch television or listen to the radio on Shabbat.
As for holidays, 82% light Hanukkah candles, 68% fast on Yom Kippur, and 67% abandon leavened foods during the week long Passover holiday. Just 36%, however, hear the reading of the Book of Esther on Purim.
At home, 76% of Jews said they keep kosher, though only 63% responded that they are meticulous about separating milk and meat products. Most Israelis (72%) would never eat pork.
Research about the relationship between religion and politics was also conducted as part of the study. Most respondents (65%) said they are interested or very interested in religion’s place in the state, with even more saying they are concerned with what it means to be a Jewish state (70%). A hefty 87% said food served in public institutions should be kosher.
Eighty-five percent of self-described Hareidi Jews and 49% of religious Jews said that if they had to choose between obeying Jewish law or state law, they would choose Jewish law. An overwhelming 88% said they want to live in Israel for the long-term, with 84% calling themselves Zionists.
A huge improvement was felt in the relationship between secular and religious Jews in the recent survey. While just 29% said relations between the two were good or very good in 1991, and a paltry 17% in 1999, a sizable 43% said the groups get along well in 2009.
According to a report in Haaretz, the rise in religiosity can be attributed to the successful absorption and assimilation of immigrants from the former Soviet Union and the high birthrate among Orthodox and Hareidi citizens.
The research was conducted in face-to-face interviews with 2,803 Israeli Jews.
About the Author: Malkah Fleisher is a graduate of Cardozo Law School in New York City. She is an editor/staff writer at JewishPress.com and co-hosts a weekly Israeli FM radio show. Malkah lives with her husband and two children on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem.
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