Photo Credit: Lucie March/Flash 90

Israeli society is currently entangled in a complex web of controversial issues. The core debate surrounds the future of Israeli democracy, judicial reform, and the issue of political checks and balances. This purely legal issue, however, has unleashed a racial hobgoblin from our national closet. Israel was founded, and for several decades was governed by a European Ashkenazi elite. Political power eventually shifted to the broader population, but the secular Ashkenazi establishment still enjoys significant spheres of influence in the media, the army, academia, and the judicial system. Non-Ashkenazim believe that they face soft discrimination as second-class citizens. To many, fanatical opposition to legal reform is merely an attempt by the cultural elite to consolidate its power.

Making matters worse, politics in general have become deeply polarized and we are sharply divided into left and right camps. Membership in either camp demands unconditional and unquestioning loyalty to a laundry list of values and policies. In place of independent assessment of ideological positions or of political beliefs, people lazily adopt the formulaic slogans of whatever camp they think they belong to. Often, people adopt policies merely to oppose the policies of would-be political adversaries. Personally, I avoid the terms “right” or “left” as I don’t see myself as belonging to any political camp. Political polarization is rigidifying the political landscape and obliterating hopes for consensus politics.


At the heart of the crisis, however, lies the age-old divide between religious and secular Israel. For various reasons, overwhelmingly, religious people endorse judicial reform, whereas secular Israel generally opposes it. Rising birthrates in religious communities forecast even greater political influence for the religious, further stressing secular Israel.

The resurfacing of the religious and secular divide is forcing both religious and secular Jews to reexamine their partnership.

For religious Jews, a religious lifestyle is fundamental to Jewish identity and throughout history, religious observance was a prerequisite for inclusion within our community. Not every Jew excelled at religious practice, some were more adherent than others, but all identified as religious, and, at least in theory, embraced a life of religious commitment. Even during the end of the second Temple era when splinter factions emerged, Jewish identity was still synonymous with religious commitment. Breakaway sects merely defined religious practice differently, ironically, often adopting stricter standards than mainstream Judaism. It was very simple: to be Jewish was to be religious and abdication of religious observance was tantamount to abandonment of Judaism and cause for communal disqualification.

The 19th century dramatically altered this equation, as large sects of Jews broke away from a classic halachic lifestyle, formulating alternative models of religious identity. Seeking to adapt Judaism to the modern era they greatly reduced classic halachic observance. Additionally, many Jews entirely abandoned religious identity, becoming completely secular. As Orthodox Jews, we could not sanction any significant reduction of religious commitment and we certainly could not approve of secular definitions of Judaism, completely bereft of religious observance and belief. The Jewish world splintered into multiple sub-communities, each following their own routes by establishing autonomous Jewish communities, with little interaction.

Our return to Israel recalibrated this dynamic, forcing us to reconsider our encounter with non-Orthodox Jews. We faced the harsh reality that our long-awaited return to our homeland had been spearheaded by a secular movement. Moreover, life in Israel intersected religious and secular communities requiring collaboration rather than autonomy. The luxury of separate communities, available in the Diaspora, would not work in our common homeland of Israel.

We responded in two very different manners to this unanticipated historical oddity. Many Orthodox Jews concluded that secular Zionism was proof that the state of Israel was not a divinely inspired phenomenon. Had Hashem authored this process, He would have dispatched pious religious leaders, rather than Herzl and Ben-Gurion. Perceiving that the state wasn’t divinely ordained, many religious Jews seceded from the project, refusing to view secular Israelis as partners in a larger historical mission. Obviously, every Jew is still part of long-term Jewish destiny and, additionally, every Jew is treated with love and respect, but, at a socio-political level, secular Israel has little to offer, and there is no historical partnership to speak of.

By contrast, frum Jews who do affirm the divine nature of the state of Israel must account for its secular culture and must justify their partnership with secular Israelis. Traditionally, we predicated this partnership upon two cornerstone beliefs. Firstly, every Jew possesses a primal and almost mythic commitment to the land of Israel and to Jewish peoplehood. Even if secular Israelis aren’t conscious of this innate commitment, they are still, unknowingly, engaged in a common historical arc driven by Hashem. Hashem works in mysterious ways, and He implanted this primordial national sentiment within every Jewish heart. Alongside religious Israelis, secular Israelis are unwitting agents of Hashem’s redemptive plan. Our mentalities may be different, but we are common collaborators, under the eye of Hashem.

Secondly, secular Israeli culture is founded upon lofty traits and values. Even though it may not be religious, it is still founded upon noble principles. Religious Jews can be inspired by secular Israel’s moral spirit, its commitment to social justice, its fervent patriotism, and its devoted commitment to defending our land.

These two bedrock values braced an uneasy partnership between G-d-fearing Zionists and secular Israel. For many reasons, these bedrock assumptions are no longer self-evident, and for this reason, for many, our partnership is beginning to fray.

Sadly, we are rapidly losing our common narrative. The Holocaust was a great equalizer, as it didn’t differentiate between religious and non-religious Jews. Yet, as years pass and as the number of living survivors decreases, the Holocaust is quickly slipping out of national consciousness. Additionally, the state of Israel has transitioned from a nation of survivors, desperately defending a small parcel of land, into a start-up nation a military superpower and an economic giant. Modern secular Israel is more entrepreneurial than historical. As the cultural spirit has shifted our common narrative has shriveled and it is more challenging for some to imagine secular Israel as unwitting partners in a larger historical narrative.

Furthermore, shifts in secular Israeli culture have obscured, and for some, have distorted, its moral standards. Many religious Jews lament a sharp moral decline in secular Israeli culture. For this reason, gender-related issues have become a political lightning rod. Many religious Jews, correctly or incorrectly, associate secular support or even tolerance for LGBTQ as reflective of a general decline in moral standards or in traditional family values. Unable to identify moral principles in secular Israel, many religious Jews no longer feel aligned or partnered with them.

Finally, the rising rates of “chozer b’sheilah” or religious Jews turning secular, has also deepened the rift. In earlier generations, religious Jews faced secular Israel with greater regard, unconcerned about their children walking out on religion. As the phenomenon of religious abandonment grows, secular Israel becomes more threatening, and often we defend against threats by villainizing the other or discrediting them. It is difficult for frum Jews to accredit secular culture while also upholding our own principles and educating the next generation to our religious goals.

For all these reasons. I fear that many religious Jews have completely given up on Israeli secular society, at least in the short term. We can only solve the political crisis by mending our social rift. It is obvious that our partnership needs updating. Only by better understanding the stress points can we modernize the partnership and reinforce it. Israeli society has dramatically shifted over the past few decades and the partnership must be renewed. Without updating and honestly articulating the partnership, it will fade, and we will drift further apart. I hope we do not.

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Rabbi Moshe Taragin teaches at Yeshivat Har Etzion/Gush. He has semicha and a BA in computer science from Yeshiva University, as well as a masters degree in English literature from the City University of New York.