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Is the Orthodox version of Judaism souring Israelis on religion?

A morning prayer at a synagogue in Tzfat in northern Israel, Nov. 14, 2022. (Photo: David Cohen/Flash90)

Stories of faith are usually very inspiring because they almost always include elements of mercy, miraculous events that can only be attributed to divine intervention and, most of all, they provide us with much-needed hope when all other avenues have failed.

But, as we all know, matters of faith can also have a huge downside and toxicity, evoking the worst in people, especially when they feel compelled to comply or looked upon with disdain for not being pious enough. That is probably why the topic of religion is right up there with politics, as the subject to avoid, when trying to prevent arguments.

In Israel, the issue of religion is one which is not easy to navigate since there are so many different expressions of it that are present in the country. Yet, everyone knows that the one expression of faith, that dominates Israel, is Orthodox Judaism. That is because it has the most adherents, and it is also symbiotically connected to political and social power. Regrettably, it is that tethered relationship that permeates so much of what goes on in the country – everything from the passage of laws to the question of who is a Jew, who is permitted to be married in the country and by whom.  

And yet, it hasn’t been all that intrusive into the lives of most Israelis until now. The moment that a fully Orthodox coalition took control of the government, accompanied by the heavy-handed spirit of religiosity, with its many rules and obligations, Israelis have reacted with anger and great displeasure. Oddly enough, it is not because they have a disdain for tradition, Jewish holiday observance or the rich legacy of our scriptures. Those are all elements that are very revered and appreciated by most Israelis.

In this case, it is the sense of being told, by their government, how they will be permitted to live and conduct business. That is what most Israeli citizens feel - that a group of ultra-Orthodox religious parties are now in a position to force their religious convictions on the rest of us who think otherwise.

In his recent article entitled, “Alienating Israelis from Judaism,” Daniel Goldman, founder of The Institute for Jewish and Zionist Research, asks the question of whether or not the policies that are being implemented are responsible for “pushing people away from their Judaism, even within the religious community?”

Goldman points to what he terms, “a mini-coalition” within the government coalition, comprised of three parties, the Religious Zionist Party, with Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, the Otzma Yehudit party, with National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir and the Noam party, with Deputy Minister Avi Maoz. Goldman says that while they purport to represent a wide majority, the reality on the ground may belie that claim, because, as he puts it, “large parts of the population see it as a religious minority shoving its Jewish values down their throats.”

It is this type of aggressive policy which he believes is having a negative effect on Israelis, causing them to be alienated by “coercive policies on religion and state.”

This cause-and-effect phenomenon should not be ignored, because it is all too reminiscent of excessively strict parents whose smothering and overly sheltering tendencies, toward their children, push them the other way, once they’re old enough to sneak out and do things behind their parents’ backs. In the end, kids, who have a need for a reasonable amount of freedom, rebel and often reject the values which their parents hoped to pass on to them. The irony is that a more moderate style of parenting might have served their intended goals if they had only utilized a less heavy-handed approach. This is no different!

Most of us do not have a problem with religious people, who come to the mall on Fridays to hand out free packets of candles, in the hope that we will, indeed, light them, because the choice is left to us. 

It’s entirely another matter, however, to legislate laws which will take away our choices and force us to comply with what many believe to be a heavy-handed set of rules that don’t represent their values or personal convictions. That is where souring the public on religion begins.

Studies on this matter, conducted by The Institute for Jewish and Zionist Research reveal that “the government is actually alienating the population from its Jewish identity, showing that “large parts of the religious and certainly traditional population are against religious coercion.”

This “coercion” has been felt in the education system, the move to grant more power to Rabbinic courts, the expansion of Rabbinic influence throughout municipalities, Shabbat policy and, most recently, the castigation of female young people who were accused of not being properly attired as they sought to take public transportation. All of these practices fall in the category of heavy-handedness, designed to shame and reprimand a public which, in the minds of the ultra-Orthodox, are seen as “bad Jews.”

When religion is used as a weapon to minimize or humiliate others, it becomes the worst and most cynical use of faith. Sadly, history is filled with intolerance, rejection and narrow-mindedness of those who looked upon the “unbelievers” of their faith as reprobates who deserved death. No one can internalize that more than the Jews who suffered this type of persecution at the hands of many revered and prominent social, religious and political leaders of their day. Jews were thrown from pillar to post, always relegated to the role of outcasts and labeled with the worst epithets imaginable.

Given this backdrop of our often-harsh journey, as a people, why would anyone in our tribe think that the best version of Judaism is displayed by forcing others to adopt their way of life? Because, unless it emanates from a deeply held conviction, which is inspiring to onlookers, who witness an attractive inner spirit, people just aren’t buying.  

Genuine faith is dependent upon a personal encounter with God. It is a sense that their cries have been heard and that hope is there for the taking. That kind of confidence cannot be compelled by force, and people know the difference. 

Authentic Jewish faith must be tolerant and embracing of those who are searching for the real thing. It must not vilify or shame people whose voyage to the Creator is still in progress, because to do so is to detour their route and possibly cause them to renavigate their journey in favor of another destination.  

A nation that aspires to reflect Jewish character must first display the same compassion, mercy and generosity of spirit that our Heavenly Father has in great supply. When we finally exhibit that type of regard towards our fellow man, from a place of personal choice rather than force, coercion will then be replaced by true, heartfelt conduct which never sours anyone!  

Read more: JUDAISM

A former Jerusalem elementary and middle-school principal and the granddaughter of European Jews who arrived in the US before the Holocaust. Making Aliyah in 1993, she is retired and now lives in the center of the country with her husband.

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