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Israel Studies 10.1 (2005) 157-187

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Orthodox Jewry in Israel and in North American

This article is dedicated to the blessed memory of Professor Yeshayahu (Charles) Liebman, a dear friend, a committed Jew and a great scholar.

In comparing Orthodox Judaism in Israel and in the American Diaspora, it should be kept in mind that Orthodox Jews in America and other contemporary Diaspora communities in the Western World have much in common.* Therefore, many of the conclusions of this article are also valid with regard to Diaspora Jewish communities in Western Europe and countries like Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

The term "Orthodoxy" was created in Central Europe in the beginning of the 19th century. It was used to distinguish between those Jews who kept their commitment to the Jewish religious tradition, and Jews, like the Reform or Conservatives, who sought to make pronounced changes in religious tradition in response to the far-reaching changes in Jewish life in the wake of the emancipation of European Jewry.

It is significant to note that the very term "Orthodox Judaism," which is so accepted among most Western Diaspora Jews, is not commonly used in Israel. Its place is taken by the far more prevalent term "religious Judaism." The difference between these two terms is more than merely semantic. It reflects important differences in the social and political conditions of Israel and the Diaspora. In contemporary Western countries, particularly in America, most of the Jews consider Orthodoxy to be only one of the legitimate expressions of Jewish religion. By contrast, Orthodox Jews are perceived by most of the Israelis as the authentic representatives of religious Judaism.

This is true even in regard to many non-religious Israelis. As the Israeli political scientist, Shlomo Avineri said, "The synagogue I am not going to [End Page 157]

Click for larger view Figure 1 Charles S. Liebman, (1934-2003)
[End Page 158]

is an Orthodox synagogue." Admittedly, not all Israelis share this view, and in recent years there has been a growing tendency among non-Orthodox Jews to sharply criticize what they call "the monopoly of Orthodoxy on the definition of Judaism." Nevertheless, this tendency is prevalent mainly in the elite circles of Israeli society; and most non-Orthodox Israeli Jews still prefer to use the term "religious" rather than "Orthodox," when referring to observant Jews. They also define themselves as "secular" or "traditional"—terms that convey a low level of observance of Jewish religion rather than a different interpretation of this religion.

This approach is especially manifest in the attitudes of the "traditional" (Masorati) circles in Israel. There is much in common between the behavior patterns of "traditional" Israeli Jews and of non-Orthodox groups in Western countries. Both the "traditionalists" in Israel and reform or conservatives in the Diaspora are selective in their observance of Halakha. Thus, they may go to the synagogue on Shabbat morning and then travel by car or bus, turn on radio or TV, and go to the sea-shore. And yet, there is a remarked difference between these two groups of Israeli traditionalists and Reform or Conservative Jews. This difference is not related to their respective degree of religious observance. Rather, it involves the attitude of these two groups toward Orthodox Judaism.

The Israeli traditionalists do not tend to attach religious or ideological legitimacy to their deviations from Halakha, and they do not give organizational expression to their non-Orthodox patterns of behavior. Thus, Israeli traditionalists are not establishing synagogues of their own, but go to Orthodox synagogues, even when there is a non-Orthodox one in their neighborhood. They also do not have rabbis of their own and they do not challenge the authority of Orthodox rabbis on religious matters, even when their practical behavior deviates from the norms of Halakha. This means that the religious point of reference for Israeli traditionalists remains Orthodox in character.

Most Israeli traditionalists are immigrants from North Africa and the Middle East who arrived in Israel en masse during the first years of independence, or their descendants. They...


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