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  • Between State and Synagogue: The Secularization of Contemporary Israel by Guy Ben-Porat
  • Ephraim Tabory (bio)
Between State and Synagogue: The Secularization of Contemporary Israel, by Guy Ben-Porat. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. 258 pages. $28.99 paper.

The title of Guy Ben-Porat’s book suggests a conception of Judaism that is at the heart of the struggle over religion in Jewish Israeli life. Judaism is rooted in the synagogue and in rituals that have long been determined by the forerunners of contemporary Orthodox Judaism. The Orthodox hegemony has implications for how many nonobservant Jewish Israelis who were brought up in a Jewish environment view their identity as well as that of the state. Judaism includes prescriptive behavior and proscriptive rules that many Jews only selectively observe, but there has been a general acceptance of the norms of Orthodoxy as representing authentic Judaism with consequences for the acceptance of Orthodox-based public policy. Ben-Porat analyzes important changes regarding this view by focusing on four issues that have been the subject of major debate over the years: marriage laws, burial regulations, the observance of Jewish dietary laws, and laws regarding public Sabbath observance.

Ben-Porat starts with an essay on secularization theory, and he follows Mark Chaves, who drew a distinction between secularization as indicating a decline in religious authority, and secularism that relates to private beliefs and practices.1 His basic thesis is that Israel is undergoing a [End Page 646] process of secularization even as its Jewish population remains quite attached to Judaism, whether in its Orthodox manifestation or some variant conception of Judaism. This process of secularization is affected not only by secularist (ideological) tendencies among the Jewish population, but also by the wider social context, including the impact of globalization and economic secular entrepreneurs. An important element in his analysis relates to the sub-politics practiced by economic entrepreneurs as well as the actions of different groups with various goals and even contradicting ideologies that might inadvertently combine to bring about change.

These influences are discussed by Ben-Porat throughout the book, but the main focus of the volume is the analysis of each of the four issues of religious contention, with a chapter devoted to each one. His analytic description of each issue is almost encyclopedic. He surveys the evolving developments in intricate detail. He also provides data from a survey that he himself conducted. (More details about how that survey was undertaken should have been provided, as well as basic information such as the number of respondents.) Readers interested in the sociology of Israeli society will very much benefit from these chapters. They provide an excellent picture of the factors that have affected religious developments. The almost inadvertent impact of globalization (including the immigration of over a million persons from the former Soviet Union with little, if any, connection to Judaism, let alone Orthodox Judaism) and economic entrepreneurs on negating religious influences from everyday practices is very well presented. In reading these chapters, I kept thinking about Adam Seligman’s (2004) distinction between the politics of rights and the politics of good.2 Seligman says that the discourse in a society in which there is separation of religion and state can relate to civil and human rights and that disagreements about some substantive values and ideals are trivialized. Choice of religion, then, can be treated like one’s choice of a necktie — a person may find it distasteful, but not an issue to argue about. Politics of good relate to substantive disagreements about values and ideals, and this is the basis for the clash over religious issues among Jews in Israel. It seems that “secularism” in Israel entails an increasingly privatized conception of Judaism that is based on the politics of rights — “believe as you want and practice what you will, but do not demand this of me.” Such a conception is captured by a slogan used by non-Orthodox Jewish denominations in Israel (that are not recognized by the government), “Each person according to his own beliefs.” Such a view clashes with the collective responsibility orientation of Orthodox Judaism that generally views religious change as a deviation from the...


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