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Abraham, Part 1: Are ‘Secular Israelis’ Really Secular?

Or does the biblical patriarch offer a “religious” prototype?

P. David Hornik


April 21, 2013 - 7:00 am

Last year a study of Israeli Jews found that 84 percent of them believe in God. It came as a surprise to many. Israeli Jewry is commonly divided into “religious” and “secular” sectors, with the former making up only about 20 percent. It turns out, though, that a large majority of the “secular” are theists.

The “religious-secular” division of Israeli Jewry has roots in the Book of Exodus, which introduces laws about Sabbath observance, kosher eating, personal and ritual purity, and so on. “Religious” Jews in Israel are those who follow these laws — as further elaborated in subsequent books of the Bible, and interpreted and codified by the rabbinical tradition. “Secular” Jews in Israel usually follow some of the laws but are not committed to them as a whole.

For instance, and maybe most prototypically, “religious” Israelis stay home on the Sabbath, observing both the injunctions to “do no work” and “kindle no fire” on this day. Secular Israelis kindle their car engines and go for family outings, their Sabbath in some ways more similar to Sunday (the Jewish Sabbath falls on Saturday) in majority-Christian countries.

“Secular” Israelis, though, are mostly theists; they live in the Land of Israel and are usually committed to doing so, not infrequently to the point of life-threatening forms of army service; and they are generally responsive to the holiness of Jerusalem and other aspects of Jewish tradition. A “secular Israeli” myself for almost three decades, I’ve long thought that the “secular” or “nonreligious” tag fails to do justice to a more complex, interesting reality.

Looking beyond the Book of Exodus to the book that precedes it — Genesis, and especially one of its central characters, Abraham — may offer richer and more affirmative ways to think about the issue.

Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto a land that I will shew thee….

Those are God’s first words to Abraham and, indeed, the first words he ever speaks to a person who can be identified as a Jew. They’re spoken while Abraham (called Abram at this point) is still a Mesopotamian living in an extended family headed by his father Terah.

The land God speaks of is Canaan—Israel. In it, great things will happen:

I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing:

And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed.

There is only one precondition for these portentous things: they have to be centered in Canaan. The text gives no explanation for why God singles out Abraham, or why the mission of Abraham and his nation has to be Israel-focused. It is, one might say, a fundament — bedrock.

And once Abraham is dwelling in the land, the majesty of his vocation there recurs like a leitmotif in verses of stunning beauty. For instance:

For all the land which thou seest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed for ever.

And I will make thy seed as the dust of the earth: so that if a man can number the dust of the earth, then shall thy seed also be numbered.

Arise, walk through the land in the length of it and in the breadth of it….

When at a later stage Abraham complains to God that he seems ill-suited to this mission, since he and his wife are unable to conceive, God hints that this is not a permanent state of affairs:

And he brought him forth abroad, and said, Look now toward heaven, and tell the stars, if thou be able to number them: and he said unto him, So shall thy seed be.

Genesis, then, like the Hebrew Bible as a whole, is a profoundly Zionist book. In that regard, Abraham’s mission and ethos are like those of the modern state of Israel: to establish (or reestablish) the Jewish people in the Land of Israel, so as to work out their destiny there.

“Secular” Israelis — to the extent that they stay in Israel and are committed to doing so, which describes most of them — participate in this Abrahamic project. But do they perceive it as a religious calling? The abovementioned survey result suggests that they do, as do others in the same study: “the…findings indicate that most Israeli Jews feel a strong sense of belonging and affinity for the State of Israel and Judaism….”

I would add that the totality of life here makes it difficult not to have such affinities.

Soon after Abraham enters Canaan, the leitmotif makes a brief appearance when God tells him: “Unto thy seed will I give this land.”

Abraham’s response:

and there builded he an altar unto the LORD, who appeared unto him.

And he removed from thence unto a mountain on the east of Bethel, and pitched his tent, having Bethel on the west, and Hai on the east: and there he builded an altar unto the LORD, and called upon the name of the LORD.

In this and a similar case later in Genesis where God speaks to him and Abraham responds by building an altar, what is notable is that Abraham’s reaction is spontaneous and unmediated. The Jewish religion has not yet emerged; there are no synagogues, no common prayers and rituals for Abraham to follow. He answers God on the spot, in the way he knows.

Again, it reminds me of the “secular Israelis” of today — many of whom go to synagogue rarely or even never, but whom I often hear addressing God (Elohim) in various emotional modalities. Or, in a different form of the phenomenon, a song based on Psalm 121 has recently become a major hit and anthem in Israel; you can see it here with close to half a million views.

Abraham, though, is not only a nationalist or “Zionist” pursuing his tasks with a pure, direct religious fervor. There is also a strong strain of universal morality (prefigured, of course, in God’s own words about “all families of the earth”) in his dealings with the leaders and peoples he encounters in Canaan.

One such case occurs when, in the battle at the Vale of Siddim (thought to be the southern end of the Dead Sea), the four-king alliance defeats the five-king alliance and makes off with the spoils — including Lot, Abraham’s nephew. When Abraham hears of this, he puts together a war party, chases the marauders and trounces them, and brings back Lot and all the other stolen people and goods.

When the king of Sodom — leader of the five-king alliance — goes out to meet the returning, triumphant Abraham, he makes him an offer:

Give me the persons, and take the goods to thyself.

To which Abraham replies:

I have lift up mine hand unto the LORD, the most high God, the possessor of heaven and earth,

That I will not take from a thread even to a shoelatchet, and that I will not take any thing that is thine, lest thou shouldest say, I have made Abram rich….

There are other examples of this intense universalism that balances and complements Abraham’s nationalism — such as his strong concern for his “non-Jewish” son Ishmael, or the fair deal he eventually reaches with King Abimelech after their dispute. Creating a Jewish polity in the land goes hand in hand with striving to deal justly with the other peoples living in and near it.

Here too, Abraham with his divinely driven morality is a prototype for today’s “secular” Israel — which has distinguished itself under rough conditions by maintaining a vibrant democracy, according full rights to its Muslim, Christian, and other religious minorities, and seeking peace whenever possible (and sometimes when it was not possible) with its neighbors. “Secular Israelis” would be well justified in seeing this universalist dimension of the national mission as essentially “religious” as well.

I don’t mean to draw too sharp a line between “secular,” Genesis-centered Israelis and “religious,” Exodus-centered Israelis. The Book of Exodus pervades Israeli life; among much else, it’s the source of major national holidays including the supremely paradigmatic Passover. And an important sector of the religious population takes part fully in the national project.

But for the large majority that is used to defining itself in neutral or negative terms like “secular” or “nonreligious,” the figure of Abraham — with his Zionism, his spontaneous, unmediated religiosity, his God-impelled morality — offers an alternative.

“Abrahamic Jews” sounds better than “secular Jews” and is a lot closer to the truth.

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All Comments   (21)
All Comments   (21)
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Mr. Hornik: I'm bit of pendant on the distinction between Jew (or Judean) and Israelite. Much of what happens in the Hebrew Bible, up until the destruction of the Israelite state in 720 BCE, is about Israel. There are no Jewish people to speak at that point. After 720, Judea does becomes the remnant of Israel that remains in existence and continues the Israelite experience. Despite the destruction of the Judean state in 587 BCE, the Judeans continued the traditions established earlier. When they returned in 530 BCE to the Persian province of Yahud they began a long journey that established the Judaism we know today the Jewish of people of today (the descendants of the Judeans). There is of course a continuous link from the proto-Israelite Abraham to the Jews of today, but it is wrong to label Abraham the first Jew. He could though be labeled the first Israelite.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
From an early age I learned from sermons and in Sunday school that Abraham, Joseph and Moses (to name my favorites) were heroes. These men were faithful to God, and they were courageous, and they practiced the universal moral code. Jesus can be seen in the same vein (taken to the nth degree by a Christian), God's faithful, courageous and moral man.

To this day I find myself feeling a strong brotherhood for Jews - the race of people chosen by God to establish the universal moral code (love your neighbor as yourself - do unto others as you would have them do to you) and to bring forth His Son as the final path back to God and eternal life. Bless you. Mission accomplished. Now I wonder - what next?

1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Mission is never accomplished--Israel will continue to be a dynamo contributing all kinds of things to the world in a wide variety of fields.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
The greatest things often come in small packages. God speed.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
As an Goy, I tend to see Judaism in light of the story in Numbers where some gentleman is murdered by stoning, so as not to shed is blood, and hence gain guilt for untimely twig gathering.

This same murder for solidarity is what fuels Islam now and Christianity from time to time in the past. Tolerance only comes when people turn their back on the murderous parts of their faith.

Such self-congratulation is a bit gauche, to me at least, and I believe that Israel is trying to survive on the false premise that it can cut deals with it enemies by good faith negotiation.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Are you talking Crusades? That was Christendom driving out the islamic hordes that had invaded them. The Inquisition? Again, that was to drive out islam (although Jews got caught up in that one).

Sp - besides Christians trying to keep from being murdered by islam, what exactly do you have against us?
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
The problem is, and I can only speak as a Christian, people without faith in the entire 20th century murdered on a mass scale never seen before in human history.

For instance, you could take the most egregious, murderous sins in the name of Christianity which is the Spanish Inquisition, compare it to 20th century atheistic states, and atheistic states would be 18,300,000% more likely to commit mass murder.

So obviously the lack of faith by itself doesn't lead to tolerance, and in fact by sheer number the lack of faith seems to lead to the worst forms of intolerance - even when compared to Islam.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I appreciate the thoughtful article being given top billing one again.
My own conclusions on the religious practice of less observant Israeli Jews and their obvious ingrained adherence to Judaism comes from two other Torah based concepts.
The first was the acceptance of The Torah at Sinai by the entire Jewish nation with the declaration that " we will do and we will hear". The other Torah concept is the understanding that living in Israel is a greater mitzva than all the other mitzvot combined .
In a sense all Israelis are in fact " doing " while the " hearing " ( understanding ) will come later.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
The main characteristic of Abraham was left out of this article. He followed not the Law because it had yet to be written. He followed God and that "by faith".
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Interesting article. Thank you for providing this.

I am happy to see apparently there a number of very bright Jews pondering what exactly does it mean to refer to one's self as Jewish. Because it is a very important personal question that each Jew must answer, whether they intend to or not. I have questioned a few "secular" Jews here on the very subject - myself not Jewish.

But I would place the land of present day Israel not in the days of dividing between Abraham or Moses, but more inclined toward the days of Kings.

And I believe with all my heart that is why Israel, for all of its miraculous accomplishments and dare I say supernaturally inspired accomplishments, though she will survive and even thrive to varying degrees, will continue to struggle with this irrational, global hatred of Jews that weighs on every Jew - both the secular and the religious.

If I could quote my favorite Jewish prophet when he issued this challenge, because I find it as relevant today as 2,700 years ago:

“How long will you hesitate between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow Him; but if Baal, follow Him."

1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I would think that a Jew who does not believe in God is no longer a Jew ...
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Ed Koch wrote, a few years ago, something like the following:

A man is a Jew first by birth and then by observance. If he ceases to observe the Jewish religion, he remains a Jew by birth. If he doubts this, he should ask his neighbors, who will remind him.

One of the early Zionists, in the years preceding the Holocaust, put it even more bluntly: "Who is a Jew? A Jew is a man whom other men call a Jew." In the context of WWII, that viewpoint is tragically accurate.

It is commonly known that a Jew, according to Judaism, is the child of a Jewish mother (or one who has embraced Judaism as a convert). But Israel's Law of Return, which grants automatic Israeli citizenship to Jews, uses a different standard, which is at least one Jewish grandparent. This standard, which has remained unchanged since the 1940s, is a dramatic and eloquent statement -- if you were Jewish enough to be persecuted by the Nazis, you're Jewish enough for us.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
By most accounts Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, and its fourth prime minister, Golda Meir, were atheists. They both came from a socialist movement. Ben-Gurion in particular was steeped in the Bible, but seems to have related to it secularly. In any case, their Jewish status is not in question.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Nobody has the authority to say what the minimum requirements are to count as a Jew.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
So all Arab Muslims have to do is claim that they are Jews and they will be granted Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return. Who are the Israeli government to decide who is a Jew?

Lets not forget Jews for Jesus, which are currently denied such treatment under the law. They dont pass the Jew test according to the State of Israel. Though they claim to be Jews.

1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Yet you seem quite comfortable taking upon yourself the authority to declare that nobody has the right to decide. Just how steeped in biblical
scholarship are you?
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Someone has to have that authority, no? Otherwise the designation loses all meaning.

However, that "someone" isn't Calatrava, and his/her definition indeed won't wash. A Jew, by the traditional Jewish definition, is someone whose mother is Jewish, or who converted in accordance with Jewish law. Or to put it differently, to be a Jew, either the person him/herself or a direct maternal ancestress has to have made the wholehearted declaration (as at Sinai) "naaseh v'nishma" - we will do [what G-d commands - unconditionally], and we will [afterwards make our best attempt to logically] understand it.

Once that "naaseh v'nishma" has been, so to speak, imprinted on one's spiritual X chromosome, then his or her observance or lack thereof - or belief in G-d or lack thereof - can in no way affect the identity of the soul, just its growth and development.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
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