Abraham, Part 1: Are 'Secular Israelis' Really Secular?

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.