Jewish Journal


November 19, 2013

The State and Synagogue Exchange, Part 3: ‘Synagogue-State Separation is Just One Option for Israel’



Professor Guy Ben-Porat

Professor Guy Ben-Porat is a member of the Department of Public Policy and Administration at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. He is a co-author of Israel Since 1980 (2008) and co-editor of The Contradictions of Israeli Citizenship: Land, Religion and State (2011). Ben-Porat is an assistant editor of Citizenship Studies. His current research engages with police-minority relations in Israel and elsewhere.

This exchange focuses on Ben-Porat's recently published book, Between State and Synagogue: The Secularization of Contemporary Israel (Cambridge University Press, 2013).

(Parts 1 and 2 of the exchange can be found here and here)


Dear Guy,

I'd like to start the final round with a question regarding a curious little remark you made. In the last round you wrote that non-religious Israelis have traditionally had, unlike US Jews, "little concern about their Jewish identity", something which "on the one hand, left them ignorant or shallow and, on the other hand, allowed them to rely on religious institutions in times of need."

Although you probably meant to say (correct me if I'm wrong) that non-religious Israelis are ignorant about and have a shallow attitude towards Judaism (not in general), you seem to imply that Israel's secular population needs to be 'reformed' or 'made less shallow' by the state, that it should be made more interested in Judaism than it already is. My first question is- what makes you assume that secular Israelis are more shallow and ignorant about Judaism than American Jews?

My second question concerns Israelis' reliance on the Rabbinate- you seem to claim that because Israelis are used to relying on the Rabbinate, they cannot be trusted to form a vibrant pluralistic Jewish public sphere like the one in the US. But your solution is basically continuing (and perpetuating) the reliance on the state and on the Rabbinate! This seems like quite a vicious circle. What is more likely, that the Israeli public will create a genuinely more pluralistic and vibrantly Jewish public sphere, or that the Rabbinate will?

I'd like to thank you again for an interesting book and for this exchange.



Dear Shmuel,

In general, my book is a research work that attempts to explain how and why secularization has evolved in the past two decades and not so much to offer remedies. Indeed, you are right, my remark was not meant to imply that Jewish Israelis are ignorant nor to compare their knowledge of Judaism with their American brethren. My point, probably not well stated, was different. My general argument is that for Israeli Jews questions of Jewish identity are not existential as they are for Americans. For American Jews who are not religious the question of maintaining their Jewish identity and passing it to the next generation is a formidable challenge. I am in no position to judge whether they are succeeding or not, but visiting and living in the United States I have had the chance to observe their concerns and dilemmas.

For Israelis, conversely, these dilemmas are largely resolved by living in a Jewish state. This includes the fact that mixed marriages which are uncommon and the maintenance of culture through the use of Hebrew and the Jewish calendar. Therefore, many Israeli secularists or non-religious Jews can live their life comfortably without concerning themselves about their identity or worrying whether their children remain Jewish. Obviously, there is a lively debate over Jewish (secular/cultural) identity but it involves a limited number of Israelis. Thus, many non-religious or secular Israelis will not concern themselves with issues like the form and content of their marriage ceremony- they will have an Orthodox ceremony provided by the rabbinate and not bother with an alternative ceremony that would require an effort. In the different chapters of my book that engage with marriage, burial, non-kosher meat, and commerce on the Sabbath I show how individual decisions are often non-ideological and how the process is altogether made also of what I describe as “everyday life” secularization- namely, decisions devoid of political goals or ideological commitments. What I do argue, is that these processes fall short of the political energy required for a comprehensive change and lack the commitment to a liberal society based on equality and freedom.

As for your second question, I think that the rabbinate has been a comfort zone for many Israelis, reflecting both the ambivalence of secular Israelis towards religious Orthodoxy and their lack of will to create and fight for an alternative. Discussing marriage in my book I show how the alternatives are available and not too costly, yet many Israelis do not bother to use them for different reasons. Normatively speaking, I strongly support putting an end to the religious monopoly of the rabbinate and the sooner the better. Needless to say, if religious Jews want to continue to adhere to the rabbinate, it is their right to do so. I also agree with you that once this monopoly is ended more Israelis will be willing and able to find an alternative, even though at the moment it is by no means certain.

The vast majority of Israelis (including many of those who support civil marriage) declare they will marry Orthodox, even if other alternatives become available. A Jewish pluralist sphere will require an intellectual and organizational effort and will not emerge out of thin air. Our disagreement, I think, is minor, I think that a pluralist public sphere does not require privatization in an economic sense but a pluralization in which the state will provide for religious services but without a monopoly to one group. The American model of church-state separation is just one option and other possibilities exist. In my perspective the state should fund religion in the same way other cultural activities are funded, ensuring that the right to culture, identity and a chosen way of life is available to everyone and independent of income. I also believe that this form of pluralism has a greater chance to succeed. 

It was a pleasure,


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