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Secular or Religious

September 5, 2006
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One area of disagreement is in the observance of Shabbat (Sabbath). The religious elements of society view the Shabbat in light of the biblical injunctions to devote the day to God and refrain from creative and work related activities. As God rested on the seventh day from His work of creation, so they rest and observe the Shabbat as an act of worship. One of the biblical restrictions related to Shabbat is to not build a fire. So, Orthodox Jews do not cook, turn on lights, or drive on Shabbat, as a fire is created with all these activities. They would prefer that the entire society do the same. The more secular elements of society want to enjoy their day off without these kinds of restrictions. There are many such areas of disagreement. A large segment of society defines itself as secular, largely because they are unwilling to abide by the rules of Orthodox Judaism.

Often I hear people say that the larger percentage of Israelis is secular. However, a study released by the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics earlier this year, sheds new light on the subject. In fact, the study shows that Orthodox and traditional Jews comprise a majority of Israel’s Jewish population. Here is the breakdown of Israeli Jews:

8% – Haredi (ultra religious)
9% – Orthodox
39% – Traditional (religious, but not quite as observant as Orthodox)
44% – Secular

According to the survey, 81% of Israel’s population is Jewish, 12% is Muslim, 3.5% is Christian, 1.5% is atheist, and .5% said they belong to other religions. Of Israel’s Druze population, 48% said they were not religious.

The survey also examined religious trends among Israel’s Arabs, finding that:

11% said they were “very religious.”
49% said they were “religious.”
21% said they were “not very religious.”
18% said they were not religious at all.

My husband and I have lived in Israel for 17 years, and I have often realized that words can have different meanings to us than to our Israeli counterparts. The word “secular” is one of those words. When I, as an American, hear the word, I think of someone who has no interest in God or religion. But I have found that this is not exactly the case in Israel, for even among “secular” Jewish Israelis, there is a God-consciousness. There is a widespread belief in God in Israel, and this is not just true of those who define themselves as religious, but also of those who call themselves secular.

At Passover, one of the three biblical pilgrimage festivals, I received a note with a Passover greeting from a secular friend. He said, “Passover is a time of redemption, and I hope that redemption is on the way.” That doesn’t exactly sound secular to me. An Israel Radio poll told us that 90% of Israeli Jews attended a Passover seder meal this year, and 67% read the entire Haggadah, the story of Israel’s deliverance from slavery in Egypt. The Haggadah takes several hours to read and is full of Scripture, spiritual songs, and readings. In addition, more than 67% said that they only eat Kosher-for-Passover foods during the seven-day holiday. This is food that has no leavening agents in them. Nearly 70% of the nation of Israel practices this biblical injunction (Exodus 12:18–20). Isn’t this interesting? Even though 44% of the nation defines itself as secular, a good percentage keeps the biblical holiday of Passover.

On the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), the nation comes to a virtual standstill as they fast, in keeping with the biblical command (Leviticus 23:27–29). The streets are nearly empty as no Jewish person drives, unless it is a life-and-death emergency.

In conversations with “secular” Jews, I have often heard them say they believe in God. The wars of Israel are punctuated with miraculous deliverance, which are not easily explained without a belief in God. One such story was the story of Ari, a very worldly man, who defined himself as secular. We met him years ago while living on a kibbutz (communal settlement). Tom, my husband, asked him one day why he didn’t believe in God. He was offended by the question, saying, “What do you mean? Of course I believe in God.”

He told Tom a story from the 1982 war in Lebanon. He was the leader of ten soldiers. Their job was to secure a narrow canyon, called a wadi. It was quite narrow, so they were bunched tightly together. Suddenly, an enemy soldier popped up from behind a rock. He began to shoot his AK-47 automatic weapon at them, rapidly emptying a clip and spraying the bullets at the small group. He inserted a second clip and emptied half of it before one of the soldiers was able to shoot him. Ari was surprised that he was still standing. He said, “No one misses at point blank range with an AK-47.” He expected to see all of his men dead around him, but a miracle had happened. They were all unhurt. They felt the bullets whizzing by them on all sides, but no one was even scratched. Ari says that they all believe that God sent angels to bat the bullets out of their way.

I find that when I scratch the secular surface of Israel, I often find a belief in God. So, next time someone mentions how secular Israel is, perhaps you can let them know the statistics and tell them that God is at work in Israel among the religious and the secular.

By Rebecca J. Brimmer
International President & CEO

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