Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Prof. Sam: Academic Pundit

Believing without belonging, belonging without believing

Almost all discussions of religion and state in Israel (or elsewhere: much of what I write below is relevant to the US as well) relate to the issue in dichotomous fashion: either you’re for or against. And that’s based on another dichotomy: either one is “religious” or “secular.” However, the issue is far more complex, precisely because many people don’t fit into those two “boxes.”

Surveys in Israel consistently show that at least 30% (some put it over 50%) of the population is “traditional” (masorati) – neither very observant nor non-believers. Although they come in several flavors, the usual stereotype (not far from the truth) is a person who regularly goes to synagogue services every shabbat morning, and then after kiddush and lunch, takes the family to the beach. They want to continue having the state and also Israeli society publicly imbued with religious symbols (e.g., the Knesset’s menorah; Jewish holidays) and accept “reasonable” religious restrictions (e.g., Rabbinate marriage and divorce) or supervision (kosher food licensing), but not to be “overdone.”

However, far less mentioned (if ever!) are two other categories that are not offered as “religiosity” choices in such surveys. The first type are people who believe in God but are not affiliated with any synagogue (the same is true of many Muslims and Druze) and don’t necessarily carry out their religion’s proscriptions and commandments: Believing without Belonging. One can argue that this is somewhat hypocritical – if God exists, why aren’t you obeying Him? – but as the adage goes: “Consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds.” Human nature and cognition are not straightforward; they are able to hold contradictory thoughts and beliefs without too much dissonance.

The second type is the mirror image of the first: Belonging without Believing. Although there is no hard survey data in Israel regarding such a phenomenon, it is probably far more widespread than generally assumed. That’s due to two aspects of the modern mind. On the one hand, most people with higher education, knowledgeable about social science and the physical sciences, can see how religious explanations of the world in the past were wrong, and can be far better explained by scientific evidence. Moreover, most religious “history” is clearly mythological (shown as such by scientific evidence), so that the sociological and theological foundations of religion are called into serious question. On the other hand, however, all humans need to belong to some group i.e., they need social companionship. This is especially true in the modern world where neighbors in the same apartment building hardly know each other and social anomie occasionally runs rampant; in our time, the need for such “belonging” is stronger than ever. Religious groupings and their ritual prayer and gatherings are a solid anchor to fill such a psychological need, ergo what’s called “church (synagogue/mosque) going.”

All this might sound academically theoretical. Does it have any real-world application, especially when it comes to Religion and State policymaking? Yes.

From the time of its establishment, Israeli governments have tried to walk a fine line between the emotional intensity of the religious/observant minority and the less involved non-religious majority, enabling governmental authority in a few fields to be given over to the Rabbinate (especially marriage, divorce, conversion) but with pushback by the secular majority, leaving wide swaths of society unregulated religiously (e.g., Sabbath observance, with more and more institutions open that putative day of rest).

The tug-of-war between these two camps, each pulling and pushing in opposite directions, makes it seem as if Israeli society is at “war” with itself. However, this does not take into account the “silent defectors” from each camp: seemingly affiliated religious people who go to synagogue for social reasons, not religious ones; non-actively observant individuals who still carry an emotional load of religious commitment. If these two population groups were accounted for – perhaps they should be raising their voices, thereby raising society’s awareness that they even exist – Israel’s Kulturkampf (“religious war”) would be far less virulent and more prone to accepting a middle ground, indeed tolerating the government’s approach of muddling through the whole issue.

In the final analysis, those who believe without belonging, and those who belong without believing, constitute a bridge between the “true believers” (religious zealots) and their opposites, the “activist non-believers” (ideological atheists). All four groups have much to offer Israeli policy-making. It’s time that the heretofore invisible first two groups made themselves more conspicuous on the Israeli political scene.

About the Author
Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig (PhD in Government, 1976; Harvard U) taught at Bar-Ilan University (1977-2017), serving as: Head of the Journalism Division (1991-1996); Political Studies Department Chairman (2004-2007); and School of Communication Chairman (2014-2016). He was also Chair of the Israel Political Science Association (1997-1999). He has published three books and 60 scholarly articles on Israeli Politics; New Media & Journalism; Political Communication; the Jewish Political Tradition; the Information Society. His new book will be published in early 2022 (Springer Nature): VIRTUALITY AND HUMANITY: VIRTUAL PRACTICE AND ITS EVOLUTION FROM PRE-HISTORY TO THE 21ST CENTURY ( For more information about Prof. Lehman-Wilzig's publications (academic and popular), see:
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