According to Merriam-Webster, the definition of the word religious is, “relating to or manifesting faithful devotion to an acknowledged ultimate reality or deity.” According to the average Israeli, the definition of the word religious is “Orthodox.”
The conflation of religiousness with Orthodoxy is something I hear repeatedly from native Israelis and Olim alike, and reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the branches of Judaism and of what the word religious means. I think this is an important mistake to correct — there is no relationship between how religious someone is and the stream of religion with which they identify.
This misuse of the words “religious” and “Orthodox” interchangeably deepens the belief that many hold that only the Orthodox are religious and that the only way to be religious is to be Orthodox.
Every stream of Judaism has more and less observant members. Every stream has more and less religious members. When we conflate being Orthodox with being religious and, by default, other streams with being secular, we are forcing different types of Judaism into a false hierarchy. It makes Orthodox Judaism the most religious type and therefore the authority on Judaism. This is not only deeply ahistorical, but also serves as a major barrier to communication between Israel and the larger Jewish community of the Diaspora.
Many see Orthodoxy as the original Judaism, the most authentic way to be Jewish. This is historically incorrect, but when looking at the State of Israel’s treatment of the different streams of Judaism, it is hard to blame anyone for making this assumption. Almost all official religious bodies in the state work to reinforce the idea that Orthodoxy is the first type of Judaism and that the Orthodox are the keepers of “real” Jewishness.
The State consistently points to Orthodoxy as the only correct way to be Jewish through appointments to official positions, codes of conduct at state-controlled religious sites, norms adopted for religious ceremonies, and more.
Examples of this are abundant. The Western Wall is managed by an ultra-Orthodox rabbi who has almost full control over who prays there and how. Gay couples cannot marry in the state. Kosher is a word that only the ultra-Orthodox Chief Rabbinate is allowed to use. Women do not have equal legal status in legislation on religious issues. Less than a month ago, the deputy mayor of Jerusalem ordered the removal of Pride flags calling them impure.
Because the state has consistently chosen one type of Judaism as the correct type, Israel does not have religious freedom for Jews. Jews who practice Judaism in any way that differs from the State sanctioned, Chief Rabbinical brand of Judaism, are not free to practice Judaism in Israel. It is beyond ironic; it is perverse.
Many things need to happen to right this wrong. One of them is the acceptance of different types of Jews as valid. We must acknowledge that you can be religious and not be Orthodox, and that there is validity to the different interpretations in the different streams of Judaism. Without this, we will not have religious freedom in Israel.
In a perfect world, this recognition would start from the government. Until the state of Israel recognizes other forms of Judaism as legitimate by funding them and giving them a voice on religious councils, how can Israelis?
In our imperfect world, this change must start with us and in spite of our government. We can start by recognizing the power of our words; a simple colloquialism is helping to maintain a damaging social structure. It would be just as simple to think before we speak.