The Greatest Threat to Jewish Observance 

Protesters against the government's judicial overhaul gather in Tel Aviv on February 25, 2023. (Kaplan Protest)

We live in an age of plenty, Yeshivot, and Torah learning like the Jewish people have never seen before. And yet, while few will admit it, the greatest threat to Jewish observance nowadays is the possibility that Israel will become an orthodox state or an Iran-style Jewish theocracy. 

This might come as a surprise to many, but the math is simple and adds up. 

Ever since Jews were emancipated and allowed to live as they wish, where they wish, Torah observance has been in decline. That is with two exceptions: those who were orthodox and those who lived in Israel. Unlike non-orthodox Jews living in the diaspora, who most often assimilated and disaffiliated at increasing rates every generation, non-orthodox Jews in Israel remain more religious than any of their peers in other countries. The numbers of intermarriage, Shabbat observance, eating Kosher, observing the Shabbat 

Last year I visited a cousin of mine on a Kibbutz in Israel’s north. The Kibbutz would have been considered a secular Kibbutz, a place that was once seen as mutually exclusive to orthodox observance. As I arrived at the house, I saw Mezuzot on the doors, they kept a Kosher kitchen with two sinks, and he and his family did Kiddush on Friday nights. While this behavior might be seen in America in a family whose father was orthodox, it is rare or unfound among Jews who have not been orthodox in three or four generations. Yet there in the Kibbutz, observance was running high. 

Joking about this phenomenon, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks told MK Lapid: “Israeli chilonim are the only people who actually believe you are chilonim,” as many of them would be considered orthodox outside Israel.  

If you care about Jews who are not Orthodox and their connection to Judaism, you must admit Israel is the best thing that ever happened to our non-orthodox brethren and to Jewish observance. If you believe that assimilation, disaffiliation, lack of Jewish education, and disconnection from Torah and Mitzvot, you must acknowledge the role of the state of Israel in preventing those from adversely affecting millions of Jews. 

But all this is in danger. 

Recent attempts to force religion on Israelis with increasingly strict laws, the assault on democracy and Israel’s judicial system has led too many secular Israelis to question their future in Israel. Tragically, many secular Israelis have been looking to immigrate to Europe, and there is no question that such changes will dissuade non-orthodox Jews in the diaspora from making Aliya to Israel. 

Those cheering on the advancement of religious coercion by the force of law or thinking they will score a victory by using demography to turn Israel into a majoritarian theocracy that tramples the rights of liberal Israelis should think again. The very same religion they think to advance by coercive legislation will take a devastating hit due to that same coercion. They run the real risk of destroying one of Judaism’s only safe havens. 

The greatest threat Jewish observance faces nowadays is the possibility that Israel no longer be a place where secular Jews can live freely without being coerced to observe Torah and Mitzvot. Ironic or contradictory thought it might sound if the state of Israel is not a place where people are free not to keep Torah and Mitzvot, we will see the greatest decline in Torah and Mitzvot we have seen in many generations. Advocates of the latest reform in Israel are entitled to their opinions on why it will not turn Israel into an Iran-Venezuella-Hungary type of country. Still, they will need to convince liberal Israelis that this is the case. So far, public opinion polls, protests, and social unrest do not look like those doing the convincing are doing a compelling job. 

About the Author
Rabbi Elchanan Poupko is a New England based eleventh-generation rabbi, teacher, and author. He has written Sacred Days on the Jewish Holidays, Poupko on the Parsha, and hundreds of articles published in five languages. He is the president of EITAN--The American Israeli Jewish Network.
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