Gil Lewinsky
Gil Lewinsky

The Unwilling Heloni: Religion in Modern Israel

Dear world, I am Heloni, the Hebrew word for a secular in Israel. Yes I largely follow Shabbat and Kashrut. The last few years I followed the Holidays largely by the book. I put on tefillin in the morning and try to attend synagogue services Friday night. However, I am Heloni.

Why is this so? Perhaps a better term would be Masorti (or traditional)?

In Israel, things are black and white. One either believes and if one does, like a robot follows 100%. Like almost two separate nations within, each has a separate dress code and rules of conduct. One also does not tend to date the other. At the extreme of the religious are the Haredi who dress black and white with many living a secluded life. However even the Dati Leumi, what would be considered modern national religious, many also aspire for a separate life.

As my aunt told me years ago upon making aliyah there are only two types of Jews in Israel: the Jews that follow and the ones that don’t. The Jews that follow do EVERYTHING by the law and the book. There is no flexibility, no questioning. This is G-d’s law as handed down by the Rabbi that came from the Shulchan Aruch which came from a source before that.
If one does not follow everything he is not a believer. He is a Heloni or secular Jew.

While I follow Shabbat, I do so with flexibility. On rare occasion I will go out on Shabbat. I will walk of course but sometimes want to do something other than enjoy the four walls of the place I call home.

I have my own meat and milk dishes but will not disrespect people that don’t. I will not bury a dish that accidentally touched the other kind. I also can eat with Jews who don’t have separate dishes for I was raised to respect everyone regardless of religious outlook.

Sorry Gil you are not religous enough, I am told. This is especially relevant in certain circles where a focus on extreme particulars has become important. Let’s not embrace what we have in common, lets fight over small particulars.

While there was a time that Israel was a relatively secular state with religious Jews being a minority, the nature of the state is fast changing. Perhaps 20% of the population today is Haredi and they have birthrates sometimes into the double digits. Yiddish, once a dying language is making a surprising comeback. The secular or Heloni are concentrated in greater Tel Aviv and Haifa and in many of the country’s moshavim and kibbutzim and also in the South. The religious are in Jerusalem, and places such as Beit Shemesh, Tzfat, but many live across the country.

The rates among the Dati Leumi crowd are also growing rapidly. By the next few decades the vast majority of this country will be either Dati Leumi or Haredi (both of which do not like each other which is an irony).

The Dati Leumi have jobs and a modern life however very much ruled by religious rules like the Haredi. The main difference is they work and have careers rather than study Torah, which is usually reserved for Shabbat and special lessons during the week.

In the Diaspora, if you were Jewish and embraced Jewish tradition, this was often enough. There were many streams of Judaism from the reconstructionist to the Orthodox. However a monopoly of the Rabbinate by the Haredi has formed only one acceptable type of Judaism: their own. To be Reform or even Conservative in this country is a curse word. They are like apostates according to many and the Heloni, who are simply ignorant, are preferred.

As a former resident of Mea Sharim, where the most stringent of the Haredi live, I have come to appreciate and respect aspects of religious culture and life. The food, particularly on Shabbat and holidays, the focus on prayer, the mikveh.

Studying Torah is very beautiful. There is wisdom in its teachings, some which are thousands of years old.

However the trajectory of this country is toward blind faith. As Rabbi Rezutto wrote centuries ago in the Path of the Righteous, a much studied book in yeshivas: the objective of everything in this world is for the Olam Haba (the next world). There is no focus on bettering this world for it is simply temporary. Whomever doesnt follow the mitzvot will be left behind. Only the most stringent of the believers will truly see G-ds light.

It has become a competition… which according to some sources is actually a positive. Whomever does not follow the very stringent definition automatically becomes a Heloni.

Am wondering if this is what G-d had in mind when he created the nation of Israel? Only a focus on the next world, minimal focus on this one? Note most of the Jews that won nobel prizes and truly had an impact in history also had a focus on this world. They did not
wait for the next.

However, over time, as this country becomes more and more religious a focus on this world may become less. Am worried what this may mean.

In the mean time will continue honoring our traditions while appreciating the modern reality which Israel is very much a part of.

About the Author
Born in Israel but raised in Canada, Gil Lewinsky worked as a journalist in Jewish newspapers including the Jerusalem Post after completing a Masters degree at the Munk School of Global Affairs from the University of Toronto. He also has a LLM in International Law from Lancaster University in the UK. His past topics include a book written about the Status of Gaza under International Law soon after its conquest by Hamas in 2007. He is perhaps best known as one of two people that brought a flock of Jacob Sheep from Canada to Israel in 2016, making history. He currently works as a teacher and public relations professional in Israel.