Since biblical times, the Jews have been a people with a monotheistic faith, Judaism, embodying both a religious and a national component. By the 18th century most of the world's Jews lived in eastern Europe, where they were confined to ghettos and had little interaction with the societies around them. Within their communities, they managed their own affairs, adhering to the body of Jewish law (Halakha) which had been developed and codified by religious scholars over many centuries.
The spirit of emancipation and nationalism which swept 19th century Europe generated the development of a more liberal approach to education, culture, philosophy, and theology. It also gave rise to several Jewish movements, some of which developed along liberal religious lines, while others espoused national and political ideologies. As a result, many Jews, and ultimately the majority, broke from Orthodoxy and its attendant way of life, with some striving to integrate completely into the society at large.
Jewish society in Israel today is made up of observant and non-observant Jews, comprising a spectrum from the ultra-Orthodox to those who regard themselves as secular. However, the differences between them are not clear-cut. If Orthodoxy is determined by the degree of adherence to Jewish religious laws and practices, then 20 percent of Israeli Jews strive to fulfill all religious precepts, 60 percent follow some combination of the laws according to personal choices and ethnic traditions, and 20 percent are essentially non-observant. But as Israel was conceived as a Jewish state, Shabbat (the Sabbath, Saturday) and all Jewish festivals and holy days
have been instituted as national holidays and are celebrated by the entire Jewish population and observed by all, to a greater or lesser extent.
Photo I. Sztulman, Courtesy of The U. Nahon Museum of Jewish Art
Other indicators of the degree of religious adherence might be the percentage of parents choosing to give their children a religiously oriented education or the percentage of voters casting their ballot for religious parties in national elections. The significance of such statistics, however, is uncertain, as non-observant parents may enroll their children in religious schools and many Orthodox citizens vote for non-religious political parties.
Basically, the majority may be characterized as secular Jews who manifest modern lifestyles, with varied degrees of respect for and practice of religious precepts. Within this majority are many who follow a modified traditional way of life, with some choosing to affiliate with one of the liberal religious streams.
Within the observant minority, both Sephardi and Ashkenazi, are many who adhere to a religious way of life, regulated by Jewish religious law, while participating in the country's national life. They regard the modern Jewish state as the first step toward the coming of the Messiah and redemption of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel.
In contrast, some of the ultra-Orthodox Jews believe that Jewish sovereignty in the Land can be reestablished only after the coming of the Messiah. Maintaining strict adherence to Jewish religious law, they reside in separate neighborhoods, run their own schools, dress in traditional clothing, maintain distinct roles for men and women, and are bound by a closely circumscribed lifestyle.
Jerusalem: Hassidic Jews in an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood
(Photo: Ministry of Tourism)