Torah Sociology: Rel. Zionists and the Shulchan Aruch

The religious Zionist community often feels it is trying to dance at two weddings at the same time, and participating in neither event the way it really wants to.

Dr. Chaim Charles Cohen

Judaism טקס הגיוס של השוטרים הסרוגים
טקס הגיוס של השוטרים הסרוגים

The Religious Zionist (dati leumi) community has a longstanding, ambivalent relationship with the Shulchan Aruch (in the sense of authoritative rabbinic legislation). We are trapped in an ongoing tension between our 'profession' and our 'practice'. On one hand we profess allegiance to the shulchan aruch because it is our identity card, a core element of our self definition as Orthodox Jews in contrast to Conservative, Reform and secular Jews. On the other hand, we have great difficulty practicing what we profess. This difficulty in practice is a result of our massive, intense participation in all corners of the surrounding liberal, secular society, a society whose social values and norms are often in serious tension with a Torah way of life.

The dati leumi community thus finds itself trying to dance at two weddings at the same time, and participating in neither event the way we really want to. Our dilemma of trying simultaneously live in two conflicting social words may also be compared to a single kitchen with two chief chefs trying to prepare Shabbat meals together, and the cholent does not end up tasting the way it should.

This article examines this 'profession' versus 'practice' dilemma of the dati leumi community with regard to a recent survey of social attitudes and behavior of dati leumi singles. It presents the theological-sociological analysis of a layman, and in no way intends to suggest educational-religious guidance on the matter

According to the survey, 49% of the singles said that they felt more or less obligated by rabbinic law, 33% described themselves as being very obligated to rabbinic law, and 18% said that they were not all obligated. A third reported that their sense of obligation weakened as they got older, while over half believed that they would feel more obligations when they became married. 43% said that they do not follow the prohibitions on physical contact when dating, and 53% said that they do obey the law in this matter. 82% said that they very much want to marry, and 60% said that they would gladly accept professional psychological support in this matter.

 What is the meaning for us of these statistics? Is our dati leumi cup half full, or half empty? We will answer these questions by discussing their social context, and theological and sociological implications. 

 The social context of our singles' dilemmas is that of  the more general problem   challenging the dati leumi community, that  of building healthy,  stable two parent families in 21stcentury liberal, secular society.  Secular society is increasingly becoming less 'user friendly' to stable, two parent, multi-children, multi-generation families. As the survey indicates, our singles very much want to build stable, multi -children families. In this sense their struggle in family building is very much our struggle.  They are our heroes, finding themselves on the front lines of our more general struggle to develop and maintain Torah value- based families in liberal society. They deserve every bit of our respect, concern, love and support.

Second, if we consider the singles' reported behavior from a theological perspective, we find ourselves in a confusing, existential dilemma. There is a very painful reality gap between the behavioral demands of the shulchan aruch with regard to pre-marital dating, and what sizeable segments of our singles can behaviorally and psychologically bear. This reality gap will remain with us for the foreseeable future. Thus, we very much need religious leaders, with deep, wise souls, who can empathetically guide and support our singles in their coping with theological questions about which there are no easy existential answers.

Third, from a sociological perspective, our dati lemi cup is half full, and I am quite optimistic. The above dilemmas of our singles are the result of the fact that dati leumi mitzvah observance is based on individual free choice.   According to the survey, over eighty per cent of the singles have made a choice to try to live their pre-marital life according to religious law, some (49%) more leniently and some (33%) more strictly. In this context, I am virtually certain that almost all will follow core elements of family purity when they are married.

Sociologically, behavioral mitzvah observance in our community is based on individual, free choice. We  build a life of mitzvah observance based on the type of observance that is appropriate to our personal needs for self actualization and self transcendence, and not  because of a fear that my community will
The dati leumi community has begun to build a Torah based social culture, distinct from that of liberal, secular society.
expel me, or because my childhood education has locked me into a closed community. We see this in our families. Every religious Zionist family has amongst its children a wide, varied range of free choice based mitzvah observance. Sociologically, free choice based mitzvah observance may be less consistent, and less strict in adherence, than sanction based observance. However, free choice based observance endows special spiritual significance to mitzvoth that sanction based observance cannot attain.

Finally, as is frequently noted in this column, over the last twenty years, the dati leumi community has begun to build a Torah based social culture, distinct from that of liberal, secular society. Sociologically, most dati leumi individuals who find it difficult or problematic to adhere to the shulchan aruch, still remain relatively conservative and nationalistic in their social outlook and values, feel bonded to Jewish tradition, and identify with many elements of an evolving Torah based social culture

As we remarked at the beginning, the dati leumi community has an ambivalent relationship with the shulchan aruch. Our community is frequently conflicted between profession of allegiance, and strict behavioral practice. These inner conflicts give birth simultaneously to both spiritual-religious distress, and to spiritual-religious creativity and fulfillment.  These inner, spiritual-religious conflicts are, in actuality, the 'bottom-line, core element' of our sociological group identity. Love it or not, our social group identity is one that is both creative and conflicted, as was shown in the survey of dati-leumi singles. This is the price that we pay for simultaneously dancing at two weddings, that of Torah observance, and that of participation in liberal, secular society.