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Why Has a Sociology of Religion Not Developed in Israel? 
A look at the Influence of Socio-Political Environment on the Study of Religion


A paper was presented at the annual meeting of the Association for the Sociology of Religion, Atlanta, Georgia, August 15, 2003.

Ezra Kopelowitz
Department of Education, The Jewish Agency

Yael Israel
Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Tel Aviv University


Why has the sociology of religion[2] not developed in Israel, a country in which religion is a major social and political force?  There are many Israeli sociologists who study or are interested in religion; however, almost all are interested in religion as a way of studying some other social phenomenon such as ethnicity, political extremism, nationalism, feminism, literacy and sectarianism among other subjects.  Likewise, almost all use theoretical frameworks from other areas of sociology, rather than the sociology of religion.

Shlomo Deshen in his introduction to the edited volume entitled Israeli Judaism: The Sociology of Religion in Israel, writes that of the 23 authors selected to appear in the volume, “it is notable that only three or four of them specialize in the sociological study of religion” (1995, p. 3) .  By this we can take to mean, that few Israeli sociologists use theories developed in the sociology of religion and then develop those theories for the use of other sociologists.[3]  Deshen also notes the significant overrepresentation of Orthodox Jews and foreign born sociologists, as opposed to native born secular Israeli Jews who study issues of religion.

Why do Israeli sociologists treat religion primarily through theoretical frameworks developed in other areas of sociology, but rarely draw on insights from the sociology of religion, and even more rarely make a theoretical contribution to the development of the sub-discipline?  And, why are Israeli sociologists who do contribute to the sociology of religion, primarily Orthodox and foreign-born Jews, while most sociologists in Israel are secular Jews and born in the country?

To explain the failure of the sociology of religion as a sub-discipline to develop in Israel, we build on the work of sociologists of knowledge who claim that the theoretical frameworks scientists use are shaped by the socio-historical contexts within which they live (Lemert 1995; Levine 1988; Toulmin 1990; Wexler 2000) ; as well as, a relatively new body of literature within the sociology of religion proper, that looks at the role of institutional differentiation in shaping the understanding and practice of religion (Asad 1993; Bruce 2000; Burns 1996a; 1996b; Chaves 1994; Dobbelaere 1999; Gorski 2000; 1996; Kniss 1997; Kopelowitz 2003; submitted for publication; 1998; Lechner 1997; Martin 1978; Simpson 2000; Warner 1993; Wexler 2000; Wuthnow 1985; 1987; 1989; Zaret 1989).

We focus on the fact that the questions asked and theories developed by sociologists of religion tend to treat religion as a phenomenon that is primarily limited to the private sphere.  By private, we mean religion as a voluntary activity that is the result of choices made by individuals in their everyday lives.  This contrasts to religious practices in the public sphere that are shaped by state legislation or by involuntary interactions with others.  The focus of sociologists of religion on the private, voluntary realm means that the theoretical insights offered by the discipline rest on assumptions about the institutional differentiation of religion into the private sphere, that are deemed irrelevant by secular Jewish Israeli sociologists who tend to conceptualize religion as a state driven and/or public phenomenon.

II.   Sociology of Religion = the Study of the Private, Voluntary Religious Practices

A symposium focusing on the “accumulation of knowledge in the sociology of religion” (Chaves et al. 2003) was held at the Association for the Sociology of Religion 2001 annual meeting.  The symposium discussed Mayer Zald’s (1995) article about the accumulation of knowledge in the sub-disciplines of sociology.  In his introduction to the symposium, Mark Chaves focuses on three questions that come out of Zald’s argument: (1) What is the degree of consensus about what the important problems are? (2) What is the nature of the sub-disciplines internal stratification structure?  And, (3) what is the extent to which the sub-discipline’s questions are shaped by the larger social and political milieu (Chaves 2003, p. 1) ?  Of the three questions, the third was only discussed in passing. 

As we will see below, the question of socio-political milieu is crucial for understanding the issues that sociologists who study religion choose to focus on.  The reason for this is that Americans dominate the sociology of religion, and bring with them a picture of society that neatly divides the world into public and private spheres.  The resulting research questions focus on an assortment of ritual practices, symbolic and ceremonial frameworks and doctrinal beliefs that are found in clearly demarcated social spaces such as the family, house of prayer, parochial school, or divinity school.  The common feature of all these institutional frameworks are that they are conceptualized as “private” or “voluntary” spaces in which the adult members of the family, house of prayer etc., voluntarily commit themselves to practice and believe in a particular religious tradition.   In other words, the study of contemporary religion in the United States begins with the assumption that the state does not force its citizenry to believe or practice a particular religious tradition.

The most persistent debate in the sub-discipline is over the “secularization thesis,” which focuses on the precise dimensions of the disestablishment and voluntarization of religion and the withdrawal of religious practices into clearly differentiated private space and out of the public sphere.  The assumption is that “religion” is a private phenomenon and the debate is over the precise dimensions of the privatization process.  When will individuals join with others to build religious institutions, from the home to the synagogue, to the parochial school?  How will they choose to observe? What will be the nature of the resulting beliefs?  Or alternatively, to what extent will people stop opting to join religious institutions and believe in divine intervention? 

The differentiation and privatization thesis is so central, that sociologists of religion who wish to grapple with non-privatized or non-differentiated forms of religious experience and institutions must invent special terms.  Theoretical frameworks for grappling with non-differentiated forms of religion include terms such as “public religion” (Casanova 1994) , the “public church” (Marty 1981) , “civil religion” (Bellah 1970) , “quasi-ascribed religiosity” (Roof and McKinney 1992) or “deprivatization” (Regnerus and Smith 1998) .  All of these terms are created to redress what their authors view as the inability of sociologists to conceptualize the role of religion in public life.  These authors assume that religion, as it is understood in the sociology of religion, is a differentiated, privatized phenomenon and that their job is to explain the way religion continues to integrate and influence larger public spheres.

II. Secular Jewish Israeli Sociologists are Interested in the Public Dimensions of Religion

For most Israeli sociologists religion is conceptualized as a public, rather than a private sphere phenomenon.  The questions they ask about religion focus on issues of public or group life and not on the private, voluntary experience of individuals who choose to believe and practice.  For this reason, research questions addressed by theoretical frameworks created by sociologists of religion that focus on the private sphere tend not to be relevant to the concerns of Israeli sociologists. 

Besides the evidence from the literature that is given below, telling anecdotal evidence is seen in the many occasions when the first author of this paper has lectured about issues of everyday religious practices among non-Orthodox Israeli Jews AND has not made politics or issues of public life central to the talk.  On these occasions there are almost always comments from fellow sociologists to the affect of “why is this interesting” or that that the theory guiding the work is more relevant for the study of American Jewry, because in Israel one must begin with the public or political dimensions of religion.

The reason for the tendency to conceptualize religion as a public phenomenon is tied into the fact that most Israeli sociologists identify themselves as “secular Jews.”  This fact is central for understanding the failure of the sociology of religion to develop in Israel.  For the secular Israeli Jew, “religion” is not about private choices that an individual voluntarily makes regarding how he or she will practice and believe in everyday life.  Rather, religion is first and foremost a public and state driven phenomenon. 

The work of Steve Bruce (1996; 2000; Bruce 2002) and David Martin (1978) indicates that a similar phenomenon exists in European countries where individuals are free not to practice religion in their everyday lives, but at the same time there is a formal connection between religious and state institutions.  In these countries we are likely to witness the existence of groups who identify as both secular and Christian.  People regard themselves as secular because they do not practice ritual in their daily life; however, at the same time they identify with the “Christian ethos” of public institutions in the country and/or use religious rituals at key points in the life-cycle when they turn to their local state-funded church in order to commemorate life cycle rituals, which they receive free of charge (i.e. covered by the tax payer).  When they do use religious rituals for life cycle celebrations they do so according to the dictates of the state sponsored establishment.  No attempt is made by the secular-Christian, as with the secular-Jew in Israel, to appropriate the religious tradition and transform it along the lines done by liberal Christian and Jewish denominations in the United States.

The difference between the use of religious symbol and ritual in the public and private spheres has to do with authority and the degree that an individual to control the nature of a given social practice (Lyman and Scott 1967).[4]  The more public the context, the less control the individual has to determine how and if to practice the religious tradition. 

Bruce argues that American sociologists limit themselves to thinking about religion in private contexts, in that they conceptualize religion and religious institutions as the product of demand-side logic, i.e., religion as a social practice over which individuals have a large degree of control to pick and choose the practices and beliefs they wish to adopt.  In comparison, in many European countries and in Israel the relative lack of differentiation between religion and state creates a supply-side logic, i.e. religion is shaped from above by a state sponsored religious establishment.  Secular individuals will use the religious services “supplied” by the establishment, but will not regard themselves as empowered to “demand” changes to those services.  This same phenomenon exists in many places where there is a link between religion and state.  Thus, we find in Turkey and Bosnia-Herzegovina secular Muslims, in India there are secular Hindus, in Ireland and Poland secular Catholics, and in Israel there are secular Jews.

In Israel, there are several public religious dimensions.  Secular Jews must use services provided by the state-sanctioned Orthodox rabbinate having to do with marriage, divorce and burial (Abramov 1976; Abramovitch 1991; Don-Yehiya 1986; Elazar and Aviad 1981; Kimmerling 1994; Liebman and Don-Yehiya 1984; Peleg 1998; Schiff 1977; Sered 1997; Shokeid 1980) , they also participate in a public calendar, which runs according to the annual religious cycle, and draw on a religiously imbued symbolic framework for explaining the narrative history of Jewish presence in the land and state of Israel (Aronoff 1989; Handelman 1990; Liebman and Don-Yehiya 1983) .  These are all dimensions of an Israeli Jewish identity, which for the secular Israeli are facts of public life rather than the result of private decisions (Weissbrod 1983) , in that the individual cedes authority for determining the nature of Jewish practice to the state or other public authorities.

The supply of religious services by the state and the abundance of religious symbol and ritual in the public sphere facilitates a secular-Jewish identity in Israel, as it does the secular-Christian, secular-Muslim and secular-xx elsewhere.  A person need not do anything in his or her private life, and by dint of living in the wider public environment he or she will think of themselves as Jewish.  The important point is that this “supply-side religiosity” creates a conception of religion that is very different from that which exists in societies in which there is a clear distinction between private and public spheres.  In the latter, particularly the American case, religion is conceptualized as a voluntary phenomenon that is completely depended on the actions of individuals. 

We can illustrate by comparing the terms used by American Jews and Israeli Jews to describe someone who is not religious.  American Jews do not describe someone who is not religious as “secular.”  Rather, they use the concept “cultural Jew,” which describes a person who voluntarily engages with Jewish culture broadly defined, rather than with religious ritual in constructing his or her Jewish identity.  Of importance, is that the term “cultural Jew” is conceptualized as describing a positive identity – i.e., an identity based upon the voluntary initiative of the individual in everyday life to connect to a larger group.   In contrast, the term “secular” as it used by Israeli Jews usually connotes a negative identity – i.e., the term “secular” describes the fact that the person is not religious.

In the United States the “negative secular identity” is not possible.  A Jew who makes no positive effort in the private sphere to embrace Jewish culture or religion, will simply stop being Jewish.  In contrast, the Israeli Jew can adopt a negative identity, for he or she does not need to do anything in the private sphere, and can still remain Jewish vis-à-vis his or her life in the public domain.

As we quoted Shlomo Deshen in the introduction to this paper, the small group of sociologists who contribute to the sociology of religion in Israel tend to be either Orthodox Jews or immigrants from Western countries to Israel.  In contrast to their secular, native born counterparts who make up the vast majority of Israeli sociologists, these sociologists view religion in general, and Judaism in particular as both a private sphere activity and as a phenomenon that exists in the public realm.  For these sociologists, to be Jewish is not only to live in the Israeli public sphere, but also to make daily decisions regarding the school to which one sends one’s children, the nature of food in the home, the daily and weekly ritual cycle in the home and the synagogue one attends etc.  Given their experience of Judaism as a private sphere phenomenon, the manner in which they conceptualize “religion” as a social phenomenon resonates with the answers provided by theoretical frameworks found in the sociology of religion. 

III. Three Groups of Israeli Social Scientists who Study Religion and their Demographic Backgrounds

Our thesis is that secular Jewish Israelis don’t find the sociology of religion relevant to their work is supported by evidence presented in table one.  The table presents the results of a review of articles and books that deal with Judaism in Israeli society (see footnote 2 ) published by social scientists (sociologists, anthropologists and political scientists) who work in Israel and are commonly recognized as people who contribute to the social scientific study of religious phenomena  in IsraelWe also limited our review of the literature to those who have made a contribution in the past twenty years.

Table 1: Three Groups of Sociologists who Study Religion in Israel

  Name Use theory found in the sociology of religion (0 = no, 1 = yes( Level of Contribution to development of theory in soc. of religion (0 = no, 1 = local, 2= international) “Jewish identity” of the author (1 = Orthodox, 0 = Non-Orthodox)

Country of primary socialization

(0=Israel, 1=outside of Israel)


1 Charles Liebman (1983; 1986; 1990; 1997; 1990; 1984) 1 2 1 1
1 Stephen Sharot (1974; 1991; 1995; 1998) and Ben-Rafael and Sharot (1991) 1 2 0 1
1 Susan Sered (1997; 1992; 1993) 1 2 0 1
1 Efraim Tabory (1980; 1983; 1986; 1991) 1 2 1 1
1 Menachem Friedman (1982; 1989; 1991; 1993a; 1993b) 1 2 1 0
1 Shlomo Fisher (1991; 1999) 1 2 1 1
1 Ezra Kopelowitz (2000; 2001; 2002; 2003; 1998) 1 2 0 1
1 Arye Fishman (1991; 1995) 1 2 0 1
1 Ira Sharkansky (1996; 1999; 2000) 1 2 0 1
2 Shlomo Deshen (1978; 1980; 1990; 1994; 1997; 1998; 1974) 1 1 1 1
2 Moshe Shokeid (1971; 1980; 1995) and Deshen and Shokeid (1974) 1 1 0 0
2 Harvey Goldberg (2001; 2003) 1 1 0 1
2 Eliezar Don-Yehiya ((1982; 1986; 1988; 1994) and Liebman and Don-Yehiya 1983; 1984) 1 1 1 0
2 Gideon Aran (1986; 1997) 1 1 0 0
2 Yoram Bilu (1987; 1995; 1997) 1 1 0 0
3 Tamar El-Or (1994; 2002) 0 0 0 0
3 Yochanan Peres (1995) 0 0 0 0
3 Yoav Peled (2001a; 2001b) 0 0 0 0
3 Michal Feige (1995; 2002) 0 0 0 0

In order to categorize the work of contemporary Israeli social scientists on religion into the groups that appear in table one, we asked the following five questions: (1) does the author use theoretical concepts developed or used extensively by other authors who are commonly recognized as sociologists of religion?  (2) If the author does use theoretical concepts, does he or she also contribute to the theoretical development of the field on an international or local level?  For both questions one and two, we exclude authors who In order to categorize the work of contemporary Israeli social scientists on religion into the groups that appear in table one, we asked the following five questions: (1) does the author use theoretical concepts developed or used extensively by other authors who are commonly recognized as sociologists of religion?  (2) If the author does use theoretical concepts, does he or she also contribute to the theoretical development of the field on an international or local level?  For both questions one and two, we exclude authors who make use of the classical sociological literature on religion through the 1960s (i.e., Durkheim, Weber, Simmel, Marx, Troeltsch, Berger, Luckman etc.) but do not move beyond the classics to reference and develop sociological theories of religion that have been developed in the past thirty years. (3) Is the author an Orthodox or non-Orthodox Jew?[5] And, (4) is the author’s primary socialization in Israel or outside of Israel (i.e., immigrated to Israel as an adult with clearly formed notions about religious practice)? 

We used questions one and two to organize social scientists into three groups, as represented in table one: 1) The first group we label as those whose work makes an explicit theoretical contribution to the field through original research; 2) the second group includes those who use concepts from the sociology of religion but do not contribute to the theoretical development of the sub-discipline on an international level, but rather focus on a local understanding of religion in Israeli society; and, (3) the third group consists of those whose work focuses on religion as an empirical phenomenon, yet seldom use concepts from the sociology of religion and do not contribute to the theoretical development of the sub-discipline at either the local or international levels.

Those categorized in group one not only use theoretical concepts developed in the sociology of religion, but also contribute to the theoretical development of the discipline.  For example, many of the authors in group one look at religion through an investigation of the way people practice and understand religious ritual.  Thus, Charles Liebman (1990) teamed up with an American colleague in order to compare the way American and Israeli Jews practice the Jewish tradition, with the goal of contributing to an understanding of culture and political context as a determinant of ritual practice. Similar comparisons have been done by Kopelowitz (2000; 2002) and Sharot (1974; 1991; 1998) . While authors such as Sered (1997; 1992; 1993) , and Kopelowitz (submitted for publication) use the theoretical literature on ritual in order to understand religious behavior within Israel.

The authors in group two contribute to the local discourse about religion, but do not engage sociologists of religion outside of Israel.  For example, Shokeid and Deshen in their separate and collaborative work (Deshen 1980; Deshen 1994; Deshen and Shokeid 1974; Shokeid 1971; Shokeid 1980; Shokeid 1995) study the religious practices, customs, and beliefs of Middle Eastern Jews in Israel.  These authors’ primary references to the sociology of religion are to other Israeli authors.  Their theoretical contribution (vis-à-vis religion) does not aspire to go beyond the Israeli context.  When the authors in group two do make a general theoretical contribution it is aimed at other bodies of literature.  In Deshen and Shokeid’s case their primary reference point is ethnicity.  In the case of Aran (1986; 1997) , the reference point is the literature on political extremism. They contribute to the local study of religion in Israel, in that they focus on the engagement of various groups in Israeli society with the religious tradition; but do not engage other sociologists of religion in a theoretical discourse.

Among the authors in group three, there is an interest in religion as a social phenomenon, but they do not make significant use of theoretical concepts developed within the sociology of religion and make no contribution to the discourse within the sub-discipline, either in Israel or abroad. For example, El-Or’s (1994) work contributes to a theoretical discourse on literacy as she examines the relationship between the educational activities of religious women in the Gur Hasidic community in Israel.  She cites the select work of sociologists of religion but does not incorporate the theories of the sub-discipline into the discursive level of the work.  Rather she tends to use the sociology of religion literature to provide background information on the community of Jews that she is studying.

In a similar manner Peled (1998) focuses on the relationship between religion and politics drawing on theories of political-economy.  Peled cites the Israeli literature dealing with the religiosity of Mizrahi (Middle Eastern) Jewry, yet uses that literature primarily to provide background information about the case study at hand.

The match between the demographic backgrounds of the social scientists listed in table one and their contribution to the sociology of religion is clear.   In group one, all but one of the members are born outside of Israel.  In groups two and three, all but one, are born in Israel.  Of particular interest, is that out of the nineteen social scientists listed in table one, only seven are listed as non-Orthodox and socialized in Israel.  All seven are also self identifying secular Jews.   None of these seven appear in group one.  Thus, we learn that anyone in group one is either born abroad or is a religious Jew.  The non-Orthodox Jews in group one identify as religious Jews affiliated with the Conservative or Reform streams of Judaism.  The fact that only seven of nineteen are secular and Israeli-born is significant, for as a group they are the majority in the broader discipline, yet only a minority in the sub-discipline of the sociology of religion (broadly defined). 

IV. Institutional Differentiation and the Sociological Conceptualization of Religion

The evidence that we present in table one demonstrates an elective affinity of secular Israeli Jewish social scientists to theoretical models that lie outside of the sociology of religion.  Our claim is that the source of this elective affinity lies in macro institutional contexts within which people construct a connection to a religious tradition. 

The sociology of religion has developed to address an institutional reality in which religion is primarily limited to the private, voluntary, sphere.  In contrast, in Israel, as well as other countries, religious symbolism and religious services are part of the involuntary public sphere.  In these countries we find populations that consider themselves secular and Jewish (or Christian or Muslim etc.) for they need not initiate any private sphere activity, yet at the public level they continually engage and are engaged by the religious tradition.  The result is a “supply-side” conception of the religious tradition, which stands in contrast to the “demand-side” conception that dominates theories in the sociology of religion (Bruce 2000) . 

In the supply-side version of religion, an individual encounters religious frameworks that are supplied by the state or other public institutions.  Individuals use and identify with the symbolic and material resources provided by these public institutions, and as a result also view themselves as Jewish; yet, do nothing in their private lives that can be associated with a positive religious identity.  In other words, we find substantial populations who express no demand for religion in the private sphere, yet will continue to think of themselves as Jewish due to their encounter with religion in the public sphere.  Secular-Jewish Israeli sociologists fall into this latter group and as a result see no relevance for sociological theories that treat religion as a private phenomenon.

The significance of this insight is that it confirms the embodied nature of sociological thought and the need to grapple with the historically contingent nature of theoretical concepts such as “religion”  (Lemert 1995; Levine 1988; Toulmin 1990; Wexler 2000).   Despite the tremendous energy devoted to defining the empirical characteristics of the concept of religion (Greil and Bromley 2003) ; only recently have sociologists begun to engage in a sociology of knowledge regarding influence on socio-historical context on the very way that we conceptualize and use the concept of “religion.”  For example, authors such as Asad (1993) , Gorski (2000) , Kopelowitz (2003; 1998) and Warner (1993) have shown that the very concept of “religion”, as we use it, is a by-product of modernity whose use in sociological theory shifts between countries, as well as over time.

In order to show that patterns of institutional differentiation shape the way sociologists in Israel approach the study of religion as an empirical phenomenon we looked at the theoretical frameworks that Israeli sociologists who study the empirical phenomenon of religion choose to use.  Our assumption is that if sociological theories of religion tend to focus on the private sphere (“demand side”) and secular Israeli social scientists don’t use those theories, then it is because these theories are not relevant to the way that they understand the term, “religion”.  Obviously, the only way to fully test our explanation of the failure of a sociology of religion to develop among secular Israeli social scientists is to track the development of the sociology of religion in other countries in which there are substantial populations who consider themselves as secular-Christians, secular-Muslims etc.  We expect to find that in those countries the sociology of religion is less developed, there are also substantial populations who think of themselves as secular-Christian, secular-Muslim, secular-xxx etc.



[1] An earlier version of this paper was presented at the Annual Meeting of the Association for the Sociology of Religion, Atlanta, August 2003.  Charles Liebman provided us feedback on the paper a month before his untimely death.  We dedicate this article to his memory.  Please address all correspondence to ezra@kopelowitz.org.   return to text

[2] As an important aside, it is necessary to note that the sociology of Judaism and the sociology of religion are essentially one in the same in Israel.  In the above book cited in the text below, both Deshen (1995) and Sharot (1995) note that the sociological study of religious traditions other than Judaism has not developed at all in Israel. For this reason we speak of the sociology of religion is Israel, we are looking at sociologists who work in Israel whose focus is religious attitude and behavior of Israeli Jews.  return to text

[3] Observations about the lack of sociological attention to religion in Israel are also made by Goldberg (2001) , Sharot (1995) and Ben-Rafael and Sharot (1991, p. 156).   return to text

[4] Here we are building on Lyman and Scott’s discussion of the way that identity is expressed through the construction of group territories in everyday life (Lyman and Scott 1967).   return to text

[5] We use the terms “Orthodox”/”non-Orthodox” instead of the terms “religious”/”secular” because the latter terms are not precise enough for capturing the significant differences between different types of religious Jews.  Among religious Jews one can include Reconstructionist, Reform, Conservative as well as Orthodox Jews.   return to text


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