Sacred Sites in Contested Regions

Lectures & Publications

Religion and Modernity

Chapter 1:

Religion and Modernity,

Published in: (2012) A Well-Worn Tallis for a New Ceremony: Trends in Israeli Haredi Culture, 

Brighton, MA: Academic Studies Press.

Nurit Stadler


In the nineteenth century, sociologists boldly predicted the death of religion. Max Weber (1904/5, 1918-19, 1968) pointed to the growing rationalization of many fields of human enterprise and the corresponding decline of magical thinking and religion. At about the same time, Georg Simmel was conducting research on different realms of modern life. Simmel (1900, 1903, 1950, 1971) who was well aware of religion’s sway over various facets of communal life, drew attention to the intellectualization of modern urban society. He estimated that religion would continue to be felt in all social relations, but business transactions, politics, family life, fashion, and music was becoming more calculated. Furthermore, Simmel averred that religion itself would be transformed by these same developments, as it too would become yet another commodity that is consumed by human beings.

 Emile Durkheim (1912) also underscored the importance of religious beliefs and practices as catalysts of social solidarity throughout the course of human existence. In his study on totemism in various cultures, Durkheim unveiled the common denominators between religious and scientific thinking. Analyzing the organizational complexities of Australian aboriginal society, he explained how tribes divide and subdivide into exogamous moieties, classes, and clans. Each of these cohorts is associated with different species on the totem, in a system that incorporates all natural phenomena and reflects the particular society’s classifications of identity and belonging. This process demonstrates how people form groups and classify all the surrounding elements within the shared framework of the clan. As such, totemism is not only a way of thinking about culture, but a system that enables tribe members to define their actions, express their feelings, and organize life events around codes that distinguish between the sacred or profane – the orderly and disorderly. Put differently, totems are the symbolic representations of a much greater force – the mana: the way society portrays itself to its members. In light of the above, the mana is always concomitantly external and internal to the worshiper. Alternatively, Durkheim (1912) argued that when a society develops and variegates from a technological standpoint, the nature of magic and religion also change. In fact, this process of differentiation, according to Durkheim, is the main feature of what we call modernity. Due to the fragmentation of communal conscience and activities, the spheres that society usually considered to be sacred realities are increasingly subject to the individual’s own volition and thus separated from mundane activities (1912). He believed that solidarity will eventually be reconstituted, but this process will not necessarily be underpinned by religious or magical frameworks and practices.

In sum, classical anthropologists conducted comparative studies on religious knowledge and systems, such as totemic classifications, taboo prohibitions, ritual frameworks, animism, and myths. On the basis of this sort of research, Bronislaw Malinowski concluded that supernatural beliefs and related practices serve to allay fears and anxieties stemming from the inevitable limits of practical knowledge. In an essay titled “Magic, Science and Religion” (1948), he argued that, depending on the circumstances, members of various societies employ either magical thinking or scientific knowledge. Malinowski also noted that magic is a body of knowledge that is passed on from generation to generation, and provides people with an accessible set of rituals, acts, and beliefs that minimize personal anxiety over existential matters, such as whether enough fish will be caught, their fields will yield enough crops, and if a newborn child will survive. In contrast to the magical deed, spell, or potion, religion is more abstract, for it is based on personal faith in a god(s).

Drawing on the classical tradition and Malinowski’s research, Alfred Radcliffe-Brown (1929, 1939, 1951) devoted several works to the relation between magic and religion. He argued that religious beliefs generate at least as much stress as they assuage. In addition, the English social anthropologist placed an emphasis on the social aspects of human anxieties at different stages of the life cycle and how magical thinking and practices reassure the faithful that their basic needs will be met. Following in the footsteps of Durkheim’s analysis of totemic thinking, Radcliffe-Brown opined that the qualities of a particular religion are determined by social structure and solidarity. As such, a given religion changes in accordance with the shifts in society’s symbolic and technological attributes. Similarly, Radcliffe-Brown argued that edible species were likely to become totems, on account of their importance to all the clans of a particular tribe (1929). He also posited that the relations between specific totems are similar to the relationships between members of different clans (1951). In this respect, the “totem pole” is a representation of the classification system that people use in order to reinforce their sense of belonging to the overarching group as well as their identification with a specific clan. Likewise, Evans-Prichard assayed the manner in which the Azande—a tribe in north central Africa—use magical thinking and animism to get through the daily grind (1937). By helping members of the tribe resolve disputes and contend with uncertainty, witchcraft and the oracle are instrumental to the preservation of the social order (see Kahane 1982, 1993).

These classical scholars elucidated the basic assumptions on magic and religion: rationally, magic, logical and pre-logical thinking (Levy-Bruhl 1910; Frazer 1950). Moreover, they were the first to conceptualize the differences between Western and non-Western societies and religions. Drawing on the data from the Australian tribes, Lévi-Strauss (1976) concluded that “real” totemism is based on the dissimilarities, rather than the similarities, between the matrilineal and patrilineal types. His basic model of the contrasts between the natural and cultural is a lucid example of this sort of pattern. Building on Radcliffe-Brown’s analysis, Lévi-Strauss perceived antithetical thinking as a key structural principle in totemism and believed that the strong resemblance between totemistic ideas in various cultures lay in the similarities between systems of differentiation, namely most taxonomies distinguished between the natural and socio-cultural sphere. He thus concluded that the distinction between human and animal categories serves as the conceptual basis for social differences. As a result, Lévi-Strauss felt that totemism is an “illusion” and a “logic that classifies” ([1962] 1969). Put differently, it is a post hoc explanation in which the structure of social relations is projected onto the natural phenomena, instead of deriving from it. In short, the totemic logic is a universal, albeit complicated, metaphorical system of classification that reflects group and individual belonging.

Unlike her predecessors, Mary Douglas focused on taboos and contamination. In Purity and Danger (1966), she offers an explanation for the belief in ritual pollution. Concentrating on accepted religious prohibitions, she suggested that dictates against touching, using, or seeing certain objects, foods, animals, plants, and people may be rooted in a belief that they are sacred or venerated. On the other hand, there are categories that are defined as dirty and polluting. For instance, certain classes of people or species of animals are considered untouchable. According to Douglas, societies tend to classify things, people, or animals as “taboo” when they are considered anomalous. These condemned entities usually exist on the margins and do not fall under any of society’s general categories. Consequently, they are viewed as possessing certain powers that, inter alia, make them dangerous. For example, in her analysis of the Book of Leviticus, Douglas stated that animals are classified according to whether or not they meet ancient criteria, namely their position in a taxonomy. Douglas pointed not only to deviant objects and people, but to special times or events, such as death, birth and pregnancy, that straddle the fence between the regular stages of the human lifecycle. As a result, these aberrant phases are also subjected to manifold taboos and prohibitions. For instance, in different cultures, corpses are deemed to pollute the earth, women are isolated for a number of days after giving birth, and the placenta is considered extremely harmful.

By dint of these classical studies on religion, not least the discussions about magical thinking, totemism, and taboos, researchers of modern societies took stock of the decline of magic and the general weakening of religion. For the most part, these scholars claim that the social forces of modernity, especially the infiltration of rational ways of thinking into the mindset of the masses, will ultimately minimize the need for magical explanations and religious institutions. Robert Bellah (1967) argued that modern-day religion would steadily become a private matter, detached from the state, politics, and the public sphere. Following in the footsteps of Durkheim (1912) and Parsons (1970), numerous sociologists have turned to the concept of differentiation in order to explain the ostensible fall of religion. These earlier works gave rise to a general theory of secularization, which was widely accepted and remained in force until the late 1980s. At this point, however, researchers began to challenge the assumptions of the secularization paradigm. Due to myriad signs of religious revival, they began reinserting faith back into the theoretical equation.

More recently, students of religion have contended that, while modernity indeed constitutes a significant challenge to the established faiths, it is also a fertile breeding ground for religious redefinition, innovation, and rejuvenation (Lawrence 1989; Ammerman 1987; Casanova 1994; Lambert 1999, 304; Berger 1999; Eisenstadt 2000). In other words, modern developments and frameworks have spawned new religious ideas, movements, and communities. Durkheim’s predictions notwithstanding, the modern process of differentiation and the ensuing fragmentation and specialization of various fields of human endeavor have failed to consolidate a secular mode of thinking that is detached from religion. Instead, it has created new possibilities for religious institutions and outlooks to put down roots and flourish. Jose Casanova (1994) understands societal modernization to be a process of functional compartmentalization in which secular spheres—the state, the economy, and science—are severed from the religious sphere. Casanova argue that during the 1980s, religious traditions around the world, from Islamic fundamentalism to Catholic liberation theology, began making their way, often forcefully, out of the private sphere and into public life, causing the “deprivatization” of religion in contemporary life. No longer content merely to administer pastoral care to individual souls, religious institutions are challenging dominant political and social forces, raising questions about the claims of entities such as nations and markets to be “value neutral,” and straining the traditional connections of private and public morality (1994).

Recent decades have borne witness to new forms of spiritualism, piety, charismatic groups, and syncretism as well as wide-scale conversion and extreme interpretations of sacred texts (Lawrence 1989; Mahmood 2005; Emerson and Hartman 2006). Moreover, a broad range of ethnographies on religious life demonstrate that those same modern phenomena that the “old school” thought would lead to the secularization and liberalization of the state, education, the mass media, the labor market, and science have actually sparked a hearty religious revival throughout the world, which has swept up countless devotees of the three great monotheistic faiths. At the same time, the modern age has also given rise to a wide array of newfangled spiritual movements, such as neo-shamanic, neo-pagan, New Age, and therapeutic groups.

While people tend to use religion to identify themselves as, say, Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus, I would like to suggest that the topics latterly covered in the anthropological and sociological literature on religion, especially with respect to knowledge and classification systems (e.g., totemism), taboos, rituals, and myths, have exposed the need for new categories that go beyond religious denominations and streams. Within this in mind, I have divided religious resurgence at the turn of the millennium into three primary groups: fundamentalist movements, charismatic movements, and various forms of group worship. Over the remainder of this chapter, I will define the unique features of each category and provide examples of each group from Israeli society.




Over the last two decades, anthropologists and sociologists of religion have focused on the ways in which fundamentalists integrate modern ideas and practices with age-old traditions and laws (Ammerman 1987, 2005; Davidman 1991; Deeb 2006; Mahmood 2005). In researching the worldwide resurgence of fundamentalism from the late 1970s to the early 1980s, scholars have analyzed conversion, devotion, disaffection, and social organization in fundamentalist communities (Almond, Appleby, and Sivan 2003; Ammerman 1987; Antoun 1989, 2001; Beeman 2001; Bruce 2000; Hervieu-Léger 2000; Kepel 2002; Riesebrodt 1993). Although these movements appear to be monolithic, non-liberal, and exceedingly conservative, they have always interacted with and been influenced by the larger cultures within which they reside (Stadler 2008). The antagonistic stance of fundamentalist groups towards essentially secular and liberal Western traditions renders the societies that champion these views the defining Other of fundamentalists. For this very reason, fundamentalists must digest “modern” ideologies in order to oppose them; and in the process, they adopt some of their rivals’ ideas. As we shall see, this process has indeed stoked major changes in the beliefs and practices of these groups.

The word fundamentalism derives from an early-twentieth-century religious movement in the United States that took its name from The Fundamentals: A Testimony of the Truth, a twelve-volume work that was published between 1901 and 1915 by a group of Protestant laymen. This movement was part of the Evangelical Revival that had inspired the Great Awakening of the early nineteenth century. At the outset, this term was only applied to Christian sects, but its scope has since expanded to include other modern religions (Eisenstadt 1995, 2000, 83; Lehmann 1998; Stolow 2004, 110, 2010). The context along with various individual features of the modern era, especially secular state education, the mass media, and technology, seem to have catalyzed increments of religious fundamentalism. More specifically, the fundamentalist phenomenon can be explained as the product of modernity’s anti-religious pressures and a surprising series of counteractions: secularization spurred on religious revivalism; the dissemination of feminist ideologies caused a backlash of modesty and family-oriented ideologies; the rise of secular education inspired the cultivation of the religious ethos; technology and free access to knowledge seem to have intensified religious sequestration and censorship.

Movements that can be classified as fundamentalist tend to reinforce internal taboo systems with the objective of tightening prohibitions that pertain to modesty and morality. In these sort of communities, the ritualization of everyday life is inspired by a sacred past and canonical writings. Rules are tightened as are the community’s boundaries. Moreover, neophytes are urged to perform sundry tasks and are required to pass various exams that strengthen their bonds with the core group. Given the involvement of both long-standing and newly-coined symbols and genealogies that are deeply connected to the group’s identity, these initiation rites are akin to phases in the construction of a totemic ideology.

In order to bolster their cohesion, totemic structure, ritualization processes, and taboo systems, fundamentalist groups assiduously refine their unique identity by means of scripturalism, namely the selective retrieval and amalgamation of doctrines, symbols, and beliefs from sacred texts that the faithful believe to be of divine origin, such as the Hebrew Bible, New Testament, and Koran (Almond, Appleby, and Sivan 2003, 96). This process consists of redefining, transforming and repackaging symbols and meanings that are gleaned from an imagined sacred past into communal programs, life visions, everyday norms, and various taboos, in an effort to contend with what fundamentalists believe to be decadent and trying times (Antoun 2001). In turn, these elements help devise and sanction a certain interpretation or viewpoint, which ordinarily strengthens or empowers a certain authority figure (Asad 1986, 2003, 11).

Shmuel Eisenstadt argued that fundamentalist movements are decidedly modern (1995, 259, 2000). Put differently, while fundamentalist groups indeed oppose modernity (Marty and Appleby 1991, 9), they are a quintessential product of the modern era (Ammerman 1987). Fundamentalist communities deem the institutions of modernity, foremost among them the modern liberal state, to be symbols of the outside world and forces of evil. A case in point is the Haredi attitude to the State of Israel. Although the country is officially a Jewish state, its government is perceived as Zionist and secular; consequently, it is rejected and resisted by many ultra-Orthodox Jews. That said, the community’s very existence in Israel is dependent on the protection and material support of the state, which Haredis vigorously demand as a minority in a liberal country. This oxymoron—rejecting the state’s legitimacy while welcoming its assistance—is indeed a defining attribute of fundamentalist movements throughout the world.

Living in the heart of diverse modern cities poses quite a few problems for fundamentalist groups, such as exposure to sinful temptations. The community’s leadership copes with these challenges by means of a standard set of religious practices and ideologies. In Israel, the leaders of the Haredi community, such as Abraham Isaiah Karelitz (alias the “Chazon Ish,” 1878-1953) and Eliezer Schach (1899-2001), have always provided believers with pietistic strategies for safeguarding their religious identity and culture in modern surroundings (Caplan 2007, 69 and 77).

Among their strategies, fundamentalists reject or disregard modernity by interpreting history, tradition, and contemporary reality through the prism of religious reasoning. The Haredi discourse inevitably touches upon the historical and mythical events in the life of the Jewish nation, including the foundation and existence of its secular state, yet points to a different causality than other narratives. To begin with, like other fundamentalist groups, ultra-Orthodox Jewry perceives itself as a link in a glorious tradition, which dates back to Judaism’s earliest saints and prophets. Ashkenazic Haredis are particularly conscious of this continuum on account of the Holocaust, as they consider themselves the sole remnant of European Orthodox Jewry. Therefore, Haredis have assumed the role of the custodians of a civilization that must be meticulously preserved. On the other hand, modern culture is viewed as the antithesis and nemesis of this tradition, so that the Western lifestyle is generally excoriated. For example, abortion and homosexuality are prohibited, and the community actively demonstrates against these “abominations.”         

Fundamentalist movements are usually led by male intellectuals who are experts on the group’s canonical texts. Moreover, these leaders aspire to lofty heights of virtue. Within their communities, these men are considered scriptural virtuosos as well as paradigms of masculinity, asceticism, and morality (Antoun 2001, 3; Riesebrodt 1990, 9, 1993). In order to defend the faithful against the temptations of a corrupt world and repulse challenges to the group’s existing hierarchy, these same elites are constantly seeking to maintain or ratchet up the faithful’s level of piety (Stadler 2008). One of the primary means at their disposal is their control over the transmission of the movement’s accepted ideas and traditions to new generations. For this very reason, scripturalism places a premium on the establishment of new and creative educational institutions, such as yeshivas, madrasas, and churches. The yeshiva hall has indeed emerged as the cornerstone of ultra-Orthodox fundamentalism, as it enables the community to maintain a cadre of experts with the ability to orchestrate a moral overhaul (Heilman 1995, 78). As alluded to earlier, fundamentalists imagine a period in their distant past to have been a golden era of true piety. Consequently, the devotees’ parents and grandparents are not considered to have been sufficiently religious. For this reason, the mimetic aspect of socialization, namely the strong tendency to imitate the behavior of elder kin, is of nominal significance in fundamentalist groups.

For the purpose of devising a specifically Haredi model of piety in the modern era, new methods of socialization have been adopted. By gleaning particular elements of the group’s canonical texts and heritage, fundamentalists seek to reconstruct the world according to their unique goals and desires. For example, the commandment to study Torah “when you sit at home and when you are on the road” (Deuteronomy 6:7) has been mounted on the highest pedestal. According to the Israeli ultra-Orthodox interpretation of this verse, male membership in the community demands full-time enrollment in a seminary. Men are expected to spend the majority of their lives studying in a yeshiva. In the country’s Lithuanian yeshivas,[1] this obligation is highlighted by central symbols that are drawn from their imagined cultural and traditional past, especially the rationalist school of the vilna gaon (the Genius of Vilnius), Rabbi Elijah Ben Solomon. This evocation of Jewish heritage to warrant mass attendance in the community’s yeshivas stands in sharp contrast to the historical record. In Lithuania and other Eastern European Jewish communities, only a handful of prodigies dedicated their life to the study of Torah, while the vast majority of men were expected to acquire a profession and earn a living. Haredis rationalize life-long yeshiva enrollment by viewing themselves as an elite whose piety and dedication to the Torah will save the rest of world Jewry. However, as we shall see, the studious way of life is not for everyone, and there is a chafing desire for reform within the community.

The case of Gush Emunim (Hebrew for “the Bloc of the Faithful”) sheds light on different aspects of Jewish fundamentalism (Aran 1991; Feige 2009; Fischer 2007). This group, which is comprised of religious-nationalist advocates for Jewish settlement of the occupied territories, combines devout scripturalism and a yeshiva orientation with radical interpretations of the Land of Israel’s sacredness and its centrality to the redemption of the Jewish people. While Haredi participation in Israel’s political game is attributed to pragmatic motives (i.e., to advance the community’s unique interests), members of Gush Emunim firmly identify with and are involved in all aspects of the state and civil society: the Israeli economy, civil duties, military service, culture and education. However, they are ready to violate the state’s laws and sacrifice themselves for the purpose of upholding their particular reading of the Jewish faith. For example, devotees have turned to violence to counter actions that “compromise the holiness of the land.” According to Gush Emunim’s ideology, the fact that it was secular Jews, of all people, who were most responsible for the establishment of Israel must be viewed as part of a multi-phase divine plan for messianic redemption, which is unfolding before our very eyes. In other words, the secular state provides the tools that are facilitating the return of the “Promised Land” to the Jewish people. For this very reason, the movement’s political activists are interested in influencing the state’s agenda, especially with respect to the territories.

 Unlike the ultra-Orthodox sector, Gush Emunim has been an active participant in Israeli society and politics from the movement’s very inception in 1974. The establishment of Gush Emunim was triggered seven years earlier by the Six Day War,[2] which was interpreted as a profound and miraculous theological event by members of the national-religious camp, among others. More specifically, Israel’s swift victory over what many believed to be a vicious and numerically superior enemy, the return of Biblical Judea and Samaria (i.e., the West Bank) to Jewish hands, and above all the capture of the Temple Mount was understood as a sign that Jehovah has not deserted his people.

Similar to ultra-Orthodox religiosity, the scriptural creed of Gush Emunim was articulated and transmitted through the reinforcement of the group’s own yeshiva system. However, in contrast to the Lithuanian yeshiva ideology that stresses continuity and traditionalism, Merkaz haRav—the flagship seminary of Gush Emunim—declared that its goals are to disrupt and possibly transform the previous order, thereby encouraging radical political activism. More specifically, Gush Emunim is committed to a struggle aimed at redeeming “the whole Land of Israel” and placing it under the control of the Jewish state.

The spirit of Merkaz haRav (literally the Rabbi’s Center) was shaped and guided by the authoritative teachings of Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Hacohen Kook (1866-1935), the first chief rabbi of Palestine. His philosophy was subsequently expanded upon by his son, Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, who went on to become the spiritual leader of Gush Emunim. According to Kook the Elder, secular Zionism is a holy movement, and its rise was a sign that the redemption had begun. In other words, he couched the emergence of the Zionist movement and the Jews’ return to Palestine in eschatological terms. Building on these ideas, Merkaz haRav represents a new response to Zionism and modernity, as its adherents aspire to weave religion into all aspects of social life and provide sacred meaning to the process of modernization and the establishment of the State of Israel.

Spearheaded by Kook the Younger, Gush Emunim’s platform attracted followers from among the religious-Zionist camp, especially the members of its youth movement – Bnei Akiva. Assuming the form of a religious sect, Bnei Akiva trained a cadre of young activists who strove to fulfill transcendental concepts under the guidance of Gush Emunim’s rabbinical authorities. These fundamentalists viewed the Jewish settlements of Judea and Samaria as a way of safeguarding “the divine gift” of 1967 and thus pushing the redemption process forward. In so doing, Gush Emunim put a religious gloss on the old (secularist) Zionist belief that nurturing the Land of Israel is the only way to spark a true return to Zion. The results of the Yom Kippur War in 1973 galvanized the movement’s settlement activity. Instead of passively waiting for the redemption, which had been the traditional Jewish eschatological approach for nearly two millennia, the movement’s followers believed that the time had come to actively expedite the dawn of the messianic age. This juncture can be explained as Gush Emunim’s charismatic phase in which the movement forged its unique methods and ideas, particularly the settlement ideology.

At the outset, the group’s modus operandi was non-violent demonstrations in support of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, in adherence to Kook the Elder’s doctrine of the sacredness of the land. However, by the end of the 1970s, the movement had adopted more militant strategies and actions against the Arab populace of the territories, under the premise that the state had failed to enforce the law or establish order. In their capacity as the “guardians of true Judaism,” the members of Gush Emunim assumed the right to defend themselves against the enemies of the Jewish people and protect the Land of Israel, so as to ensure the redemption and survival of the nation. By dint of these religious beliefs, the fundamentalist tension between the aspiration to return to a venerated past and modern realities, not least the Arab majority in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, has repeatedly erupted into violence.

Students of religion have defined fundamentalist groups as “enclave cultures” (Almond, Appleby, and Sivan 2003, 34; Sivan 1995). Drawing on Douglas’ observations (1966), they view these enclaves to be distinct entities with highly-demarcated cultural and moral boundaries. With the help of communal taboos, these barriers separate the “virtuous” and “morally superior” from the “depraved” (Sivan 1995) and thwart the efforts of “demonic forces” to subvert the enclave (Almond, Appleby, and Sivan 2003, 34-36). Sivan (1995, 19) observes that the “outside” is deemed to be polluted, contagious, and dangerous, even or rather precisely when the general public seemingly “partakes of the same tradition as the inside, while being in essence its very negation.” For the sake of buttressing the walls around the community, fundamentalist groups invest a great deal in their educational institutions. What is more, every family in the community is obliged to belong to one of these institutions, which also serves as their main symbol of identity.

In my book Yeshiva Fundamentalism (2008), I demonstrate how younger Haredi yeshiva students are casting serious doubts on the ideals, norms, and organizational structure of the ultra-Orthodox establishment, in the hopes of reforming their community and personal lives. This internal criticism has indeed precipitated dramatic changes, which are liable to threaten the community’s very existence. In the ensuing chapters, I will discuss various aspects of Haredi fundamentalism in Israel and explain the recent shifts in how the faithful perceive many elements of their communal life. Thereafter, I will analyze how these groups challenge various notions of citizenship, the family, and intra-denominational or society-wide norms.



Charismatic Movements


The second major religious trend at the turn of the millennium is the rise of charismatic movements. Similar to fundamentalist groups, the charismatic variety also focuses on canonical texts. However, whereas fundamentalists emphasize the behavioral and moral dictates of their scriptures, charismatic groups are mostly interested in the ritualistic, symbolic, and ecstatic dimensions. Charismatic movements believe that their exegetical methods elicit an outpouring of virtuosity and insight, which many devotees equate with the Christian idea of the “gifts of the Spirit.” Examples of these methods include the following: Pentecostal glossolalia (speech in tongues); numerous esoteric techniques that Jews, Christians, and Muslims use to calculate the date of eschatological events; the utterance of sacred words or phrases from the canonical texts; and revealing (in both senses of the word) numerical correspondences between words or phrases (Lehmann 1996, 2001, 2002, 2003; Martin 1990, 2001; Bilu 1998).

Another method of this sort is bibliomancy. This divination technique involves balancing a revered book on its spine and allowing it to randomly fall open, whereupon a passage is selected with one’s eyes closed. The passage is then interpreted for the purpose of gaining insight into the future. For instance, Chabad (a Jewish charismatic group that will be discussed below) uses Igrot Kodesh (Holy Epistles), a thirty-volume collection of responsa and other correspondence by their leader, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, to seek counsel from the deceased author concerning, say, global events, private matters, and theological questions (See Bilu 2009).[3]

Charismatic groups place a great emphasis on personal experience, emotions, and spontaneity as well as prophecy and preaching. In contrast to fundamentalist versions of scripturalism, charismatic groups tend to adopt “literal interpretations,” even for texts that are exceedingly allegorical, symbolic, and cryptic. Moreover, the authoritativeness of a spoken word, to include direct quotes from scripture, derives from the personality and prestige of the speaker, such as a rabbi or pastor (Lehmann 1998). For the sake of “spreading the faith,” these movements take full advantage of modern communication technologies. The success of televangelism epitomizes this sort of outreach. In fact, most of the charismatic movements’ energy and resources are channeled toward proselytization. Trumpeting the curative power of faith, Pentecostals draw a close correlation between conversion and various forms of healing. Studies on Pentecostal churches illustrate the prominent role of devil exorcism in their rite, as widely disparate forms of this ceremony are practiced in congregations throughout the globe: from relatively discrete ceremonies in more established churches, like the Assemblies of God, to histrionic displays at, say, the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God — a movement which has spread from Rio de Janeiro all across Brazil, on to Portugal, and many regions in Africa (Lehmann 1998).

As noted, charismatic groups accentuate the individual experience of the faithful. Accordingly, Pentecostal services are often dedicated to healing an individual or personal fulfillment. While the movement’s holy scripts are generally translated into a central set of rituals, they are subsequently combined with an assortment of customs that are drawn from the lore and culture of whatever country the particular branch happens to be in. For example, Pentecostal services in Brazil highlight Afro-Brazilian symbolism; Cuban branches incorporate elements of Santaria spirit possession; and voodoo practices inform Haitian ceremonies. Likewise, the movement’s churches in Israel have introduced a distinctively “Brazilian” religious hue into the local cultural arena, as the liturgy is in Portuguese and the stress is on African practices, possession cults, and devil worship. That said, the services also blend in Jewish-cum-Israeli rituals and symbols, which make their churches more attractive to local devotees. Yet another prominent feature of charismatic movements is the importance they place on the original language of their canonical texts. For instance, Protestant streams have embraced Biblical Hebrew, while new Muslim movements in the United States and Indonesia read the Koran in Arabic.

Certain Jewish groups in Israel have also embraced charismatic practices and strategies. For example, Breslov Hasidim[4] put an emphasis on dance, music, and spontaneity and strive to cultivate an intense, joyous relationship with god. More specifically, devotees endeavor to serve God through the “sincerity of the heart,” namely by living as happily and intensively as possible. Breslov activists showcase all these elements while proselytizing in the middle of busy streets and at mass events, such as the celebrations on Mount Meron. At all these scenes, Breslovers arrive in their trademark sticker-laden minivans and immerse themselves in dance and song in the hopes of spreading their message to fellow Jews. The crux of their Hasidism is the idea of faith and repentance. As opposed to the Jewish fundamentalist view on scripturalism, the Breslovers believe that the study of the Torah not only undergirds a sacred life, but is the key to a jubilant existence as well.

Although Breslovers study Judaism’s mainstream canonical works, they also draw heavily on texts by the group’s revered founder, Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, and his leading disciple Noson. Another substantial portion of the Breslov canon consists of Nachman’s teachings that Noson took down. Like Evangelical movements, Nachman’s gospel personalizes learning and worship. Moreover, Breslovers practice a form of meditation that is achieved by certain mantras, most notably the ecstatic repetition of the Rabbi’s name and place of birth (na, nach, nachma, nachman, me’uman); this custom is indeed reminiscent of glossolalia. Nachman also established the Tikkun haKlali (General Remedy) ritual. During this ceremony, a fixed set of ten psalms are recited; after each psalm, the faithful express their desire to be part of the Jewish dynasty of tzadikim (righteous) and ask God for forgiveness for a particular sin they committed. Followers explain that the Tikkun haKlali can rectify all spiritual and physical flaws or maladies. In other words, the sacred words are used as magical symbols to help members cope with commonplace taboo violations and moral predicaments.

Lubavitch or Chabad[5] is a major charismatic movement on the global Jewish revival stage. While the Hasidic sect was founded in Czarist Russia, today the majority of its devotees reside in the United States and Israel. Like Breslov, and in contrast to mainstream ultra-Orthodoxy, Lubavitchers spread their “gospel” through missionary activity (Bilu 2009). Among the trademarks of Chabad’s members is a fervent conviction in the imminent coming of the Messiah and that the group possesses the absolute canonical truth. Over the years, Chabad developed an eschatological theology which revolved around the charismatic leadership of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (the seventh head of the Lubavitcher dynasty). Within the community, Schneerson—alias “the rebbe” (Yiddish for rabbi)—merited unbridled admiration and undisputed authority. During his helm, the movement was immensely popular throughout the Jewish world and had great success disseminating its message of spirituality. This accomplishment was part of a general resurgence of Haredi communities throughout the world (especially during the 1950s).

Lubavitchers indeed consider themselves guardians of rabbinic law and Jewish heritage. Consequently, it is incumbent upon them to zealously fight against secularization and its impact on Jews of all stripes. In contrast to those Haredi movements that oppose modernity, shun its trappings, and perceive it as a threat, Lubavitch has taken an entirely different approach. The movement is not blind to the challenges that modernity poses for traditional Judaism, not least the problem of assimilation. However, it seeks a close dialogue and mutual relations, albeit complex ones, with the surrounding society. On the one hand, the movement endeavors to reshape reality with traditional Jewish symbols and values; on the other hand, it eschews segregation strategies. In fact, negotiating the trappings of modernity appears to undergird Chabad’s efforts to teach young secular Jews the tenets of traditional Jewry, prevent assimilation, and bring “the spiritually dispossessed” back into the fold of Orthodox Jewry. Similar to other charismatic groups, Lubavitch reaches out to its targeted audiences via modern methods and platforms, such as the mass media and the Internet. The movement also views the fulfillment of these goals to be prerequisites for another of its central objectives: to usher in the messianic age.

From a theological standpoint, Chabad has developed an eschatological interpretation of world events according to which all temporal occurrences are part of a divine process aimed at preparing the world for the coming of the messiah. In 1991, Schneerson declared that the time was ripe for the redemption and that all Jews must ready themselves and clamor for the messiah’s arrival. Likewise, the movement described the First Gulf War (1991) as an eschatological struggle against Jewry’s enemies and the allies’ victory was seen as the work of god. Since Schneerson’s death in 1994, the movement has gone through a turbulent period, as it threatens to splinter into two different sects: those who continue to view the rebbe as the “chosen one” and thus reject the notion that he died; and the rationalist-reform camp, which believes that Schneerson has indeed passed on.

Lubavitch’s outreach program is grounded on its network of Chabad Houses across the globe. At these “mission outposts,” the shlikhim (messengers) hold activities and distribute information on Judaism, pursuant to the sect’s unique interpretation. For instance, the emissaries offer classes on how to observe Jewish holidays and supply all the necessary items, such as Matzot for Passover, so that uninitiated Jews can observe the commandments on their own. Each branch is open to all Jews and the events are usually free of charge. The second pillar of Lubavitch outreach is grassroots campaigns in crowded areas of major cities. Young messengers take to the streets for the purpose of striking up conversations with Jews[6] and persuading them to partake in a specific ritual, attend an event, or read a pamphlet. The best known Chabad campaign is the movement’s efforts to convince Jews to put on tefillin (phylacteries) in the middle of the street. Although Jewish law ordinarily requires a wholesome environment free of distractions for the tefillin ritual, Menachem Friedman (1994) clams that Chabad activists are willing to publicly desecrate the sacred in the belief that having unaffiliated co-religionists declare their Jewish identity in public outweighs the attendant transgressions. Furthermore, the tefillin ritual might ultimately help a “lost soul” find his way back to Judaism. This public violation of the sacred is indicative of the fundamentalist tension between the aspiration to reach the levels of piety of an imagined sacred past and the obligation to be actively involved in the contemporary world, especially through “outreach” programs.

Another manifestation of charismatic religiosity in Israel is Shas, a movement that includes a political party and educational system dedicated to advancing the interests of Sephardic Haredis in Israel. In his comparative research on charismatic groups, Lehmann argued that conversion has become a pervasive feature of contemporary religion (1996, 1998). Campaigns to bring people into or, no less importantly, back to the fold have become commonplace. Moreover, these efforts consume substantial resources and have had a huge impact on the religious culture of present-day Judaism, Christianity and Islam. A case in point is Pentecostalism, a global federation of churches possessing a roughly similar devotional and organizational model (Martin 1990, 2001; Lehmann 2001, 2002, 2003). Drawing on the case study of Pentecostalism, Lehman and Siebzhener (2006) demonstrate that Shas also constitutes a quasi-conversion movement. Many converts and ba’alei t’shuva (regenerate Jews) speak of how the conversion process triggers a moral transformation in their lives as well as far-reaching material changes in the following areas: social milieu, mode of dress, body language and comportment, personal financial arrangements, sexual relations, and eating norms. As neophytes see it, they shun ephemeral or illusory pleasures for more enduring happiness and renounce temporal aspirations for the “world to come.”

Since its founding in 1984, Shas has raised the banner of social and, above all, ethnic struggle. More specifically, the movement undertakes to redress, through political means, what it deems to be the injustices that the Israeli establishment has committed against its constituents. Social and religious identities are closely intertwined in the movement’s historical narratives, terminology, and kinship habits (2006). Although the law precludes Shas from stating so, its educational network (Ma’ayan ha’Chinuch ha’Torani, the Wellspring of Torah Education) exclusively targets Sephardic children, regardless of their religious background or particular Eastern sect. Lehmann and Siebzhener argue that, in contrast to the fundamentalist streams in Israeli Judaism, Shas does not object to Jewish diversity. For example, in his halachic rulings, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef—the movement’s founder and spiritual leader—explicitly recommends that people follow their own traditions in matters such as women’s dress, liturgical ceremony, and the starting time of prayers. Shas has yet to decide, and probably has not even discussed, whether the party’s long-range goal is to transform the State of Israel into a halachic theocracy. That said, it is evident that the movement is taking advantage of the political foothold it has established to promote Ovadia Yosef’s loosely structured form of Israeli Judaism. Like Chabad, its functionaries actively pursue the means and space for running their outreach campaign. However, in sharp contradistinction to the fundamentalist streams discussed herein, Shas does not seek to impose an ultra-Orthodox lifestyle on the entire country (see Caplan 2001).


Mass Worship


Religion in the modern era abounds with pilgrimages and other mass gatherings that revolve around cult worship at graves, the site of apparitions, and other relevant places. By virtue of anthropology’s long-standing preoccupation with worship and ritual, scholars have yielded a cornucopia of studies on contemporary rites. In addition to elucidating the symbols, meanings, and customs that inform these sites, they examine the degree of communitas between the various devotees. Many of these researchers also shed light on the political aspects of religious events, such as the different antagonistic and conflicting nationalist narratives that crop up during services, ceremonies, and rites across the globe. Mircea Eliade conceptualized the idea of hierophany – the manifestation of the sacred at specific places. In his estimation, this process is what gives structure to and orients the behavior of people at holy sites (1974).

Drawing on this terminology as well as Eliade’s distinction between the sacred and profane, Victor and Edith Turner (1978, 34) argue that the crux of the pilgrimage experience—the trek to holy shrines—is a shared universal experience in which the participants reach a state of communitas for the sake of, say, completing their vows or bolstering their struggle against evil. In fact, Victor Turner contends that liminality is “the optimal setting of communitas relations, and communitas – a spontaneously generated relationship between leveled and equal total and individuated human beings, stripped of structural attributes,” who “together constitute what one might call antistructure” (Turner 1973, 216). During these kinds of events, Turner writes, “symbol becomes associated with human interests, purposes, ends, and means, whether these are explicitly formulated or have to be inferred from the observed behavior.” As a result, the symbols that are evoked or engendered instigate a social ferment that arouses individuals and groups to action, be it orderly or chaotic (1967, 36). This sort of phenomenon informs many of the burgeoning pilgrimage sites in the modern Christian world. Shrines of charismatic figures, like Padre Pio in Italy, have become immensely popular. Similarly, the age-old pilgrimage to the Basilica of Santiago de Compostela in Spain has been transformed into a prime destination for modern pilgrimage and tourism, and the ancient cult of the Virgin Mary has attracted immense crowds to Marian shrines throughout the world.

Partially on account of the development and affordability of rapid means of transportation, over the past few decades there has been a marked increase in the amount of visitors—both foreign and local—to Muslim and Jewish sites. Pilgrimage to Mecca has blossomed, as the holy city attracts millions of Muslims from around the globe. Likewise, hitherto dormant Jewish shrines have shed off their cobwebs. For instance, thousands of Jews belonging to dozens of Orthodox groups flock to the tomb of the aforementioned Nachman of Breslov in the remote Ukrainian town of Uman. During Nachman’s lifetime (1772-1810), thousands of Hasidim would travel long distances to spend Jewish holidays in the rabbi’s company and listen to his sermons. On the last Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) of his life, Nachman stressed the importance of his followers joining him for this particular holiday. Consequently, the rabbi’s top disciple instituted an annual pilgrimage to Nachman’s gravesite on Rosh Hashanah. Throughout the early twentieth century, this annual event drew thousands of Breslov Hasidim from throughout Eastern Europe, but attendance fell off drastically during the Communist Era. It was only after the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989 that the gates were fully reopened and Uman regained its standing as a vivid shrine.

A Jewish example of the global trend of female saint worship is the cult veneration at the Tomb of Rachel. The rites performed at this shrine have resurrected fertility cults that have been popular in the Middle East since ancient times. In her comparative study of pilgrimages to Rachel’s Tomb and the Milk Grotto of the Virgin Mary, Sered (1986) explains that the Matriarch Rachel died after giving birth to Benjamin and, according to Jewish Midrash,[7] was buried in Bethlehem. Similar to the perception of Mary in Christian sources, Jewish tradition views Rachel to be a suffering mother who had problems conceiving, accompanied her children into exile, cried for them, and interceded with god on their behalf during their hour of need. Against this backdrop, visits to Rachel’s sepulcher are usually spurred on by problems concerning marriage, pregnancy, and childbirth. For instance, the most popular ritual at the shrine is to tie a red string around the tomb seven times and then wear the thread as a fertility charm. Located in close proximity to Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity and several minutes from Rachel’s Tomb, the Virgin’s Milk Grotto is a spot where the Holy Family presumably rested upon taking flight to Egypt. While nursing Baby Jesus, the Holy Mother spilled some milk and the cave’s black walls miraculously turned white.[8] Apropos of these events, lactating women believe that eating a few specks of the white powder from the Grotto’s walls will augment their milk supply (1986, 9).

According to Sered, the uniqueness of these shrines rests in the fact that both Rachel and Mary are deemed to be the prototypical women of their respective faiths, namely mothers benefitting from special relationships with god and embodiments of female yearning for fertility (1986, 17). Sered argues that a woman’s pilgrimage to either site constitutes a sacred act that endows her with some power. In this respect, the female pilgrims who partake in these rites are essentially coping with the marginal status of women in patriarchal societies (1986, 19). Sered also refers to constraints at the two sites. Rachel is considered a local saint, so that only women from the general vicinity visit her tomb. Additionally, the Milk Grotto is “a dark, private, and even antisocial” shrine. For example, pilgrims must ring a doorbell to gain admittance and are chaperoned by a male Franciscan guard throughout their stay.

There are also popular Jewish saint tombs in Israel’s southern and northern periphery. The popularity of some of these sites has led to the construction of adjacent synagogues and enclosed candle-lighting receptacles (Bilu and Ben Ari, 1992, 1995; Ben Ari and Bilu 1997). Moreover, the bustle around both living and deceased saints has triggered an outburst of new activities (Bilu 2010). A case in point is the mass pilgrimages to kivrai tzadikim (tombs of the righteous) on the hillulah (anniversary) of the given saint’s passing. More often than not, the number of attendees at these events far exceeds the local community’s entire population (1997, 62). One of the most thriving sites is the grave of the Baba Sali, Rabbi Yisrael Abuhatzeira (1890-1984), in the Negev town of Netivot. Abuhatzeira was a prominent figure in the Moroccan-Jewish community. Considered a miracle worker during his lifetime, his burial place has become a sacred pilgrimage site where throngs of believers pray for health, fertility, and livelihood.

Among the most venerated burial sites that dot the Galilee is that of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai on Mount Meron. Shimon Bar Yohai is considered one of the most devoted disciples of Rabbi Akiva, a leading light of the Tannaic Era. Moreover, he is deemed to be a leading kabbalist and the author of Sefer haZohar (Book of Splendor, the canonical text of Jewish mysticism). R. Shimon’s tomb attracts pilgrims throughout the year, but his hillulah on the festival of Lag Ba’omer is probably the largest annual gathering in all of Israel. Bilu describes the ḥalaka (first haircut) ceremony during this event (2003, 173). According to kabbalistic tradition, a Jewish boy gets his maiden haircut at the age of three. At Meron, the ḥalaka is performed by the proud fathers against the ecstatic backdrop of the mass pilgrimage to the tomb. From morning to evening, the site’s courtyard is packed with Hasidim dancing rapturously to deafening music. In the inner circumference of the seemingly endless layers of dancers, the recently-shorn children are showered with gifts and encouraged to live up to their newly-acquired status as boys, rather than babies (2003, 184).

Fundamentalist movements, charismatic groups, and mass group worship in Israel usually fall under the purview of Orthodox and Haredi streams. However, these phenomena are far from the only signs of religious rival in the “Promised Land.” Many Israelis, secular and otherwise, have embraced various aspects of the new religiosity and spiritualism within the framework of New Age movements and similar groupings. As in other countries, there are Israelis who have reacted to monotheistic ideals of religiosity by creating an assortment of religious practices that fuse elements of paganism, shamanism, and Buddhist spirituality with New Age content and some Jewish elements as well.



[1] Whereas Hasidic Orthodoxy stresses the spiritual aspects of Jewish tradition, the Lithuanian (Litvak) way places a premium on deeds and strict adherence to the halacha.

[2] The Six Day War is also known as the June War and the Setback, inter alia.

[3] The Igrot Kodesh is also commonly referred to, in English, as Letters of the Rebbe.

[4] This Hasidic sect was founded in Braslav, a city in modern-day Ukraine, but their name is pronounced and written according to the Yiddish toponym.

[5] Lubavitch is the Yiddish name of Lyubavichi, the town where the Hasidic sect was established in the late eighteenth century. Chabad is the Hebrew acronym for chochma (wisdom), binah (understanding), and da’at (knowledge).

[6] Messengers typically stop potential ‘customers’ in the street with the following question: “Are you Jewish?”

[7] The Midrash is a corpus of homiletic exegeses on the Bible.

[8] According to Sered (1986), the earliest evidence of this site dates back to at least the twelfth century.