I’ll be the first to admit I know little about religious kibbutzim in Israel. I’ve never visited one and have only read about them tangentially. I didn’t even know that 2010—the centenary of the movement as a whole—is also the 80th anniversary of Ha-kibbutz Ha-Dati, the federation devoted to the small group of 16 religious-oriented communities. There is a good short posting on Jewish Daily Ideas that gives a mini-overview.

Most people know the kibbutz as an intensely secular, even anti-religious movement. Yes, there was a sense of spirituality amongst its founders, but it was based on a vague “religion of labour” inspired by the Tolstoy-tinged writings and actions of philosopher-pioneer A.D. Gordon.  (More on him later.) The early pioneers were fleeing the claustrophobic orthodoxy of their homes in Eastern Europe.

But the Ha-Dati communities prove just how tricky it can be to generalize about a social movement as varied as the kibbutz—let alone a multicultural nation as complex as contemporary Israel. (Of course, those shades of grey often don’t appear in the black-and-white depictions of the country in the North American media.) The Jewish Daily News item emphasizes just how slippery it can be to pin a political tail on the religious kibbutzim: “Although many members sympathize deeply with the settlers in Judea and Samaria, the movement is also one of the few sectors of Israeli society in which one hears left-wing voices speaking in religious cadences.” 

In fact, these religious communities have taken a leading role in the coalition of traditional kibbutzim (often called “The Communal Trend”) that has tried to preserve the movement’s communal ideals and even lobbied against allowing “privatized” communities to retain the legal status of “kibbutz”. It may take the efforts of religious kibbutzniks to save the founding philosophy of the secular commune.

Religion, it seems, helps preserve the co-operative spirit in the face of change—or at least that’s one theory I plan to test-drive when I visit Israel again this summer… and finally set foot on a couple of religious kibbutzim. (Until then, happy 80th birthday!)

To confuse things further, you just have to consider the moshav — a semi-co-operative rather than fully communal rural community that has always gotten far less attention than its more famous sibling, the kibbutz. (And subsequently resented the kibbutz because of this.) The moshavim tend to be more religious and more attractive to Mizrahi Jews (from Middle-Eastern and North African countries) rather than the Ashkenazi Jews (from northern and Eastern Europe) who founded the first kibbutzim.

Apparently, religion has suffered a decline in many of the moshavs for a variety  of reasons. If it’s hard to make general statements about the kibbutz movement without stumbling across a glaring exception, forget about  trying to sum up the state of the moshav — maybe that’s why they get ignored by the pundits, despite their key role in the agricultural economy in Israel.