Religious legislation in Israel should be a thing of the past. The time has come for a more mature and open synthesis of Judaism with the Nation that dwells in Zion.This position paper puts forth several bullet points towards the adoption of Judaism as a shared cultural ethos for all strata of Israeli society without any coercive component. Judaism would become more friendly and approachable, offering a rich cultural plane while leaving the individual free to do as he pleases.
The State of Israel is an unusual and interesting phenomenon on the global political scene. It combines two essential and contradictory motives that are very difficult to reconcile and impossible to forego. On one hand, it is a democratic state, even very democratic. It very clearly and declaratively belongs to the Western liberal democratic cultural sphere that places foremost the value of individual rights and freedoms. On the other hand, it defines itself as a “Jewish” state, and this definition takes on clear and specific national, racial, and religious characteristics. Classical democracy can include a national identity (though it is having difficulty digesting even that as it continues to radically develop), but the democratic essence is designed to shy away from collective restrictions of race, and even more so from restrictions on religious obligations.
Some in Israeli society would like to see democracy overcome Judaism and push it to the sidelines, though a majority of the public knows that this is impossible in reality. Throughout its history, Israel’s right to exist has been intrinsically connected to its Jewish identity specifically – from the beginnings of Zionism to the Balfour Declaration and to the establishment of the State after the Holocaust.
The clearest representatives of Jewish identity are traditional Jews and the “religious”. These are the Jews who maintain the clear Jewish characteristics of observance. By doing so, they forgo a sizeable share of liberal life as it is lived in the democratic world. This sector has shouldered the responsibility of preserving the Jewish character of the State, doing so by infusing public life and legislation with religion as much as possible. The result of this campaign is a hidden as well as public tug of war between the “representatives of democracy” who are trying to preserve the liberal character of the State, and the “representatives of Judaism”, who are trying to further the theocratic character of the State (a Halachic State).
Our central claim is that the integration of Jewish culture and fundamental Jewish characteristics in public life does not have to be theocratic in the least. Moreover, every time the “religious” character of Judaism forces something on the public realm, the Jewish character of the state is actually damaged. Judaism is a deep national ethos with many characteristics of which the “religious” characteristics constitute only a part, albeit an important part. By “religious” we mean a system of laws and beliefs that the individual takes upon himself stemming from a belief in God or from a central ideal in his life. Religious life is an essential part of an individual’s world, but his responsibility towards it only has meaning within the framework of man’s “accepting the yoke of heaven”.
Expanding the sphere of religious life beyond that of the individual takes place through the community of believers, and such a community can in principle expand to a national framework. Religious laws have no import when they don’t apply to a community of believers. Forcing religious law on people who feel no religious obligation hurts not only democracy, but also the possibility of a mature and meaningful understanding of religious life.
The central point is that the Jewish essence, Jewish culture and even the Jewish spirit and responsibility are not restricted to religion alone. The Jewish ethos contains within it numerous realms that do not affect the life of the individual or his responsibility towards G-d specifically. Judaism deals with the designing of human society, justice and freedom, and a societal ambience that flows from Jewish identity, fidelity to history and national tradition.
It is indeed correct that forcing certain beliefs and religious practices on the individual infringes on his freedom. The public realm, however, has by nature its own character, identity and boundaries. These are publicly expressed through education, national ceremonies, and even more – through value-based decisions in the courts and through legislation.
Considering this, it is clear that the attempt to instill Jewish character into the State up to now has been implemented with the wrong tools and in the wrong areas. Religious forces in the State are trying to pass as much religious legislation as possible in order to preserve the Jewish character of the State; religious legislation on marriage, conversion, kosher food, leavening on Passover and the like. These types of legislation invade the private domain specifically and create an external coercive religious force above and beyond the standard coercion of the community over the individual.
This intervention erodes the meaning of religious obligation, forcing external and technical observance upon people who do not accept religious obligations in the first place. It would be best to do away with all religious legislation, and perhaps even to prohibit it. The religious will make do without government intervention in religious matters just as they made do within their communal frameworks before the establishment of the State.
The reason that Judaism is expressed in this way is specifically connected to a historical sequence that preceded the establishment of the State. For two thousand years Judaism functioned strictly within the confines of small communities, which brought together believers who were connected mainly by their religion. In this exilic state of Judaism, there was no national or civic life where meta-religious Judaism could express itself.
There is a completely different possibility for connected Judaism within the public domain, and that is within those realms of Judaism that connect to the public itself and do not relate to an individual’s faith. One fitting example would be the widest adoption possible of the Jewish judicial system. The current judicial system in Israel is based on the British system, which is actually based on the Roman system. Both the Jewish and Roman systems are ancient. Both nations, through their respective judicial standpoints, sought to engineer the best and most moral method for maintaining a healthy society. As the years progressed, the Roman system became more sophisticated due to the widespread application it was able to achieve. The Jewish system, however, hasn’t been applied in a statutory framework for two thousand years. It would certainly be a point of fidelity, identity, and even national pride if Israel were to adopt the principles of the Jewish judicial system and make an effort to apply them to the present as much as possible.
Another example is the place of Jewish texts and Jewish history in the education system. Judaism needs to be taught with the utmost gravity, since it is the source of Israeli culture and the basis of Jewish identity. This sort of education has nothing to do with religious education. Just as in America and the United Kingdom Latin is studied in school only because Latin culture was the bedrock for western culture, so every child in Israel should learn Talmud, Midrash, and Jewish philosophy as part of basic cultural literacy and the construction of a natural historical identity.
Additional points that lead in the same direction involve adopting Jewish principles for public questions: The capitalistic vs. socialistic character of the economy, welfare, relating to non citizens (foreign workers, infiltrators, and refugees), guarding human life and the like. Certainly these matters require further clarification and renewed consideration, and perhaps one can say – renewed Jewish exegesis, a new Jewish agenda.
Would the Jewish character of the state be damaged if all religious laws were repealed? It seems indeed that the opposite is true. The “cleared air” would enable a renewed connection that would come from freedom and choice. One can see this process on the basis of existing religious legislation. For instance, the Chametz law, which is supposed to preserve the Passover atmosphere, encourages attempts to sidestep or even break it out of spite. Repealing this law will lead those percentages of the public who respect Jewish tradition to refrain from eating Chametz in public.
This is even more prominent with regard to a tradition that has been left without legislative expression, but which is much less fitting to the Western mind – circumcision. 97% of Jewish babies are circumcised without any law enforcing the matter. This shows that there is a solid foundation for assuming that other areas under the thumb of religious legislation would undergo a blossoming and willful fulfillment when these laws are repealed.