Let me open by saying that I have not seen enough in the 7 weeks I’ve been here cooped up in a lovely office 40+ hours a week and read even less. This post needs to be written regardless, if for no other reason than to sort out some thoughts…
Questions of Interest:
- What role should Israel play in Judaism?
- Can the same state successfully be “religious” and “democratic”?
- What does the ideal “religious state” look and function like?
Diversity of Opinions:
Jews are often portrayed as vigilantly stubborn in their beliefs. Take the old joke about the deserted Jew for example:
Random Jew is stranded on a deserted island. He is discovered by sailors who happen upon his island. They see the typical things (makeshift hut built of sticks, collection of consumed fruits, etc) but are puzzled by the sight of two different synagogues. When they ask the Jewish man, he responds simply, “this is the temple I attend, and that is the temple I refuse to step foot in.”
I haven’t found this characterization to be too far from the truth in Israel or in the diaspora. And there is certainly disagreement about the relationship between the “State of Israel” and personal Jewish belief.
1st level of dissonance: the “חילונים” (Seculars) and the “דתים” (Religious).
- If you ask the average person on the street in Tel Aviv (someone who is a “cultural” Jew in the American Jewish terminology) what (s)he thinks about Israel and his/her religion you will likely receive an answer ranging from “an important piece of my religious identity” to “the centerpiece of my Jewishness which has replaced all traditional/ritual Jewish observance.”
- If you ask a the Haredi Jew (someone who is a “black-hatter” in American Jewish terminology or literally translates to “someone who trembles before god”) what (s)he thinks about Israel and his/her religion you will likely receive an answer ranging from “unimportant to my religious identity” to “counterproductive or harmful for true religious belief.”
2nd level of dissonance: the “כיפה סרוגה” (Modern Orthodox) and the “חרידים” (Ultra-orthodox)
- If you ask a Haredi Jew… (see above)
- If you ask a Modern Orthodox Jews (identified by Israelis as someone who wears a colorful knitted head-covering) what (s)he thinks about Israel and his/her religion you will likely receive an answer ranging from “Israel is important but only in conjunction with traditional Torah study and religious practice” to “Israel is the fundamental component of Judaism today for by living in the ancient holy land we are fulfilling God’s covenant and working to bring about the coming of the messiah!”
Conclusions on question #1:
I am most interested in and impressed by the Bnei Akiva (“Children of Akiva”) movement in Israel which is a large majority of the Modern Orthodox here. The group’s name is a reference to Rabbi Akiva (50-135CE), one of the founders of Rabbinical Judaism, who is said to have embodied the following qualities: love of God, devotion to the Torah, respect for labor, love of Israel, and his fight for its independence” (Wiki). Its ideology centers around “”,תורה ועבודה the two pillars of “religious learning” and “work” - in relation to the state of Israel. The “work” component - originally focused on agricultural labor and physical improvement of the land of Israel – now takes on a more varied meaning as it relates to all that furthers and improves the homeland.
This “middle road” of sorts in the Jewish tradition manages to dodge BOTH of the generalized insults that the religious and the secular sling at one another respectively.
- The Secular often decry the Haredim for their lack of loyalty to the state of Israel or their primitive and backward way of life. They say things like “If you’re going to burn our flag and slur our politicians, why do you bother to live here” or stew over the fact that the ultra-orthodox contribute don’t pay taxes, serve in the Israeli army, or contribute productively to society in their eyes…
- The Religious often disapprove of the Seculars’ disregard for tradition and call them dismissively “Hebrew-speaking Goyim”. They are offended by the majority of Israel’s citizens who subtly disregard Jewish law or openly reject it as no longer relevant
The success and visibility they have achieved relative to their demographic size in Israeli population is impressive in and of itself. Many feel compelled to serve the state in the IDF as לוחמים (“warriors”) and then continue in the army and become officers. They are also extremely active in high-tech, education and academia.
This population in Israeli society embodies both religious intensity and loyal devotion to the State of Israel. I connect so strongly to these ideals intellectually or mentally but have fallen short of living them literally. I hope that in the next couple years I am able to increase my knowledge and understanding both of ritual Judaism and Israel.
The inner circle captures the similarities between the two objects of a comparison: “Religion” and “State.” While there are many different potential cases through which to examine the operation/“success” of religious states, (a handful of Christian and Buddhist states and multiple hands full of Muslim states) there is only one Jewish State, Israel, and that is where I will focus my thoughts for now…
Israel was founded as the Jewish State of Israel in 1948. Is this problematic? Is Israel a “Jewish” state? What does that mean? Can a democracy also have a state religion? Is that possible?
The “Religion” Part
People have debated what it means to be a Jewish state since the earliest years of the Zionist project when independent and unaffiliated communities from Central and Eastern Europe purchased land tracts and emigrated to the British Mandate of Palestine in the late 1800s facing persecution in their fatherlands. Yet answers are still elusive, most likely because there is not one standard Jewish faith.
American Jews are notorious for attempting to segment their tiny Jewish population into ever smaller groups by donning sub-affiliations within the Jewish religion: “I grew up orthodox and then found my way in the reconstructionist faith…” for example. Whatever happened to those golden days before the destruction of the Great Temple in Jerusalem when Jews were just Jews!
Beyond this level of Orthodox-Conservative-Reform-Reconstructionist typology, and the differing Orthodox traditions I have spoken about, there are racial and ethnic distinctions. Goodness, do I laugh whenever I see someone labeling their ethnicity “Jewish” somewhere… What the heck does that mean? I take a shared taxi and then a bus to and from work each day to find Jews that are Ethiopian, French, Spanish, English, Mexican, Brazilian, Indian :), and all nationalities in between. These differences are often boiled down to the Ashkenazi (European) and Mizrahi (Middle-Eastern) divide which carries a history of strained relations and misunderstandings. Everything from the Hebrew in their prayer books to the color of their skin to the kosher laws for Passover differ between the two divergent traditions. How can these differences be reconciled? Does making a Jewish state mean having one type of Jew? One type of ritual practice?
Taking one giant step back at the risk of falling off the ledge entirely, let’s consider for a moment the demographic reality of Israel: only 75.6% of Israel is any kind of Jewish… as Muslims make up 16.9%, Christians 2.0%, Druze 1.7%, and those problematic “others” 3.8% (CIA World Factbook). YIKES. As we say here in Israel, “?מה לעשות” (“What to do?”)
The “State” Part
Wow. When the question of democracy comes up in relation to Israel you can bet that people are going to get pretty heated, pretty quickly. People who can’t define democracy in a classroom are ready to jump in to “defend” or “attack” the notion of an Israeli Democracy!
The central feature of democracy is representation and participation of the entire populous in the political decision making of the government or the state. Where the majority opinion goes but the rights of all citizens are protected.
There is also an element of freedom in a democracy. The organization Freedom House ranks countries of the world “Free,” “Partly Free,” or “Not Free.” This rating is bast on the robustness of political rights and civil liberties that citizens and theoretically non-citizens as well experience within a state. Milton Freedman writes about “the Freedom to Choice” and how that is what defines successful democracy and optimal society. How then does this work in a religious state?
There is no simple solution or prescription because it is very difficult for a religious state to be a free and democratic one.
Judaism with all its diversity of opinion is arguably one of the most difficult. Its not like Israel was declared a Conservative Jewish state with large minorities of orthodox and reform Jews living within (similar to the many Muslim states) which would have its own challenges. Rather each person defines their own religious belief and observance in relatively different ways. Judaism is a religion that commends religious questioning and debate. One of the foundational Jewish texts which (to my limited knowledge) functions as a practical rulebook for traditional observance is not a manuscript of an authoritarian, but rather a transcript of the debates between the most important rabbis of the days. When you use the Talmud to look up a religious question or subject, you do not find one single answer but rather are taught to carefully dissect the differing opinions in an attempt to discover your own truth. As my witty/scholarly step dad always says when I ask a Jewish question… “Sam, it’s between you and your god!” The name Israel, after all, can be translated to mean “he who struggles with God”, a fitting name for a state with such a diverse and rich Jewish/non-Jewish cultural tapestry.
The Law of Return, originally instituted in 1950, is one important feature of Israel’s Jewish and democratic state. Israel was founded not as a community of believers but as a homeland for the Jewish people. This law which entitles any person who is a Jew, child of a Jew, or grandchild of a Jew and his/her spouse immediate citizenship in the state of Israel (as of a 1970 amendment). Hotly contested internationally, considering that no similar law exists allowing for immediate immigration of Palestinian refugees, I will argue the merits of this law and its fundamental importance in the operation of Israel. First, it is important to clarify that this is not the only way to gain Israeli citizenship and therefore is at worst simply a form of “positive discrimination” (discrimination by benefiting one group, as opposed to punishing the other). This law is by no means unique as more than 25 countries around the world have similar procedures for the immediate settlement/citizenship of a particular ethnic or religious minority. There is continued importance of a mechanism to protect the Jewish people. Historical memory is rather short and subjective, but here is a nice summary of all the major genocides that the world, after saying a defiant and definitive “never again” in 1945, has watched unfold: http://www.spiegel.de/international/0,1518,338612,00.html. Anti-Semitism has always existed and continues to exist. While it is intellectual faux-pas these days to make such a claim I am unfazed. We as Jews have been acquitted of the charges of blood-sucking and horn-wearing but many other racist and ethnic claims remain. Holocaust-denial and genocidal threats are ever-present most especially in the Arab World. I believe that Jews world-wide are so lucky to have a champion of human rights like the USA which has proved far and away to be a safe homeland to an incredibly diverse group of people. Jews growing up in America today do not suffer and are no longer persecuted or bullied. It is however most important to have a Jewish homeland, a final check against the continued existence of Anti-Semitic belief and action.
Instead of enforcing one exclusive Jewish ritual existence the State of Israel must grant its citizens religious freedom by allowing them to practice Judaism or any other religion how they desire. Sounds simple, proves difficult. I do however believe that this means you must institutionalize some Jewish practice. Unfortunately orthodox Jews, mostly Haredim, in Israel and abroad today are feared and impugned by much of the Jewish world let alone those outside the community. They are an important part of the religious tapestry in Israel and accommodations must be made to address their religious comfort as well. Healthy compromises today: (1) Bus schedules which stop on shabbat and (2) Only kosher food served in the army. To me, secular Jews and non-Jews do not lose anything by these institutional choices. While the largely visible buses stop on Shabbat, taxis and sherutim (shared-taxis) both run on Shabbat – many along the same bus routes that operate 6 days a week; similarly, by serving kosher food in the army (and paying for it) I don’t feel any non-religious Jew or non-Jew would feel uncomfortable. *Although maybe do not wish to contribute tax money to purchasing more expensive kosher food in the army… I don’t know.
Marriage in Israel is problematic. One of the major concessions to the religious Jewish groups in the founding of the state, Ben Gurion handed over control of marriage to the Rabbinate. As a result anyone who is not by halacha (law) Jewish, meaning Jewish mother, cannot be married in the state of Israel. Since there are no civil marriages in Israel, only religious (Jewish) ones, many who have trouble often get married legally outside the country (often in Cyprus) and then return where they are received by Israel as “married” but not as Jewish… There are many difficulties here. It is also problematic for Israel to simply issue civil unions or civil marriages because in essence it would be supporting inter-marriage. Israel must guarantee the rights of its people like any democracy; however as a Jewish state too, Israel is more than just a secular democracy. Israel has a responsibility Jews within and without the state to protect Jewish unity and identity for generations to come. It is disheartening today however to hear the hardships of couples who have grown up as Jews in Israel since birth and yet cannot get married because the mother of the groom, an oleh hadash (new immigrant) from Russia, cannot prove her Jewishness… I think the solution is defining a shared conversion process that can be owned by a majority of Jews in the state of Israel. Forcing people to undertake an arduous orthodox conversion and way of life simply to be married in the state seems imperfect. Not exactly sure what the solution is here.
Thanks for listening to my musings feel free to comment or respond to me, publicly or privately.
Hope everyone is still doing well and enjoying the heart of the summer!