The manifesto signed by dozens of rabbis, which categorically prohibits renting or selling apartments to non-Jews, begs serious soul-searching, explicit clarifications and action at all levels of government and society.

It would be a mistake to have the public response take the form of indicting or firing the rabbis, separating religion and state or denying the legitimacy of the state's Jewish character. Ranting and raving could prevent us from seeing the picture in all its complexity and from confronting the authority of the rabbis in this country, both as regards the content and "Jewish" morality of their positions and as regards the residential dwelling patterns of different communities here.

The controversy over desirable living patterns for Jews and Arabs and the use of the law to obtain them is not dictated by religion. Some advocate "color blindness" as the only normative approach to civil equality, on the assumption that this leads to greater integration. Some advocate complete segregation. And some, like me, prefer more diverse social arrangements that would provide different communities with various living options, based on their level of integration and inner cohesiveness.

Even without its religious element, the controversy sparked by the rabbis' manifesto yields violence, hostility and labeling. It is important to approach the issue in a businesslike manner. After all, attempts to bar "foreigners" from living among locals are common in Israel and in the region. Violence is directed at both Jews and Arabs. The rabbis' manifesto - and the objections of other rabbis and all policymakers - did not create the problem. It only added to this already loaded issue questions of relations between the state and religion and questions about Israel's Jewish identity - national or religious.

The president, prime minister, education minister and a number of important religious leaders did well to clarify immediately that neither they nor the state stand behind the letter.

But it is easier to denounce and renounce than confront the issues. The letter's outrageous content mustn't distract our attention from the main point. A criminal investigation is not the way to calm a public storm; rather, it's a step before arraignment. And the tendency here in Israel is not to bring people to trial for speaking out on a matter of public importance. Those who gathered those rabbis' signatures intended to lay a trap, and we must not play into their hands.

The authorities must concentrate on acting swiftly and effectively against those who harass their neighbors for renting apartments without their agreement or tenants who are harassed. They must provide solutions for housing needs, especially for those who tend to be kept out or discriminated against.

Public discourse is vital, and we need to make sure that the rabbis are not portrayed as those whose freedom of religion has been violated. It is important to have this internal religious argument. It is critical not to force those who objected to the rabbis' ruling come to the defense of freedom of religion.

The rabbis' letter does not "prove" that the state's Jewishness is theocratic and that it therefore cannot be democratic. The state's Jewishness is not bound to Jewish halakha, certainly not to certain discriminatory or segregative interpretations of it.

The state's Jewishness does, however, recognize the desire of Jews to be a majority in their country and preserve their national and cultural distinction. The state recognizes this desire in other communities as well. We must examine in all truthfulness if this desire could have implications on residential dwelling patterns.