Coercion and Judaism Don’t Mix – Especially Not in Israel

Founded as a Jewish state, Israel will never resemble the American model where state and religion are separate. But no one foresaw its Jewish values would be determined by an Orthodox, government-sponsored religious monopoly.

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A group of women wrapped in the Israeli flag stand before the Western Wall. April 11, 2014.
A group of women wrapped in the Israeli flag stand before the Western Wall. April 11, 2014.Credit: Michal Fattal
Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie
Eric H. Yoffie

Memo to American Jewish liberals: Church-state separation on the American model cannot exist in the State of Israel. Rabbi Avi Shafran was right on that point in his recent Haaretz article, even if he was wrong about practically everything else.

Israel, as Rabbi Shafran pointed out, is a Jewish state. It is the one place in the world where Jews have actual power. It is the one place in the world where Shabbat and the festivals provide the rhythm of the calendar, where the language of the Bible is the language of every day, and where the values of Jewish tradition are applied to every aspect of life. It is the one place in the world where Jewish history, Bible, Talmud, and elements of Jewish religious observance are taught in the public school system, and where kosher food is served in the army and government institutions.

Those who believe that Judaism can be separated from everyday life in Israel misunderstand the Zionist enterprise. The whole point of the Zionist experiment was to create a Jewish country where a Jewish majority would shape a vibrant, dynamic, Hebrew-speaking Jewish culture. Non-Jews would be welcome, of course, and granted full rights; but minority status, the fate of Jews for two millennia, would now be a burden borne by others. The issue, therefore, is not whether or not Israel will be a Jewish state. It is a Jewish state. Rather, the question is: What kind of a Jewish state is it to become?

This is where Rabbi Shafran runs into trouble.

The premise of Zionism has always been that the nature of Israel’s Jewish character would evolve over time. Some of her citizens would embrace strict religious observance; some would choose progressive definitions of Jewish religion; some would experiment with Jewish cultural forms, old and new; and some would develop as yet unimagined formulations of Jewish identity. In this sense, despite the absence of church-state separation, Israel has always possessed a liberal tradition, at least in the classical sense of the term. Herzl assumed that Jews would be free to express their Judaism in diverse ways and that the power of religious officials would be limited. Ben-Gurion hoped for a Jewish culture rooted in atheism, socialism, and Biblical teachings. Neither could imagine, in the long term, that a coercive, Orthodox, government-sponsored religious monopoly would be responsible for Jewish values in the Jewish state.

Yet this is what happened and what Rabbi Shafran applauds. And the results have been entirely predictable. Never in human history has a religious monopoly succeeded in advancing the cause of the religion that it purports to represent.

Coercive monopolies undermine religion and bring religious tradition into disrepute. Rabbi Shafran assumes that Israel will somehow be different, but why should that be so?

Rabbi Shafran attempts to make his case for Israel’s current religious system by noting that many western countries profess a state religion. He notes that England has an official state religion. It also has a Chief Rabbi. But he fails to mention that western democracies avoid the coercive religious model that Israel has adopted.

And Britain is no exception. The Queen is head of the Church of England, but other religious faiths there operate freely and without legal restriction. The Chief Rabbi is a functionary of Jewish Orthodoxy in Britain, not an official of the State. And Reform, Conservative, and Liberal rabbis have full rights under British law to perform legally recognized marriages, divorces, and conversions. Great Britain, in other words, provides a compelling example of the only way that a state-sponsored religion might possibly work. For reasons of history and tradition, certain individuals may be granted symbolic status as national religious leaders, but religious freedom and legal recognition are assured for all religious groups and persuasions.

The most outrageous claim Rabbi Shafran makes is that Israel’s Haredim [ultra-Orthodox] have scrupulously maintained the religious status quo while all of Israel’s religious troubles come from those intent on “changing things.” In fact, the changing has come from the Haredi side. The number of yeshiva students exempted from the army has grown from 400 at the state’s founding to more than 50,000, and Haredi unemployment has grown from 10% in 1979 to more than 50% today. A religious bureaucracy that once was relatively modest in size and moderate in outlook has become extreme, bloated, and corrupt. And instead of pointing to the Haredi leaders responsible for these developments, Rabbi Shafran chooses to single out Anat Hoffman for blame—the same Anat Hoffman who, for a quarter of a century, led a group of modestly-clad, traditional women in prayer at the women’s section of the Western Wall, in the vain hope that the Haredi authorities would allow them to pray in peace.

These are difficult times for the State of Israel, which is stalked by terror and reeling from tragedy. This is a good time, therefore, to reaffirm Zionist fundamentals. Yes, Israel is a Jewish state. Yes, church-state separation is impossible. And yes, Israel must “retain its Jewish identity and preserve what it can of Jewish unity.” But I remind Rabbi Shafran that there is only one way to do this: Follow the path of Herzl and embrace the real message of Ben-Gurion. Allow Israel’s Jews, religious and otherwise, to choose their own way. By setting aside the narrow religious interests of a politicized bureaucracy, the State of Israel can focus instead on the religious concerns of the entire Jewish people.

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie served as president of the Union for Reform Judaism from 1996 to 2012. He is now a writer and lecturer living in Westfield, New Jersey.

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