When Democracy and Halacha Collide

Many Israelis Say Jewish Law Trumps Democratic Values

Symbol of Democracy: The Knesset building symbolizes the democratic nature of Israel. But many Israelis believe Jewish law should take precedence over democratic values.
getty images
Symbol of Democracy: The Knesset building symbolizes the democratic nature of Israel. But many Israelis believe Jewish law should take precedence over democratic values.

By Harvey Hames

Published February 10, 2012, issue of February 17, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share

In late January, the Israel Democracy Institute’s Guttman Center for Surveys, along with the Avi Chai Foundation, released the results of a comprehensive survey on the religious beliefs of Israeli Jews. Among other interesting findings, it showed that some 80% of the Jewish population in Israel believes in God — which, perhaps, is good news. What is not so good is that only 44% of those questioned replied that if there is a contradiction between democratic values and Halacha (Jewish law), the latter should be upheld. This implies that when push comes to shove, a majority of Israelis would prefer Jewish law to democratic values.

There is a clear and inbuilt conflict between democratic values and monotheistic religion. The latter is divinely inspired, and hence there can be no argument with divine dictate, though some room is left for interpretation. Democratic values are based on a dialectical process of debate and discussion, and majority opinion holds sway. The clear preference in Israeli society for the latter undermines the very foundations on which the state was constructed. This also implies that a large percentage of Israelis view religion and democracy as existing in the same sphere and do not see them as two separate phenomena; this is a major problem for a country that portrays itself as a democracy in distinction to its neighbors.

This disturbing state of affairs comes from a misunderstanding of what Rabbinic Judaism is all about, and it reflects the incredible success of the rabbis over 2,000 years of linking belief with religious observance. Rabbinic Judaism emerged in the period after the destruction of the Second Temple (along with Christianity) in order to provide a solution for a people bereft of worldly power, political independence and a central place of worship. The rabbis further developed ideas that had been circulating for a couple hundred years, one of which portrayed the divine being as the supreme judge before whom comes each and every individual to answer for his or her deeds. Instead of going to the temple and having the priest, the chosen mediator, offer a sacrifice in order to placate the divine entity, every act of the individual was now under the scrutiny of an all-powerful God who offered blessed eternity to those who did his will (that is, kept the commandments) and severe punishment for those that did not.

Rabbinic Judaism offered a solution to the lack of real power in this world by emphasizing the temporality of the suffering in the here and now, which will be followed, for those who uphold the law, by eternal beatitude. Hence the commandments, as interpreted by the rabbis, became strictures closely dependent on belief in the Almighty, who gave them inherent holiness and immediate significance.

This conjoining of belief and observance into one integral overarching religious system, along with the acceptance by Jews of the authority of the rabbis to interpret the divine will, was the central pivot for the survival of the Jews in exile. As they had no real political power and were dependent on the good will of the majority faiths among whom they dwelt, the halachic system provided a sense of identity, security and a purpose to the travails of life while also offering hope for the future redemption of, and a return to, Zion.

This brilliant solution to an existential situation created a vibrant religious life and cul ture that continued to develop over some 2,000 years. The foundation of the State of Israel, however, created a new reality, one that was not suited to Rabbinic Judaism. A system that functioned extremely well where there was no temporal power or political independence came face to face with the reality of a democratic Jewish state with its own laws and courts, and the clash between the two has become very evident. Rabbinic Judaism struggled hard to gain a foothold in Israel aided by the democratic system it opposes, as the Israeli electoral system dictated the need for coalition governments that included the religious parties. The latter played the system to accumulate power and influence way beyond their weight in Israeli society. One result of this is tens of thousands of young men who do not serve in the army or contribute to the economy, but sit studying the Torah at the expense of the Israeli taxpayer.

This Guttman-Avi Chai survey proves that Rabbinic Judaism is gaining ground over democracy and democratic values. The implications of this for the future of Israel are not to be underestimated. Belief in God is one thing; however, the general acceptance of an intimate link between belief and observance in a state that prides itself first and foremost on being democratic is a recipe for disaster.

Harvey Hames is a professor of history at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and the author of “I (do not) Believe: Israel and Judaism — Past, Present, Future” (published in Hebrew by Ktav, 2011).


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Is pot kosher for Passover. The rabbis say no, especially for Ashkenazi Jews. And it doesn't matter if its the unofficial Pot Day of April 20.
  • A Ukrainian rabbi says he thinks the leaflets ordering Jews in restive Donetsk to 'register' were a hoax. But the disturbing story still won't die.
  • Some snacks to help you get through the second half of Passover.
  • You wouldn't think that a Soviet-Jewish immigrant would find much in common with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But the famed novelist once helped one man find his first love. http://jd.fo/f3JiS
  • Can you relate?
  • The Forverts' "Bintel Brief" advice column ran for more than 65 years. Now it's getting a second life — as a cartoon.
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:http://jd.fo/g3IyM
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • Mazel tov to Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky!
  • If it's true, it's pretty terrifying news.
  • “My mom went to cook at the White House and all I got was this tiny piece of leftover raspberry ganache."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.