Shuki Friedman

Shuki FriedmanCommunity Contributor

Dr. Shuki Friedman is the director of the Israel Democracy Institute’s Center for Religion, Nation, and State, and a lecturer in law at the Peres Academic Center.

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.

How Much Should Jewish Law Control The Jewish State?

For decades, religious and ultra-Orthodox members of Knesset, backed and encouraged by their rabbis, have worked to inject the secular state with as much Judaism as possible. In an extended and collective effort, they have done all they can to pass religious laws, to base the governing of the state on Jewish law, and to make Jewish law the foundation for Israeli law wherever possible. Over the course of 70 years, the results of this ongoing effort have been minimal, but the price paid by Judaism has been great.

Since pre-state times, the founders and leaders of the State of Israel have been secular. As a result, the state is not run according to halacha or to a religious vision, but according to principles of modern Western law. This being the case, those who have a religious vision for the state have had to resort to religious politics.

Judaism and Islam differ fundamentally from Christianity on the issue of the desired relationship between religion and state. According to the Christian approach, (which has not always been enforced in reality), religion and state should be kept separate. Pope Gelasius I (died 496) encapsulated this idea in his “Two Swords” letter to Emperor Anastasius I, in which he distinguished between the sword of God, wielded by the clergy, whose concern is the spiritual realm; and the sword of Caesar, wielded by the state rulers, whose role it is to oversee terrestrial life. Later on, this idea developed into the separation between religion and state that has been maintained, to some degree or another, in most Western Christian countries.

Unlike Christianity, Judaism (like Islam) is a holistic religion. That is, it seeks to regulate all areas of existence, and to direct the conduct of both the individual and the state by legal (halachic) means. The openly declared goal is that “no area [of life] is free of Halacha” and “The whole earth is full of his glory.” (Isaiah Chapter 6 and 3). Many thinkers, especially ones in recent decades such as Chief Rabbi Isaac Herzog, have adopted the position that the state should be run according to the dictates of the Shulchan Aruch, the code of Jewish law, and that halachic responses should be developed for issues regarding the public arena that are not covered in its four volumes. From hospital management to the defense establishment and the systems of government and the courts, in this opinion, all areas of the state can and should be run according to Halacha. In modern legal terms, Judaism does not limit itself to private law between individuals, but also seeks to institute public law, which regulates the conduct of the entire state.

The past few weeks have made very clear the consequences of religious politics. In one wintry month, the ultra-Orthodox MKs, supported by national-religious MKs and others, have managed to incur harsh criticism, and even loathing, felt by large parts of the Israeli public. In God’s name, Deri, Litzman, and their colleagues have passed a series of legislative changes (amendments to the Hours of Work and Rest Law, the “Supermarket Law,” (to give the Minister of Interior the authority to deny confirmation of Shabbat municipal laws) and the “Litzman Law” (to confer powers to deputy ministers) that have contributed nothing to the Jewishness of the state, that were based on nothing more than political cynicism, and whose only outcome has been the sullying of religious Judaism in the eyes of the public that reject the Haredi religious coercion and cynicism.

Has the time come to give up on the Jewish character of the State of Israel, and to simply pray and wait for Messianic times? Heaven forbid. I believe it is legitimate, and even desirable, for the state to have a Jewish character, and the way to achieve this is undoubtedly through the political system. However, the conduct of religious political parties and representatives in recent weeks and months demonstrates the potential inherent in the confluence of religion and state, and the promotion of a religious, heavenly agenda via earthly means, for causing damage that far outweighs any benefit, either for Judaism or for the state.

I do not believe that the Church was right. The “Two Swords” philosophy has no place in Israel, and I do not support the separation of religion and state. I also believe that the Torah has much to say about running a Jewish state. But this is not the way. No “religious” gain that is achieved via cynical political means, including ensuring a tiny majority by pulling MKs away from sitting shiva (mourning) for their loved ones in order to vote in the Knesset, will advance the standing of Judaism in Israel; in fact, it will only have the opposite effect. As much as we may want the Torah to play an influential role, this can only be achieved in a consensual and respectful way, and not by coercion. In this issues of Shabbat, personal status, conversion and religious services, only a serious willingness to compromise from the Haredi side or unity of all the others, might bring an accepted solution. The path of coercion leads to disaster for us all, religious and non-religious alike.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.

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How Much Should Jewish Law Control The Jewish State?

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