Published today in the Jewish Press
The recent trial balloon floated by a few Haredi officials in Israel advocating the separation of religion and state as a pained response to proposed government reforms in matters of religion blithely ignores the awful ramifications of such a decision and begs the existential question of why must there be a Jewish state altogether on this planet. It misconstrues, if not completely negates, the very premise of a Jewish state.
The trite answer cannot be that Israel is the only place where Jews can feel safe. Jews can be attacked anywhere including in Israel. And that answer elides the more fundamental question of why is it important that Jews survive at all? What would be missing from the world if there were no Jews or Jewish state? There would be a drop off in scientific and intellectual achievement and civilization itself would suffer, but neither incentive has precluded evildoers from trying to destroy us for the last 36 centuries. Why, then, do we want a Jewish state to exist and thrive, and what can be done to make it a truly Jewish state and not just a state of Jews?
These questions confound many Israelis but they certainly have not been cogently answered in the Haredi world, which has struggled to articulate a vision of precisely why a Jewish state is G-d’s vision in the Torah for Jewish nationhood and what it should look like. The great drama of Jewish history – a nation exiled from its homeland due to its sins only to be promised by G-d that its sovereignty would be restored at the end of days – has played out before our eyes…and largely been greeted with indifference or perplexity. For too many Jews, the return to Israel has not included a return to mitzvah observance and Torah study – the very premise of our residence in Israel. For too many observant Jews, the return to Israel has spiritual but not national implications. Life in Israel need not be much different than religious life in Poland or the United States, aside from a handful of mitzvot observable only in Israel. Both are fundamental errors.
One of the more egregious mistakes has been the failure to contribute to the Jewishness of the state, and that is one reason why the religious infrastructure is under assault. “Jewishness” has been reduced to ensuring the technicalities of observance – kashrut, marriage, divorce, conversion and Shabbat. To be sure, those are vital undertakings that are now being threatened by the short-sighted, tendentious and foolhardy reforms being contemplated by the current minority Jewish government.
Nevertheless, the “Jewishness” of the state should be informed by far more than the provision of the abovementioned services, which, after all, is what the religious establishment always did in the exile. There should be a concerted effort not only to provide kosher food but also to impart to the public why Kashrut (and Shabbat, Torah study, taharat hamishpachah, etc.) matter. Additionally, the great failing of the last century’s religious establishment – truth be told, Haredi more than Religious Zionist – has been indifference to the application of Torah to all aspects of statecraft. There is a Jewish way (probably several) to do politics, conduct foreign affairs, guide an economy, craft a legal system, administer an army, ameliorate the plight of the less fortunate and improve the lives of the citizens. That should have been uppermost in the minds of the religious leadership rather than just being religious functionaries.
What is lacking, in short, is embrace of the vision of Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook, who perceived Israel as not merely a haven but the only place where the Jewish soul truly comes alive. It is not just the continuation of Jewish life in Vilna or Kovno but in a new location. The Torah life in the exile was enriching in its own way but it lacked a national component. In the exile, Torah was not the foundation of the society and the prism through which all facets of life were viewed. The struggle was for individuals to keep the Torah amid physical and religious challenges to it and find a way to accommodate the demands of exile while retaining fidelity to the Torah. That had varying rates of success depending on a range of influences but even where Jewish life was successfully maintained the Torah could hardly be perceived as the constitution of the society.
The Jewish state is designed to be different or it need not exist at all. If there is no desire to fashion a Jewish state whose institutions and politics communicate the ideals and values of Torah then it is not surprising that outsiders (especially ones motivated by their own agendas) will perceive the utility of the rabbinic establishment only in terms of the provision of services, which to them means only sinecures, jobs, patronage, money and power.
That approach is not only false but, if people believe it, also does a great disservice to Torah.
The answer should be not the separation of religion and state but the true integration of religion and state. There are Israelis, religious Jews too, who foolishly look to the United States as the paragon nation where the wall of separation between religion and state has succeeded. Don’t be misled. The First Amendment religious freedoms precluded a national church in America or laws that infringed on freedom of worship. It was not meant to create a secular state. Last I checked, the most important Christian holiday of the year falls annually on December 25, and that is observed as a legal national holiday. Congress and most state legislatures still begin its sessions with a chaplain’s prayer and the government subsidizes any number of activities of a religious nature.
America’s decline in the last half century has been accelerated by the rejection of its Judeo-Christian heritage and its unconscious embrace of the new religion of secular progressivism – a religion that has its own deities, saints, holidays, commandments and value system, and which is mostly antithetical and hostile to Torah.
Is that what these Haredi spokesmen want? A separation of religion and state in Israel would not be replaced by a vacuum but by an alternate set of values, none of which is designed to foster Jewish life. Obviously, government support for Torah study would halt. The ultimate justification for Jewish sovereignty would erode. The mere suggestion betrays an exilic mentality and a gross misunderstanding of what the Jewish state should be.
So here is an alternative approach. The religious public should strive to create a more Jewish state. Infuse all national institutions with Torah values – and in yeshivot, teach how that should be done. Share the beauty of Torah, Shabbat and mitzvot with all Jews. Appreciate the contributions of all Israeli Jews and acknowledge the wondrous times in which we live and the divine blessings that have been bestowed upon us. Surely the ingathering of the exiles and Jewish sovereignty over the land of Israel are not insignificant occurrences that can be belittled because they occurred differently than people had imagined they would.
The thirst for Torah in Israel is greater than the thirst for kosher Coca Cola. While providing the latter, we should prioritize the former. When that succeeds, the flirtation with the separation of religion and state will disappear amid the glories of the Torah reborn in all its fullness in the Jewish state that is the manifestation of G-d’s kingship on earth.