Getting Off the Fence

The incisive question that Eliyahu Hanavi asked his contemporaries (Melachim I 18:21) reverberates in almost every generation in one form or another. “How long will you dance between two opinions? If Hashem is G-d, then follow Him. But if Baal, follow Him. And the people answered him saying, it is good.” But of course, they didn’t answer Eliyahu’s question, which was his whole point in raising it. 

Israeli society has been divided since its origins on one such question which, when elided, places us on both sides of the fence. Is Israel intended to be a Jewish state or a state of Jews? Israel’s scroll of independence, interestingly enough, comes down squarely on the side of a Jewish state (“we are thus proclaiming the establishment of a Jewish state in the land of Israel, the State of Israel”).  But the debate rages on, sometimes vehemently and sometimes subtly, and often both simultaneously. 

A state of Jews has no pretense to being based on the religion of the Jewish people. Its value is primarily as a haven for Jews from persecution, surely nothing to dismiss given our bloody history. It tries to embrace the history and culture of the Jewish people, partly to buttress its claim to the land of Israel and partly to serve as a unifying element in a country comprised of immigrants from more than a hundred countries. 

In that state of Jews, the Torah is something to be honored in simplistic, ill-defined manner, Halacha is to play no role in public affairs or in the public lives of its citizens and “Jewish” as an adjective connoting adherence to a divinely ordained set of values, principles and deeds is missing and sometimes suppressed. But let’s face it openly: Judaism without Mitzvot is, more or less, Christianity without its founder. Almost every “Jewish value” articulated by those who profess them but eschew the performance of Mitzvot is essentially indistinguishable from Christianity and most of the world’s religions. So why then is a state of Jews necessary?

The answer we are always given is that otherwise the Jewish people’s existence is in danger. That itself ignores the million dollar question that those who believe in a state of Jews never answer: why is important that Jews survive, especially if we are not going to observe the Torah, and certainly if we have no interest or intention of fashioning a polity based on the laws and values of the Torah? What would the world be missing if there were no longer any Jews? I have heard this question answered in ways that don’t appeal to me. “Look at what we have brought to the world – Waze and the camera pill, technological wizardry and medical innovation, a respect for human rights and the dignity of all mankind.” That sounds great – but cannot Gentiles produce the same creativity? Do not the religions of the world also endorse human rights and dignity? They do indeed, with occasional failures, but those same failures are also attributed by our adversaries, some of them Jews, to Israel.  

 The founders tried to have it both ways. They were focused – rightfully so – in creating an Israel that would be a land of refuge for survivors of the Holocaust, persecuted Jews in Arab lands, and for any Jew who would want to return to his or her ancestral homeland. But they were also mindful of the need to stamp this state of Jews with “Jewishness.” Hence the promulgation of the status quo agreement that ensured the public observance of Shabbat, Kashrut in all public institutions including the military, and Rabbinic authority over personal status issues such as marriage, divorce, and conversion. These were concessions, even limitations on personal liberty that would in other contexts encroach on Western, democratic norms, all so that the state of Jews would exist within a Jewish infrastructure. 

There was something for advocates on each side of the fence. 

Eliyahu’s question speaks directly to us. “How long will you dance on both sides of the fence?” Thus, the status quo has become steadily enfeebled over the decades, and with the proposed reforms Israel’s pretensions to be a “Jewish state” are teetering on the brink of disappearance. That it is being orchestrated by people who wear Kipot on their heads is disappointing but unsurprising. Years ago I addressed the phenomenon of the Orthoprax, Jews who observe Halacha to their heart’s content (but no more than that) and yet are secular-leaning in their values and world view. Many such Jews – and this is a general comment, not a specific reference to anyone in particular – prefer the state of Jews to the Jewish state, notwithstanding its inherent contradictions. Typical of this mindset is the repeated notion that service in the IDF, worthy as it is, somehow confers Jewish status on those soldiers. That is a non sequitur masquerading as a cogent argument. The United States is a predominantly Christian country, but military service does not make one an honorary Christian. But advocates here see it differently, reflecting their original error conflating Israeli identity with Jewish identity. That error is only possible, and is exacerbated, by proponents of Israel as a state of Jews and not a Jewish state. 

An Israel that so waters down Jewish identity that it would confer Jewish status on Gentiles with Jewish blood but no interest in Mitzvot except in the flimsiest sense is a state of Jews and not a Jewish state. An Israel that would officially repudiate Shabbat by opening malls and commerce and providing public transportation on Shabbat is a state of Jews and not a Jewish state. An Israel that would treat its rabbis as ceremonial functionaries whose opinions on public issues are not sought, and when proferred are ignored, is a state of Jews and not a Jewish state. An Israel that would officially desecrate its holy places (such as the Kotel) by allowing egalitarian prayer in defiance of all religious norms is a state of Jews and not a Jewish state. Indeed, the latter is the most telling example although by no means the most significant. In a state of Jews, the Kotel has symbolic, historic and cultural value – but no more; in a Jewish state, the Kotel and the Temple Mount are places of holiness, where the divine presence rests, where the past, present and future of the Jewish people come together. 

What is a Jewish state? A state in which the values, ideals and practices of the Torah are realized in the public sphere and encouraged (though not coerced) in the private sphere. It is a state in which religious leaders share the Torah’s wisdom on all issues of the day and are not limited to ritual matters. (In this regard we are witnessing a dual failure. On one hand, the kippa-wearing leadership is doing more to undermine Israel’s status as a Jewish state, and weaken its connection to Torah, than secular advocates ever anticipated in their wildest fantasies. On the other hand, the Haredi leadership has locked itself into a parochial world in which its focus is on securing the interests of their bloc rather than broaden their base to include all Jews. Neither, at this point, is truly representative of a Jewish state. The proof of this is the primary argument used by the reformers to justify their reforms: the Haredim are against them, therefore they must be good. They are wrong – plenty of non-Haredi religious Jews are against them – but they are now inextricably bound to their ideology, if not to their ministries and seats.)

A Jewish state prioritizes the needs of Jews and the settlement of the land of Israel, and feels no need to apologize for that emphasis. A Jewish state seeks to defend Jews wherever they live and doesn’t aver that living in certain parts of the land – even Yerushalayim – is a provocation.  A Jewish state honors the concept of family as we have always known it and extols the roles and virtues of mother and father, son and daughter, rather than redefine them into irrelevance and ignominy. Leaders of a Jewish state speak with pride about the Torah and Mitzvot, about Jewish history and destiny, and about the accomplishments of the generations that paved the way for redemption after emerging from the pit of destruction. They are mindful at all times of the prophetic vision fulfilled before our eyes – and that Israel as haven is simply part of the progression to Israel as the Jewish state envisioned by the Torah. A Jewish state has eschatological significance; a state of Jews could as well but does not necessarily have to advance that objective. 

There is one more troubling element to Israel as the state of Jews which seems to be what the political system is now endorsing, either on the merits or because of shallow, coalition politics. The Torah repeatedly underscores that our residence in the land of Israel is conditional on our fidelity to G-d’s law. There is nothing to indicate that this historical rule has been repealed or that G-d has given our generation a mulligan. I don’t know how G-d’s runs His world. But I do fear that a state of Jews, as opposed to a Jewish state, if it treads down to the path of secularism, will become unworthy of His protective hand which underwrites our armies and its successes in battle. 

In the last quarter century, the steady dilution of Israel’s Jewish identity – in terms of Shabbat, Kashrut, personal status, respect for Torah, etc. – has been accompanied, if only coincidentally, with terrorist explosions in our cities, relentless threats to Jews in the heartland, and retreat from our  biblical centers. Indeed, the failed Oslo process itself was a triumph of those who advocate for a state of Jews while warring against the notion of a Jewish state. A Jewish state has defined and sacred boundaries. A state of Jews need have no contours at all; in fact it doesn’t even have to exist in the land of Israel, as imagined by Mordecai Manuel Noah’s Ararat in northern New York or still inhabited by Jews in Birobidzhan. The riots last May that featured murderous attacks on Jews and wanton destruction of Jewish property (including synagogues and yeshivot, and in the middle of Israel) were perpetrated by Israelis, albeit Arab Israelis. That alone should have forever eradicated the notion that Israeli and Jewish identity are synonymous. Jews were assaulted and their  homes and stores were burned not because they were Israelis but because they were Jews. Yet, rather than lead to a surge in measures that strengthen Jewish identity and the Jewish character of the state, it seems that the riots galvanized those who seek to dilute the Jewishness of the state even more. 

Some will argue that a truly Jewish state, besides offending non-observant Jews, will always segregate Israel from our Arab neighbors. Neither the former or the latter needs to happen, and the converse is equally plausible. A restoration of Jewish pride in our traditions strengthens our claim to the land and disincentivizes our non-Orthodox brothers and sisters (those who still are of Jewish origin) from further straying. But this is also important to remember. Just like yesterday’s enemies can be tomorrow’s friends, so too today’s friends can be tomorrow’s enemies. And today’s enemies can be tomorrow’s enemies as well. It is not ironic that the conversion reforms designed to dilute Jewish identity are being introduced as the West is poised to enter into an agreement with Iran that will, for all intents and purposes, subsidize Iran’s production of a nuclear weapon. Israelis who are banking on America intervening militarily to thwart an Iranian bomb are living in a dream world. It will not happen, or to be fair, it is unlikely in the extreme to happen. As the Americans like to say, “all options are on the table,” and there the military option will always remain, on the table, like leftovers at a meal that carried on too long. And of you doubt that, please consult the people of Ukraine, beneficiaries this week of heartfelt sympathy and strong words but not much else. 

Strengthening ourselves militarily requires strengthening ourselves spiritually. It requires increasing our commitment to Torah and Mitzvot, not reducing it. It requires bolstering Jewish identity, not diluting it by importing thousands more Gentiles and waving over them the magic wand of conversion. It requires that we internalize that the state of Jews is not eternal. The Torah is eternal, and the Jewish state partakes of that eternity in equal proportion to its fidelity to the Torah. 

I am not a prophet, so I cannot be a prophet of doom. Indeed, so many of Israel’s trend lines are positive that if those could be married to a religious revival, the potent impact both domestically and globally is immeasurable. 

Israel’s founders were probably prudent in deferring to another era these questions of identity. But now that the status quo has been breached and the battle joined, we must choose wisely. Eliyahu’s contemporaries, challenged to choose between two inconsistent beliefs, hesitated until Eliyahu forced the issue and miraculously demonstrated the falsity of Baal. We are not yet privileged to those interventions, but we can still climb off the fence and choose Torah, life, honor, pride and eternity. We can start by asking ourselves, each individual, what can I do today to make Israel more Jewish?


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