What makes a Jewish state Jewish?

What makes a Jewish state Jewish?

The events of October 7 and their aftermath have raised for me and many others here and in Israel the question of what makes a Jewish state Jewish.

I would suggest that there are several approaches to this question — and that, given the nature of the Jewish tradition, is no surprise. Here I will try to lay out these various approaches, try to contextualize them, and, as necessary, critique them.

A Jewish state is a state with a Jewish majority

Many if not most Israelis are very concerned about demographics. The maintenance of a Jewish majority in the State of Israel is viewed as an existential necessity if Israel is to remain Israel. Were there to be an explosion of births in Israel’s Arab sector, or if Israel were to take over the West Bank and possibly Gaza, with those regions’ almost 4 million Arab inhabitants, there would be a question about whether the Jewish state still would exist. This question has been raised repeatedly.

Such a situation would produce a conundrum: To remain a Jewish state, the Arab population of Greater Israel would have to be denied citizenship and subdued, or successfully encouraged to leave, or forcibly transferred to other countries.

None of these so-called solutions would be viable without making Israel into a pariah state. That does not stop more than a few Israelis from considering these as reasonable alternatives to a demographic catastrophe that would destroy the Jewish state. Unfortunately, this point of view is devoid of any consideration of the state as possessing a value system. Rather, the Jewishness of the state is merely a numbers game. Nevertheless, this is certainly an existential necessity for the Jewish state to be Jewish, but it is not sufficient.

A Jewish state is a halachic state

Never has Israel been closer to becoming a theocracy than it is now. The ruling Likud party, with Netanyahu as its head, is beholden to four Orthodox parties to maintain its 64-vote majority in the Knesset. Thus far, the non-Zionist Shas and United Torah Judaism parties have extracted hundreds of millions of shekels for school systems that refuse to teach the Israeli core curriculum, which includes civics. This money has been granted by the Netanyahu government without strings attached. Further, these parties have demanded that their men be exempted from the universal draft in order for them to engage in full-time Torah study. This also means that the majority of the male population in these communities are not part of the workforce.

Nevertheless, there is a basis for their demands in talmudic sources. For example, “The study of Torah is equal to all the other mitzvot.” Study of secular subjects would detract from the time dedicated to Torah study. Service in Israel’s army not only would negatively affect full-time Torah study, but it would most likely undermine the halachically required rules of gender separation and observance of the level of kashrut and Shabbat  acceptable to this sector of Israeli society.

Not all the Orthodox parties are non-Zionist charedi parties. The Religious Zionists and Otzmah Yisrael are both super-nationalist Orthodox parties. They demand the annexation of the entire West Bank and Jewish settlement therein, based on the halachic requirement for Jews to settle the entire Land of Israel if it is within their power.

These parties are also seeking to have the rabbinical court system have the same authority in all areas as the secular courts have. This would allow parties who feel that the rabbinic court might rule more favorably for them could legally coerce those they were suing to go before the rabbinic courts. This would be true even if one of the litigants is not observant.

An example of what control of public space would look like if Israel was a halachic state was exemplified this year at a public Yom Kippur service held in Dizengoff Square in Tel Aviv. For years the service had offered Israelis of any persuasion the opportunity to participate in a Kol Nidre service. By Supreme Court order, the service had to take place without a physical barrier for gender separation. A group called Rosh Yehudi took over the service and erected a mechitzah, flouting the ruling of the Supreme Court and the terms of the license granted to the service by the city of Tel Aviv. The reaction was fisticuffs on Yom Kippur between the Orthodox organizers of the service and secular Israelis who viewed this as the incursion of religious coercion that would only grow greater in their space if allowed to continue.

As an Orthodox organization, Rosh Yehudi had two halachic mandates on its side. The first is not to heed the rulings of a court that does not rule according to halacha, and the second, not to have public prayer in a mix-gendered setting.

If what makes a Jewish state is halacha, the question that arises is how far that goes. It is one thing to have public transportation not operate on Shabbat, and quite another to fine minimarket shopkeepers who remain open on the holy days of the Jewish calendar (Minimarket Law, 2018). In order to hold his coalition together, Prime Minister Netanyahu supported this legislation. The law is observed mainly in the breach, because Israel, at least for now, is not a theocracy. If left to the majority Orthodox parties in the coalition, it should and would be a theocratic state whether the larger Israeli community wanted it or not. With governmental coercive power, opponents of theocratic rule could be silenced, and Israel would be Jewish Iran. But, without a doubt, it would be a Jewish state, since it would be ruled by the long and historic tradition of Jewish law.

I have been very critical of this variety of Jewish statehood, but without some traditional Jewish guardrails, Israel would be devoid of its Jewish character. Most of the population of Israel is favorably disposed to tradition. Recent polls indicate that 20% of the Jewish population define themselves as Orthodox and 65% describe themselves as traditional — some closer to Orthodox observance, others more distant from it. This means that most Israelis view some form of traditional Jewish observance as a means of preserving personal and national identity. However, even the non-Orthodox traditionalists do not want Jewish observance imposed on them from the top down. Rather, they want to observe Judaism of their own free will and in the form they choose.

In practical terms, this means maintaining Shabbat and the holy days of the Jewish calendar as days off. It means maintenance of kashrut observance at governmental events and in institutions that serve the general public. It means the Adeloyada costume parades on Purim in Tel Aviv and the Kabbalat Shabbat event attended by hundreds on the Tel Aviv beach as Shabbat approaches. It means Judaism as a culture and not necessarily a religion.

This, too, is a necessary component of Jewish statehood, but it is not sufficient.

A Jewish state is a state that operates according to Jewish values

The early Zionists hoped to build a state that would operate in accordance with Jewish values. These values were written into Israel’s Declaration of Indepedence, which was signed by secular and Orthodox Zionists in 1948. The Declaration states:

“Israel will develop the country for the sake of its inhabitants. It will be founded on the teaching of freedom, justice and peace, according to the visions of the prophets of Israel. It will promote the full social and political equality of all its citizens, without any distinction regarding faith, race or sex. It will guarantee the full freedom of conscience, religion, education and upbringing. It will hold dear the holiness and inviolability of the holy places of all religions….”

Every one of these values has its source in the Tanach or in formative rabbinic literature, the Mishnah, Talmud, and codified halakhah. Yet the multivocal Jewish tradition has views quite distant from those ensconced in Israel’s Declaration of Indepedence. Which of the voices will be heard depends on those who decide which set of values takes precedence. Which brings us to Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.

What makes Israel a Jewish state is that it is also a democracy

That Israel is a Jewish and democratic state is stated directly in two of Israel’s basic laws. Basic laws in Israel serve as a quasi-constitution. But Jewish and democratic have become a source of contention.

The argument goes that we must prioritize either Jewish or democratic. The fallacy of the argument is positing that there is conflict between these values. That is the case only if you claim that authentic Judaism is institutionalized Orthodoxy, which in Israel is the state-supported religion for Jewish Israelis. Over time, this version of Orthodox Judaism has proved to be coercive and authoritarian in Israel when backed by state power. Nevertheless, while most Israelis reject this iteration of Orthodoxy in their own lives, many considerate it authentic Judaism. This view is typified by a typical Israeli attitude: “I don’t go to synagogue, but if I did, it would be dati.” (That’s Hebrew for Orthodox).

If, however, the Jewish character of the state is determined by the major tendencies of the Jewish tradition, Jewish and democratic are inseparable. Think of the disputes of the Mishnah and Talmud, where majority and minority views were preserved and analyzed. Think of the representative governments of the kahals, the autonomous Jewish communities of Europe’s medieval and pre-modern eras. Think of the views of the Shulchan Aruch, the most authoritative code of traditional Jewish law, whose rulings were roundly contested from its first printing onward. In sum, Jewish history does not bear out a division between Jewish and democratic.

Hence, what makes a Jewish state Jewish is that it values the particularistic features of Judaism in maintaining the culture and the Jewish  feel of the State. But to be Jewish, the State must also maintain Judaism’s commitment to universalism and human equality based on the fundamental Jewish belief in the invaluable worth of every human being.

In traditional Jewish thought this is the recognition of the Image of God implanted in each of us.

Rabbi Michael Chernick of Teaneck is professor emeritus at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York. He received his doctorate from the Bernard Revel Graduate School and rabbinic ordination from the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary.

read more: