A slim volume published in Leipzig and Vienna in 1896 changed the course of
Jewish history. “The Jewish State: An Attempt at a Modern Solution of the Jewish
Question” presaged the founding of the modern state of Israel.
Theodor Herzl was far removed from the world of religion. It is surprising,
therefore, that in his revolutionary pamphlet the assimilated Viennese
journalist-cum-playwright assigned a significant role to rabbis in the
realization of the Zionist dream.
The rabbis, he thought, would be the
first to understand, the first to enthuse. “Our rabbis will devote their
energies to the service of our idea, and will inspire their congregations by
preaching it from the pulpit,” he wrote. “Israel will pray for us and for
This unequivocal assignment of a key role for the rabbis in our
national revival might seem to imply that Herzl also saw a significant role for
them in the administration of the Jewish state once sovereignty was achieved.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Herzl was very clear on
Without belittling the powerful influence of the rabbis and perhaps
because of it, he explicitly rejected any thought of a theocracy. “We shall keep
our priests within the confines of their temples in the same way as we shall
keep our professional army within the confines of their barracks,” he
“Army and priesthood shall receive honors high as their
valuable functions deserve. But they must not interfere in the
administration of the State…” One hundred and sixteen years have elapsed since
the publication of “The Jewish State.” Many elements of Herzl’s vision have
become part and parcel of everyday life in Israel. Others have remained, for
better or for worse, dead letters.
But of all the many layers of Herzl’s
vision, the question of the separation of religion from the legal system and
from the corridors of power is furthest from realization. In diametric contrast
to his vision, the religious establishment in Israel is intricately bound up
with and incorporated in the institutions of state. It wheels and deals in the
corridors of power, draws on governmental authority and resources, and imposes
itself on the citizens of Israel.
But the power of its grip on the
establishment is in inverse proportion to its capacity to excite or influence
the public, let alone lead it. Indeed, large numbers of Israelis feel
increasingly alienated from Judaism and its traditions. Many ascribe this,
rightly, to the way the religious establishment conducts itself. Public opinion
surveys, like the annual corruption barometer, show that by comparative
international standards Israelis attribute an extraordinarily high degree of
corruption to the religious establishment.
Most Israelis want to change
things. A significant majority supports rescinding the religious establishment’s
monopoly on marriage and divorce, and would like to see the introduction of
civil marriage. The same is true with regard to public transport on the Sabbath.
And, according to a “social survey” conducted by the Central Bureau of
Statistics in 2009, a clear majority of Israeli citizens supports the separation
of religion and state. Among the Jewish population the figure was 56.5
Over the past few years, there has been a lot of talk about
reviving the Zionist vision and reinforcing Herzl’s legacy. In the context of
this discourse, it is worth remembering that Herzl’s vision dealt not only with
bringing the state into being, but also with its character and form of
In his view, the religious communities and their social
leadership would be best served by separating religious institutions from the
institutions of government, promoting freedom of religion and freedom from
religion, and basing religious life on voluntary self-organization.
believed that this would secure the place of religious tradition in national
life, while protecting the sovereign Jewish state from the threat of
This Herzlian liberal-democratic position is at the heart of new proposals for an institutional separation between
religion and state in Israel. Over the past year, the Reform and the moderate
Torah and Labor Faithful movements in Israel have submitted several operational
plans for separating religious institutions from Israel’s governing
The basic idea is for the various religious institutions to
be recognized as voluntary associations operating on the basis of the free will
of their members and of people who avail themselves of their services. This
institutional separation notwithstanding, the state will continue to support the
activities of the various ethnic and religious communities and religious streams
the way it does with regard to a wide variety of communal, educational and
cultural services. But its assistance will be given on a purely egalitarian and
objective basis, without any hint of it conferring governmental status on any
religious stream or institution.
The separation between religious
institutions and the organs of state will create a proper balance between Israel
as a Jewish state and its basic democratic values, including its obligation to
defend and promote freedom of religion and conscience.
On the one hand,
its Jewishness, including the inherent connection between the State of Israel
and the Jewish people, will be preserved. It will be expressed through the ties
between the state and the Diaspora, the Law of Return that applies to all
members of the Jewish people, the primacy of the Hebrew language, the symbols of
state, the educational curricula, the official holidays and much more.
the same time, the state will reinforce its democratic values by refraining from
granting direct governing authority to any religious institution or priority to
any religious stream, both of which could impinge on freedom of religion or
freedom of conscience.
Initial, important seeds of the separation idea
can be found in academic, legal, political and public discourse, including among
moderate Orthodox groups.
One notable example is the Supreme Court ruling
of 2002, recognizing non- Orthodox conversions to Judaism. Then court president
Justice Aharon Barak made the following watershed statement: “The Jews in Israel
are not perceived as a single religious community… The perception of the Jews as
a ‘religious community’ by the King-in-Council during the British Mandate is a
Mandatory, colonialist approach.
There is no room for it in the state of
Israel. Israel is not the state of a ‘Jewish community.’ Israel is the state of
the Jewish people and is an expression of ‘the right of the Jewish people to
national revival in their own country’ (from the 1948 Declaration of
“There are different streams of Judaism active in Israel
and abroad. Every stream operates according to its own views. Each and every Jew
in Israel – like each and every person who is not Jewish – has the right to
freedom of religion, conscience and association. Our basic principles
grant every individual the freedom to decide which stream to join.”
the realities of political life in Israel, it seems that this vision is still
far from being fully realized. Nevertheless, if there is an important lesson
Herzl taught us, it is that where there is a will, even a dream can become
reality. The vast majority of the Israeli people want to see a change in the
relationship between the religious establishment and the state.
separation of religious institutions from the organs of government is,
therefore, an attainable goal. Sooner or later, the people of Israel will make
Rabbi Gilad Kariv, executive director at the Israel Movement for
Progressive Judaism, is currently running for a place on the Labor Party’s