What’s Halacha got to do with it?

The dissonance between the Jewish religion and the Declaration of Independence.

May 18, 2011 23:45
3 minute read.
Susan Hattis Rolef

Susan Hattis Rolef 58 USE THIS. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Last Sunday, acclaimed author Yoram Kaniuk (who recently received the Sapir Award for literature for his book 1948) petitioned the Tel Aviv District Court to instruct the Ministry of Interior to enable him to register as having no religion.

Two reasons led him to do so.

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The first is identification with his 10- month-old grandson, who was registered as having no religion after the ministry initially insisted on registering him as a “Christian American” (because Kaniuk’s Christian wife never converted to Judaism, and his daughters and their children are not regarded as Jewish in Israel). The ministry rejected Kaniuk’s request that his own registration be changed as well.

The second is his aversion to the growing dissonance between the Jewish religion as practiced and the values proclaimed in the Israeli Declaration of Independence. The paragraph in the declaration to which Kaniuk is referring states that the State of Israel “will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture.”

KANIUK’S REACTION and action is undoubtedly extreme. One can be Jewish without accepting the Halacha as taught by certain rabbis who express illiberal, racist positions. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that for non-practicing, non-believing Jews who have no problem identifying with the values professed by the prophets (mentioned in the Declaration of Independence), even the more liberal interpretation of Halacha can be extremely disturbing, as is the fact that many rabbis who have expressed their objection to what the more extreme and fanatical rabbis are saying, have done so only because they do not want to anger the gentiles, or because they object to the violent connotations of the fanatics’ statements.

One should add that one can be a Jew even without accepting Halacha as having any relevance to one’s daily life, or believing that the Bible was given by God and tells a historically accurate story. Since the whole basis of the Jewish state is the claim that the Jews are a people who deserve a sovereign state like all others, one can simply reject the religious content of the state and still be a Jewish Israeli. In this case, one’s Jewishness manifests itself in one’s history, cultural heritage and identity, and the fact that non-Jews regard one as Jewish – for better or worse.

However, returning to what concerns Kaniuk, one of the things that is really worrying is that the state seems totally helpless in face of the extreme rabbis – many suspected of criminal offenses – who are not only oblivious to what is written in the Declaration of Independence, but openly reject the right of the police and court system to investigate, judge or incarcerate them. What is worse still is that these lawless rabbis have many followers, and their numbers are constantly growing.

The establishment of the State of Israel involved many anomalies that the state’s leaders have consciously or unconsciously ignored. The main anomaly is Israel’s insistence on defining itself as a Jewish and democratic state, without defining what is meant by either “Jewish” or “democratic,” or deciding which of the two is supreme.

From a liberal-secular point of view, the anomaly could be resolved if Israel were to officially define “Jewish state” as a state where all Jews (or preferable “members of the Jewish people”) – defined more or less as currently defined in the Law of Return, with the explicit addition that a Jew need not be observant, or practice Judaism in any particular form – have the right to reside and become citizens; strengthen the democratic principles on which the state is based by legally fortifying the rights of all its inhabitants “irrespective of religion, race or sex,” and adding that an inhabitant need not observe any religion or even have a religion (this would, inter alia, involve the mandatory institution of non-religious marriage, divorce and burial); and enact Basic Law: Legislation, which should clearly state the status and hierarchical order of the various types of law prevalent in the country – including Halacha.

Though the chances of achieving any of these goals in the foreseeable future are negligible, pursuing them is the only alternative to Kaniuk’s act of despair.

The writer is a former Knesset employee.

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