The commotion over the place of women in buses and on sidewalks reminds us that religion plays a central role in Israeli politics. There is no formal separation of religion and politics. Moreover, Judaism is a religion that gives a central role to political history, political criticism, and political maneuvering.
What else Judaism is remains far beyond this small note.
It may be that no democracy actually separates "church and state." The platitudes trumpeted about the United States are not true. The Constitution does not require a separation, only that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." There is a long history of public support for religion in the United States, via tax exemptions for religious institutions and outright grants for students and programs at schools and colleges associated with religious bodies. One can also put into the category of laws coming out of religion those concerned with marriage, homosexuality and abortion, all of which change along with the norms of religious people and others.
As I read the Hebrew Bible, I see a central concern for the history of the Hebrews, Israelites, Judeans, and Jews, including their battles and other efforts to maintain themselves in the presence of more powerful empires. The Land of Israel is no easy burden. It is the bridge between continents, reasonably well watered in a region of deserts. It has long been on the agenda of powerful regimes who want to conquer it, or use it to reach other places they will conquer.
The geography and history taught the small nation of the Jews to maneuver and cope. Even God copes with greater powers. He told Moses to lie to Pharaoh about leaving Egypt, and later told him to detour around a strong tribe in the desert. The problematic Book of Job also says something about God, not entirely complimentary. And Ecclesiastes is a delightful expression of scepticism, perhaps more Greek than Judaic.
One essence of Judaism is law, and that is a central feature of what government is all about. Religious Jews, especially men of the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox varieties, spend much of their lives studying the Mishnah, Talmud, and subsequent commentaries, which are meant to explicate and to some extent update the laws of the Torah.
If you want to see outspoken politics in the Hebrew Bible, you can begin with the prophets. Jeremiah, Amos, and Hosea were severe critics of their rulers and economic elites.
A rough translation of Amos 5:22-24 is that God does not want religious ritual, but JUSTICE.
The prophets are at the center of Jewish prayer. Do those reading the Haftorah recognize that they are celebrating Jewish criticism of political and economic elites?
Whether they do or do not, they are marking one of the cultural traits that help to explain Israel''s democracy, as well as the prominence of Jews in revolutionary movements and social criticism from the 19th century onward. It is Justice they demand.
In keeping with this, Israel''s State Comptroller (the GAO equivalent) is the one national auditor empowered by law to criticize governmental and other public bodies for lapses in moral integrity. Other national auditors are limited to judging bodies with respect to legality, economy, and efficiency.
For Israel''s State Comptroller, anything goes by way of its criticism for public bodies'' failure to be moral. If that isn''t Amos modernized, I don''t know what it is.
Another source of Israel''s democracy is the argument that is the essence of Talmudic study. One reads the arguments of ancient rabbis, and continues them with a study partner in an effort to understand the Talmud, and backward to the Torah, and what it means for today.
About 100 countries emerged from the chaos of World War II and the postwar shedding of empires. Most claim to be democracies but are not. Israel is, despite wars, poverty and mass immigration from non-democratic societies; i.e., just the stuff that would be expected to explain a country''s departure from democratic norms.
The cultural traditions of the Jews provide my best explanation of Israel''s democracy. The Holocaust also contributed, by way of showing what might happen if the population allowed itself to be ruled by autocrats or split apart by violence.
Which brings us back to women''s sections of buses and women''s sidewalks.
Tempers have already cooled. The extremists who spit and curse could only attract a thousand people to their demonstration. For the Haredi community skilled in mounting much more noise against violators of the Sabbath or kashrut, that was a sign of isolation and failure.
One should not expect Jews to abandon arguments, only to pursue them without sticks and stones.
The issue of women is far from settled. A senior IDF rabbi resigned, in part due to his opposition to the forced attendance of religious personnel in ceremonies that featured female singers. The deputy minister of health, a Haredi Member of Knesset, walked out of a ceremony that included female singers. On the same occasion, the Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi remained in his place, but was seen reading Psalms on his IPhone during the singing.
There have been testimonials by women who support segregation in buses, as preferential to mingling with male pushers and pinchers. The media reminded us that Cairo subways have cars for women only, also to protect them from unpleasantness.
Israel has coped with religion in imperfect ways. Religious authorities control who can marry within Israel, but the Interior Ministry honors treaties about respecting the laws of other countries. It registers married couples who tied the knot elsewhere. Government and other public institutions serve only kosher food in their canteens, but those concerned to eat what is forbidden have no problem finding food shops and restaurants. Currently we are seeing a change in the practices demanded by religious Jews with respect to women., No one should attempt to predict the outcome of this issue. If other cases serve as a guide, we can expect some kind of messy resolution to flow from the efforts of Israelis to satisfy their contrary expectations.