A plea for separation of religion and state

'We shall keep our priests within the confines of their temples... as we shall keep our professional army within the confines of their barracks' – Theodor Herzl

Herzl 300 (photo credit: Cortesy)
Herzl 300
(photo credit: Cortesy)
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.
Its author 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 itself.”
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 this.
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 insisted.
“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 percent.
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 government.
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.
Herzl believed that this would secure the place of religious tradition in national life, while protecting the sovereign Jewish state from the threat of theocracy.
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 authorities.
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.
At 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 Independence).
“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.”
Given 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.
The separation of religious institutions from the organs of government is, therefore, an attainable goal. Sooner or later, the people of Israel will make it happen.
Rabbi Gilad Kariv, executive director at the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism, is currently running for a place on the Labor Party’s Knesset list.