The challenge of sovereignty

Judaism has a core system of ethical values, not as easily codified as ritual laws, but no less important.

western wall 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel jerozolimski)
western wall 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel jerozolimski)
The creation of the State of Israel is the most important event in the modern history of the Jewish people and Judaism. The creation of the state was a radical break in Jewish history with consequences that have yet to be imagined or realized. It presents Judaism with tremendous challenges that can be dealt with only through the efforts of the best Jewish minds. We are now confronted with problems and dilemmas we never dreamed of in the Diaspora. There we had a different set of problems, that may have been no less difficult but were not as potentially radical as these. There are two main areas in which we are challenged. One is in the creation of an entire society, not merely a community. In theory at least, the Jewish community was always known for its high moral and ethical standards. The family was sacred. Marriage was stable. Violence was not common and violence against women was unheard of. Elders were treated with respect. Education was a prime value, as was aid to the poor. Alcoholism was unknown. Perhaps this is an idealization of the past, but surely it had some truth to it. Day after day, though, we hear reports that show the opposite in our society - shocking reports concerning violence among the young, mistreatment of the elderly, etc. The challenge is: how do we, as a sovereign society, translate the basic values of Judaism into our everyday way of life? Judaism has a core system of ethical values, not as easily codified as ritual laws, but no less important. Our secular society has largely dispensed with ritual and seems to have done the same with the ethics of Judaism. What then remains of the vast heritage of Jewish thought, and what makes the Jewish State Jewish? The second area concerns Jewish Law - Halacha - that has so far not shown itself capable of or even interested in dealing with the problems that sovereignty provokes. One reason for this is that Halacha was, for the most part, a creation of the world of exile - of a non-sovereign people - and is based on conditions that reflect a people no longer governing itself. When it outlines civil laws or laws concerning government it does so on a theoretical basis, not dealing with actuality. Therefore many of these rulings are irrelevant to the real-life situations we face today. The basic book of Jewish law, the Mishna, was compiled in the Land of Israel - but in the year 200 C.E. when there was no Jewish independence. The Babylonian Talmud and the great medieval codes of Jewish Law were all written at a time when Jewish sovereignty did not exist. Further complicating the issue is the fact that Jewish Law is not the law of the land and many Jews do not want it to be. We wish Israel to be governed as a democratic state, which means that its laws are created by its legislators, people elected by the populace, not rabbis or councils of Sages. One of the basic problems that immediately presents itself, then, is the relation of Israel to Halacha and what happens when civil law and Jewish law come into conflict. We saw this dilemma most painfully in the problems that arose at the time of the disengagement plan. What we discovered, to our dismay, is that many rulings of Jewish Law become extremely problematic when they are no longer theoretical but can be turned into practice. Another perplexing problem is the question of the place of the non-Jew in a Jewish State. How do we retain the Jewishness of Israel and still grant equal rights to non-Jews who live here? True, we have not done to non-Jews what was done to us in Diaspora lands, but a look at the state budget and at the condition of Arab villages will show how much remains to be done in this area. How does a sovereign Jewish state conduct war? How does it treat conquered people? What can and what cannot an observant Jew do on Shabbat, since a modern state cannot function without such things as a police force on Shabbat? And what about the status of women in Jewish law? Women do not have equality in matters of divorce, where the problem of Agunot cries out to high heaven, and although the answers are within reach theoretically, they are far from being realized. These are only samples of the problems that present themselves because of Jewish sovereignty. We are justly proud of the creation of a Jewish state, but we have yet to tackle the implications of this for the future of Judaism. The writer is the head of the Rabbinical Court of the Masorti Movement and the Rabbinical Assembly of Israel.