What does ‘a Jewish state’ mean?

Should there be a separation between shul and state?

‘TODAY THE State of Israel’s identification with Jewish nationhood is under attack from all sides.’ (photo credit: REUTERS)
‘TODAY THE State of Israel’s identification with Jewish nationhood is under attack from all sides.’
(photo credit: REUTERS)
A fundamental misunderstanding has dominated the discussion about this question. Does a Jewish state mean one that is run according to Halacha? Entangled in questions of interpretation and authority, the State of Israel struggles with this issue daily and in myriad ways. What is the place of secular, non-religious Jews? How can individual freedom be protected? Should there be a separation between shul and state?
The idea of a Jewish state is not about the role of Jewish law, a realm of rabbinic discourse, but about how a political structure can incorporate all of its constituent elements into a dynamic, organic whole. The function of a Jewish state is to provide by virtue of its sovereignty the basis of Jewish civilization, a context for Judaism to grow and develop, Jewish existence, a consciousness of what it means to be a Jew.
Jewish civilization and Jewish sovereignty
For Jews in Israel, the struggle to survive is often taken for granted. A fact of life that punches us with every terrorist attack, pounds with every anti-Jewish Arab riot and pains with condemnations by UN agencies and European Union diplomats. It’s nothing new; Jews have lived with persecution and the threat of extinction for millennia. It’s in our blood. We breathe our vulnerability, our eyes search for escape. Many assimilate and drop out, some join the perpetrators and turn on their own. And yet the fragile DNA of Jewish living persists.
Expressed in two monumental civilizations during the First and Second Temple periods, through many exilic cultures throughout history, and nearly wiped out during the Shoah, the third Jewish civilization has begun in Israel. Unlike Jewish cultures which flourish in host countries, regions, and empires, Jewish civilization requires one specific location – the Land of Israel; it also requires sovereignty and the ingathering of Jews.
Why Jewish civilization?
Civilizations are vast collections of human endeavors over eons. The first Jewish civilization centered around Torah, Prophets and the Temple. The second around Torah and Temple. The third Jewish civilization now emerging in Israel represents a collective Jewishness bound together by a common instinct and awareness of Jewish consciousness – and with two hooks: What does it mean to be Jewish, and why Israel?
The State of Israel, as a political entity, must not be confused with the theological and historic roots from which it draws strength and purpose; states are merely mechanisms to exercise and assert power, a set of institutions for good or bad. Modern enlightened democratic states are defined by their constitutions and institutions and the value system they reflect, the rest by whatever arbitrary authority rules.
The modern development of a Jewish civilization in Israel – the collective creative Jewish imagination – was not intended by secular socialist Zionists who were instrumental in creating the state. Their model, the kibbutz, was at least in theory egalitarian and idealistic. Zionism and the state continue to reflect these values today, but many Israelis are turning towards Jewish tradition and observance.
Words of presidents and prime ministers are meaningless – what matters is what Jews in Israel do. Building the Third Jewish Commonwealth, a new Jewish civilization and settling the Land of Israel is the true purpose of Zionism. It has been that way since Joshua, more than 3,300 years ago. It is part of the Jewish saga of exile and redemption. History is in our hands waiting to be formed and lived.
We are just beginning. Every Jew has a place and a purpose in this effort. Welcome home.
The writer is a PhD historian and journalist in Israel.