The Jewishness of the Jewish state

All we have to do is enshrine the Israel Declaration of Independence into basic law.

Israel's Declaration of Independence (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Israel's Declaration of Independence
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
A nation-state bill is now before the Knesset, sponsored by the government, to clarify what is meant by defining Israel as “a Jewish and democratic state” and giving preference to Jewish over democratic. The exact terms are still under discussion, but it seems to me that in order to discuss them at all, one should know what we mean by “Jewish.” What indeed is the essence of Jewishness?
An ancient sage, Rabbi Simlai, made an interesting attempt to do just that. He began by saying that Moses was given 613 commandments, but that in subsequent generations attempts were made to condense these into smaller numbers that would express their basic meaning. In Psalm 15 David reduces them to 11, in Isaiah 33 the prophet condenses them into six. Micah reduces them to three: “What does the Lord require of you? Only to do justice and to love mercy and walk modestly with your God” (Micah 6:8), Isaiah to two “Observe what is right and do what is just” (Isaiah 56:1). Amos reduces them to one, “Seek Me and you will live” (Amos 5:4) as does Habakkuk “The righteous will live according to his faith” (2:4) (Makkot 23:b).
What Rabbi Simlai means is that the commandments of the Torah can be understood as methods enabling us to promote such values as justice, mercy and righteousness. Those values are the essence of the laws of the Torah. If that is what is meant by Jewishness, we should all want to promote it.
When Rabbi Akiva, perhaps the greatest of all the sages, had to choose one verse that represented the very essence of the Torah, the ideal on which all else rests, he chose “Love your fellow as yourself.” “Said Rabbi Akiva, “Love your fellow as yourself” (Lev.19:18) – this is a fundamental principle of the Torah” (Sifra 89b). His younger contemporary, Ben Azzai, preferred a different verse: “This is the record of Adam’s line. When God created man, He made him in the likeness of God’ (Genesis 5:1) – this is an even greater fundamental principle in the Torah!”
In making this assertion, Akiva was building upon the teaching of Hillel the Elder, who also contended that “Love your fellow” was the essence of Torah, citing an Aramaic interpretation of it: A pagan once came to Shammai and said, “Convert me – on condition that you teach me the entire Torah while standing on one foot.” Shammai drove him away and he then came to Hillel, who said, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the entire Torah. The rest is commentary. Now go – learn” (Shabbat 31a).
These various summations of the essence of Judaism are all worthy of consideration. Perhaps we should simply take Rabbi Akiva’s idea or Hillel’s and make that a Basic Law of the State of Israel by which all Israeli legislation would be judged. This would assert that the basis of the Jewish state is proper treatment of all human beings. I do not think that conflicts with democracy.
After all, what do we mean by democracy? Democracy is a political form in which power is invested – one way or another – in the people rather than in an aristocracy or a monarchy. But it also means preserving the rights of individuals so that the majority cannot by a simple vote take away minority rights or individual rights.
Somehow I do not think that this is what the promoters of this new law have in mind. Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, for example, is very clear about why she is so anxious that this law be passed. She sees it as a counterbalance to the “Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty.” According to her, the court has placed too much emphasis on that law and this new one “will insure the presence of Jewish values so that judges will have them in their toolbox.”
Does she seriously mean that Jewish values will be used to oppose human dignity and liberty? What kind of Jewish values does she have in mind? Certainly not those the sages have taught us are the essence of Judaism.
Does placing Jewish values over democratic ones mean that we should be aiming toward a restoration of the monarchy? A recent book written by the infamous authors of Torat Hamelekh (The King’s Torah) seems to say so. It attempts to demonstrate that Halacha, Jewish law, requires a monarch. I cannot believe that most Israelis – secular or religious – really look forward to that except perhaps as some messianic ideal, in which the world is perfected under God so there is no need for human governance. Will judges now be able to cite the Jewish laws about monarchy in decisions about our political rights?
Does giving preference to Jewishness above democracy mean that we want an official rabbinate to have even more power than it already has? Does it mean that the current oppressive measures concerning marriage and divorce are to remain as they are forever? What about measures in Jewish Law that have been interpreted by some of the state rabbis in ways that are discriminatory against non- Jews – like not being able to rent to Arabs.
Are they to become the law of the land, because some judge will rule according to that rather than according to Israeli laws passed by the Knesset? What about the place of non-Orthodox Judaism in Israel? Haredi parties are constantly attempting to pass new legislation that would discriminate against these groups. Will such laws now have a greater chance of being passed and of being seen as constitutional because of this new definition?
Unfortunately, almost all the bills that have been proposed by the current justice minister and by the current ruling coalition have been restrictive ones – curtailing rights and liberties in favor of supporting the positions of the government. This new law follows that pattern and has the same rationale. It views democracy and human rights as a threat, rather than seeing them as the foundation of a civilized state.
Actually, we do not even have to go back to the sages of Israel to find an appropriate definition of what this Jewish state is all about. All we have to do is enshrine the Israel Declaration of Independence into basic law. Yet I have the feeling that it would be impossible to pass that law today in the current Knesset. It is too liberal. It speaks about freedom of religion for all. It talks about the rights of non-Jews. It guarantees “freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture.”
It is a document of which we can be proud, and one which indeed confirms the basic concepts of Judaism that the sages taught. That is more than can be said of the proposed nation-state legislation.
The writer, a former president of the International Rabbinical assembly, is an author and lecturer who has lived in Jerusalem since 1973. Two of his books were awarded the National Jewish Book Prize as the best scholarly book of the year.