Religion vs. state: Israel must pay attention to the Hanukkah story - opinion

A healthy tension between the spiritual leadership and the political one is essential not only for a functioning democracy, but for survival itself.

 RABBI PINCHAS Goldschmidt: The sages teach that kings should not be anointed from among the priests – that is, there must be a separation of spiritual and political power. (photo credit:  Eli Itkin/CER)
RABBI PINCHAS Goldschmidt: The sages teach that kings should not be anointed from among the priests – that is, there must be a separation of spiritual and political power.
(photo credit: Eli Itkin/CER)

When Avi Maoz, a religious Zionist leader, took the stand in the Knesset last week, he compared the election victory of the right-wing parties to the Hanukkah miracle of the victory of the Maccabees over the Hellenists.

It is a valid parallel, since the Hanukkah story is essentially that of the conflict of the internal Jewish struggle between the traditionalists and the assimilationists.

The last elections were a surprise for much of the Israeli electorate, giving very strong representation of the religious Zionists and ultra-Orthodox. While the ultra-Orthodox are using their strength to ensure their cultural autonomy, the religious Zionists are trying to strengthen the Jewish identity of the state. But together, they both value the Jewish identity of the state more than its democratic nature, while liberal Israelis value democratic principles over the nation-state.

Israel has much in common with the US: Both people were formed through covenantal agreements and aspired to much more than just being a nation-state. But while the founding fathers of the US invoked God in their founding documents yet chose to separate church and state – Israel’s founders did just the opposite. 

In exhausting discussions between the religious minority and the secular majority, the founders of the Jewish state decided to omit God from the Declaration of Independence, but make no separation of synagogue and state. 

 FIRST PRIME MINISTER David Ben-Gurion reads Israel’s Declaration of Independence in Tel Aviv, on May 14, 1948 (credit: GPO) FIRST PRIME MINISTER David Ben-Gurion reads Israel’s Declaration of Independence in Tel Aviv, on May 14, 1948 (credit: GPO)

Two moments at the onset of the newly established Jewish state defined its interdependence from religion, known as the “status quo.” The first one was a letter from David Ben-Gurion, the founder of Israel, to Rabbi Yehuda Lev Fishman, the political leader of religious Zionism, establishing a state rabbinate with jurisdiction over the personal status of all Jewish citizens and guaranteeing the sanctity of the Sabbath in the public sphere. The other one was the meeting of Ben-Gurion with the ultra-Orthodox leader, Rabbi Avraham Yeshaya Karelitz in 1952, granting cultural autonomy to Israel’s ultra-Orthodox.

Ben-Gurion and Karelitz were intent on avoiding a bloody conflict between the secular state and its tiny ultra-Orthodox minority, but both were also convinced that this was a provisional solution. Karelitz thought that Israel was a short-term experiment, while prime minister Ben-Gurion was convinced that the ultra-Orthodox would eventually disappear.

However, 70 years later, Israel continues to thrive as a regional power, and the ultra-Orthodox grew to more than one million people, with 13% of Israelis describing themselves as ultra-Orthodox. By 2050, they are expected to be 30% of the population. At the onset of the state, the secularists were the great majority, while already today, the ultra-Orthodox, the religious Zionists and traditionalists constitute the majority of Israelis.

The ad hoc agreements of more than 70 years ago continue to create tension to this very day – because there was no consensus about the role of religion in the state at its inception. Israel’s ultra-Orthodox took part in the political process initially merely to ensure their independence and cultural autonomy. But this has led them to their involvement in the management of much of the government affairs. 

Because there is no consensus, this secularism-religion war will continue to rage with every election – to the detriment of Israeli society, because each side reverts to the narrative of victimhood for the sake of survival.

ON THE heels of celebrating Hanukkah, we should not forget that the Hasmonean kingdom didn’t last forever, but disintegrated through denominational divisions and civil war. 

Nahmanides, one of the major Jewish scholars from 12th-century Spain, wrote that a major reason for the failure of the Hasmonean project was the convergence of spiritual and political powers (very much akin to the church in his time) when the Temple priests who led the insurrection against the Greeks declared themselves as kings as well.

The lesson from the story is quite evident: The separation of power is necessary. As Nahmanides writes, “It was not for [the Hasmoneans] to rule, but only to perform the service of God.” The sages teach that kings should not be anointed from among the priests – that is, there must be a separation of spiritual and political power.

The Hasmonean kingdom, the second Jewish commonwealth, lost its independence and denigrated into a Roman vassal state and developed Sadducean leanings, centering earthly and spiritual power to the temple priests. The Pharisees, locked in political combat with the Sadducees, replaced the spiritual leadership of the temple priests with those of the Torah scholars, the rabbis – the only Jewish denomination that survived the ensuing 2,000 years in exile. 

The moment that spiritual leaders take political control, corruption ensues – and destruction follows.

David Friedman, the former US ambassador to Israel, wrote in his memoir Sledgehammer that the Abraham Accords were possible only because all interested parties decided to put decades of conflict aside and grapple with the question: How are we going to survive in the Middle East together?

So, too, for the sake of Israel’s survival, both secular and religious Israelis must try to forget for a few moments the battles fought in the last century and instead try to find an answer to a more fundamental question: How will we survive together?

Every sector of Israeli Jews ought to do its own introspection. Ultra-Orthodox Jews must start thinking of others, and realize that if the project called the State of Israel falters, it will also mean the destruction of the world of the yeshivas and of the hassidic courts. It’s time to take responsibility.

Religious Zionists must understand that religion is an exercise between the human being and one’s Creator, and not between the state and its citizens. Secular Jews must urgently recognize the demographic shift and engage in a meaningful partnership with the traditionalist parts of Israeli society in order to ensure its existence. 

Let us learn from the cautionary tale of the Hasmoneans. Let us remember that priests or rabbis should teach, speak up and fight for the identity of the Jewish people, decrying corruption like the prophets of old, but be extremely wary of the use of political power. A healthy tension between the spiritual leadership and the political one is essential not only for a functioning democracy, but for survival itself.

The writer is the president of the Conference of Rabbis of Europe. He served as the chief rabbi of Moscow from 1993-2022.