Right of Reply: Separate religion and state? Bad idea

A purely secular Israel will not maintain its present Jewish identity.

jerusalem rabbinate 248.88 (photo credit: Knesset Channel)
jerusalem rabbinate 248.88
(photo credit: Knesset Channel)
In "Politics hurts religion," (June 25) The Jerusalem Post published a powerful editorial, arguing that the volatile mix of the two has been harmful to Judaism in Israel. The editors recommended replacing the current system with the American model of "the separation of Church and State," thus protecting "the institutions of religion from the necessarily corrupting institutions of political power." Arguing that it is Judaism that suffers, they called on the Orthodox delegates to the General Assembly of the Jewish Agency for Israel to "stand at the vanguard of this effort." As one of those delegates who did not accept this task, I want to explain my opposition to the proposal. I agree that the present system is counterproductive but I am hesitant to replace it with something that may be worse. There are better alternatives than going from one extreme to another. On the surface, the American model has been good for religion: America is a more religious country than European countries which have a state-sponsored religion. This is true for the Christian but not for the Jewish community in the United States. More and more American Jews are unaffiliated. Recent studies by Steven Cohen and others describe a generation of young people (excluding the Orthodox) who are comfortable with their own Jewish identity while "sharing a bed" with a non-Jew. Cohen uses this phrase because the percentage of Jews living with non-Jews is significantly higher than the rate of intermarriage. Being part of the Jewish people is no longer a value. Judaism is fundamentally and conceptually different from Christianity. It incorporates identification with the Jewish people as well as religious observance. A future convert is asked why he wants to be part of a persecuted people before being asked about accepting the burden of keeping the commandments; a non-Jew who identifies with the Jewish people but does not accept the mitzvot is not Jewish. A person who believes in monotheism and revelation on Sinai, and is fully observant, but does not identify with the fate of his fellow Jews is, according to Maimonides, excluded from the world to come. AS PROBLEMATIC as separation of church and state is for the unity of the Jewish people in America, it would be far more damaging in Israel. Conflicting definitions of Who is a Jew and whether matrilineal or patrilineal descent is the determinant, and differing standards of conversion by Reform, Conservative and Orthodox rabbis create confusion in America. In Israel these differences would split the Jewish people. For Israel to retain its identity as a Jewish state there has to be a shared definition of Who is a Jew. The public arena in Israel has to have Jewish content. Whereas in America being Jewish is a private, personal matter, in Israel there is a sense of a Jewish community whatever one's degree of observance. A growing number of Jews in America are getting a Jewish day school education, but more and more are getting no instruction at all. This translates to an educated, committed minority and a large majority of Jews who are integrated into American society but know little of their Jewish heritage. The cost of private Jewish education in the richest country in the world is making any further growth of Jewish day schools unlikely. ELIMINATING public support for religion in Israel would affect governmental subsidies for the religious school system. Making serious religious education in Israel private would price it beyond the means of the average Israeli. The claim that this would lead to an increase in the study of traditional texts in the school system, while possible, would not satisfy the needs of students coming from traditional homes. The lack of study of biblical and rabbinic texts in the secular educational system is a critical problem. The religious establishment shares part of the blame. But the solution has to emerge from dialogue, not from shifting from one extreme to another. THERE ARE practical objections to the proposed change as well. The parliamentary system of government in Israel has resulted in a coalition government after every election. Haredi parties would continue to exist, as they are primarily concerned with preserving the economic interests of their community. The only segment in Israeli society that would lose any political influence is the religious Zionist group, the one element potentially able to bridge the religious-secular divide. A purely secular state, even if it provided for the personal needs of its religious citizens, would not maintain its present Jewish identity The existing system of government rabbis and politically appointed rabbinical courts is not working; it is complicated, it is flawed and it hurts religion. It distances the chief rabbis and religious affairs workers from their constituents, and corruption, inefficiency and a dismissive attitude are the result. Officials have to be elected by the people they serve. Communities, not government bureaucrats, should appoint their rabbis. More than 350 rabbis have come together in a group called Tzohar to open a window for change. Let us hear their ideas. However, a radical change that ignores the historical bond between Jewish religion and the Jewish people can do damage without solving the problem. The writer is president of the Religious Zionists of America.