Reflections: A true Jewish state

Until we eliminate the Chief Rabbinate’s monopolistic status as the determiner of personal status issues in Israel, our democracy will be flawed and incomplete.

A baby sits in front of an Israeli flag (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
A baby sits in front of an Israeli flag
I often wonder if our government really remembers or understands what it means for Israel to be a “Jewish and democratic state.” It certainly does not mean that Jewish law – Halacha – should be the law of the land. If it were, Israel would not be a democracy, but a theocracy. The one area in which Jewish law is supreme here, marriage and divorce, is, as everyone knows, a disaster and a disgrace that should be changed as soon as possible.
Until we eliminate the Chief Rabbinate’s monopolistic status as the determiner of personal status issues in Israel, our democracy will be flawed and incomplete.
But being a Jewish state should have a positive meaning. It should mean more than simply a state in which Jews can find refuge and have automatic citizenship.
It should mean that basic Jewish values are reflected in our concerns and our way of life. There is no question that the creation of a just society, a society in which the needs and the rights of the underprivileged are protected is a central Jewish value. That is such a basic teaching of the Torah that it should be part and parcel of our worldview.
I thought of that recently when I read about the government’s decision to meet the cost of Operation Protective Edge by cutting 2 percent from the budget of each and every ministry (with the exception, of course, of the Defense Ministry), without establishing priorities.
I remembered especially the teachings of the Book of Deuteronomy, our current Torah readings. That may sound strange, but that’s rabbinic thinking for you – always refer back to the basic texts of our tradition.
Why Deuteronomy? Of all the books of the Torah, Deuteronomy is the one that stresses more than any other the need to care for the weaker segments of society, constantly reminding us that because we were strangers in Egypt, because we suffered there as slaves, we above all have to be sensitive to the needs of the weaker segments of society and care for them. Of course that idea appears throughout the Torah and the other books of the Bible, but Deuteronomy makes a special point of it.
Take, for example, the discussion of the shmita year which we are now entering: “If, however, there is a needy person among you, one of your brethren, within any of your gates, in your land which the Lord your God gives to you, do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman.
Rather you must open your hand and lend him sufficient for whatever he needs. Beware lest you harbor the base thought, ‘The seventh year, the year of remission, is approaching’ so that you are mean to your needy kinsman and give him nothing. He will cry out to the Lord against you, and you will incur guilt” (Deut. 15:7-10).
Similarly, regarding rejoicing in the Festivals at the Temple, we are enjoined to include slaves, Levites, the stranger, the fatherless and the widow because “you were slaves in Egypt, and take care to obey these laws” (Deut. 16:11-12).
There are many other examples, such as the injunction not to subvert the justice due to the stranger and the orphan, not to take a widow’s garment in pawn (Deut. 24:17-18) and the command to leave parts of your harvest for the stranger, the orphan and the widow; “Always remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore do I enjoin you to observe this commandment” (Deut. 24:19-22).
The point I am making is clear. The Torah, especially Deuteronomy, tells us that our experience in Egypt, being strangers and eventually slaves, must make us especially sensitive to the needs of those who cannot protect themselves and care for themselves – the poor, the stranger, the widow, the orphan. By making an equal across-the-board cut, the government is ignoring the needs of the poor, the needs of those who require help and the needs of society in general.
Instead of cutting programs that are less important, instead of eliminating those departments and positions that exist only in order to give a job to some politician, instead of eliminating subsidies for those who are not deserving, reducing spending in governmental programs that are not important – and there are plenty of them – we are eliminating or reducing programs that are vital to a just and caring society, a Jewish society that cares for everyone, including non-Jews. Poverty will be imposed upon countless families; education, which is already in dire straits will be set back.
It is all very well to make security the top priority, but it should never be the only priority. Some things are more important than others. To neglect social welfare, the care for the poor, the care for those who cannot care for themselves, health needs and proper education is criminal and un-Jewish. As Hebrew University president Prof. Menahem Ben-Sasson said, “The decision that the State of Israel has taken to harm the higher-education budget brings about a strategic danger to the national strength of the State of Israel.”
That is true concerning social needs and health as well. Cutting services indiscriminately harms vital sections of our society and pulls the rug out from under those who need help the most.
It was the prophet Amos who put it so powerfully: “Thus said the Lord: For three transgressions of Israel, for four, I will not revoke it: Because they have sold for silver those whose cause was just, and the needy for a pair of sandals. Ah! You who trample the heads of the poor into the dust of the ground and make the humble walk a twisted course!” (Amos 2:6-7). This is a warning that, although first given thousands of years ago, sounds as clearly as if it was uttered today. We dare not ignore it.
The writer, former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly, is a twotime winner of the National Book Award. His latest book is
The Torah Revolution (Jewish Lights)