Separating religion and state

We must separate Halacha from politics and return the power to the people.

Haredi political rally in Bnei Brak, March 11, 2015 (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Haredi political rally in Bnei Brak, March 11, 2015
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The uproar following the recent High Court of Justice ruling on whether supermarkets can open on Shabbat, in conjunction with the ruling from a few months ago regarding train repair work that was carried out on Shabbat, leads us once again to discuss the Jewish character of the State of Israel, and whether there should be a separation of religion and state.
From time to time I am asked the following question, which Israeli society has been grappling with since its inception: ‘Are you in favor of or against the separation of religion and state?’ I usually reply, ‘I am still against the separation, but it’s complicated...’
As a worldview, the coexistence of religion and state is first and foremost aimed at preserving Israel’s Jewish character. Unfortunately, though, in its current format in Israel, it is having the opposite effect. Why is my stance regarding the separation of religion and state complicated? Because I’ve not yet despaired of finding a way to include a variety of Jewish communities in Israeli society and making it bearable to live here.
Sometimes the people asking me this question spit out the phrase ‘religion and state’ as if it were a horrible curse, whereas others view the term quite positively. What is it about the concept of separation of religion and state which some people fear, and others long for?
Israel was established as a Jewish state so that the Jewish people could fulfill its destiny, and carve out its unique identity and values in the public and political spheres, as well as in the home and the wider community. Hatikva is an appropriate national anthem, it’s wonderful that the Jewish holidays mold our calendar, that Jewish studies are taught in public schools, and that every Jew is entitled under the Law of Return to make Aliyah to Israel. All of these are necessary expressions of Israel’s Jewishness.
On the one hand, the Jewish nature of the country contradicts Israel’s democratic character and the words of the country’s Declaration of Independence, and don’t help to preserve the country’s Jewish character. How, then, should we shape the connection between Judaism and Israel as a democratic state?
After having spent years examining the issues of Jewish identity and separation of religion and state, as well as holding discussions with both religious and secular intellectuals and academics, I would like to propose that we separate the concept of separation of religion and state into two distinct ideas: separation of Judaism and state, and separation of Halacha (Jewish religious law) and state. With these new terms, it would be easier to give my response: I am in favor of separating Halacha from the state, but I’m against separating Israel from Judaism.
Judaism is a form of national and cultural identity, as well as a religion which dictates how some religious Jews should comport themselves. The distinction between these different aspects of Judaism is of utmost importance. A person can be a good Jew regardless of whether he or she is observant or not. Keeping strict observance of Halacha does not make a person a good Jew, and failing to keep Halacha has no weight in determining whether someone is a good Jew or not.
I believe that we should adopt and nurture our national and cultural identity, and let individuals incorporate Halacha into their private lives in whatever fashion they choose. In this way, we can minimize the price society has to pay for being a Jewish state. As a democratic country, the State of Israel must provide the necessary conditions for all of its citizens to flourish – Jews and non-Jews alike, as well as observant Jews of a variety of denominations and non-observant Jews. Halachic Judaism should not have any formative status whatsoever in Israel’s political structure.
The Jewish religion – like all religions – should concern people who believe in it. There will always be people who claim that the Jewish people would not exist if it weren’t for Jews who ‘accept the yoke of the kingdom of heaven,’ but this should be an individual choice. There’s a saying in the Talmud, “Everything is in the hands of Heaven except for the fear of Heaven,” so how could we even consider granting the state the power to coerce its citizens into being believers?
A Jewish state that uses its power to impose Jewish religious observance on its citizens is violating the basic covenant that establishes it as a democratic and liberal entity. This holds true even for a Jewish state. We cannot let one particular definition of Jewish identity prevail over another.
Moreover, Israel is the national homeland of the entire Jewish people, which includes Jews who live here, as well as Jews who’ve chosen to live outside of Israel. When we try to impose a certain Jewish identity on others, we end up distancing entire Jewish communities in the Diaspora, alienating them from Israel and increasing assimilation.
In an attempt to justify this approach, many people view assimilation among Reform and Conservative movements as a reason to celebrate the victory of Orthodoxy. I see this rather as a cause for great concern and a 50 years later Writing about the Six Day War, even 50 years later, I still feel the intense excitement that enveloped us all when it was actually happening.
Every Jew views Jewish identity differently, and the place to discuss these various sentiments is the public space, but certainly not in politics. The damage caused by bringing this into the political world is many times greater than any benefit we receive. Instead of encouraging as many people as possible to partake in these discussions, and take responsibility for realizing their Jewish identity, forcing one type of Judaism on the people only works to alienate them and discourages them from participating in this discussion.
If we were to succeed in removing the political component from these exchanges, we’d have a much better chance of healing the rift between the different groups in society. This solidarity would be the result of a commitment not just to the covenant of fate, but also to a covenant of destiny.
It’s possible to clearly envision the great potential lying within the separation of Halacha from the state by looking at what happens in Israel on Yom Kippur. There is no legal prohibition to driving a car on Yom Kippur, and yet the roads and highways are completely empty on this day. No one goes anywhere on Yom Kippur, regardless of whether they are fasting or not, or spending the day at home or in a synagogue.
The same is true for circumcision. This ritual is not anchored in civil law, and yet it is a widely accepted practice even among secular Jews. Some estimates claim that 98% of Jewish male babies born in Israel are circumcised. This is proof that the Israeli Jewish community has deep feelings and a solid connection with the Jewish people. These strong feelings of national solidarity will gush over into other areas of Jewish religious practice if we would only release them from the coercive claws of the state.
In contrast, when we insist on imposing Halacha on laws dealing with areas such as marriage and divorce, the public votes with its feet and large numbers of Israelis are getting married without the involvement of the Chief Rabbinate. As a rule, all the status quo issues have evolved over the years and turned into focal points of friction in Israeli society.
In my opinion, it’s completely inappropriate to require citizens to appear before a religious court. It should be up to each individual to decide if she or he wishes to handle litigation in a religious or civil court. Each stream of Judaism should have its own rabbinical courts and Israeli citizens should be allowed to pick whichever stream suits them best, and no one would have a monopoly over Halacha.
Similarly, the state should allow citizens who aren’t interested in a religious wedding to get married in civil ceremonies. These marriage covenants would be legal documents, but not need to involve any religious elements, nor necessitate receiving a get (halachic bill of divorce).
Most importantly, the state wouldn’t prevent people from getting married because their ID does not list their religion, or have the ability to involve itself with how its citizens practice or what they believe. Granted, I truly hope that all Jewish Israelis will get married under a wedding canopy with a rabbi, but they should be allowed to make this choice freely and not under coercion.
The ability to choose freely is the most significant aspect in the discussion about religious freedom. Society should be set up in a way where the state can take a halachic stance on certain issues, and individuals are allowed to choose from a number of alternatives that fall under Halacha as determined by the state.
For example, the monopolies the Chief Rabbinate holds over kashrut supervision and conversion should be removed, and municipal rabbis should be allowed to make decisions for each city. In this way, we will be able to create a variety of alternatives in Israel without going beyond the borders of Halacha and without suffering under monopolies, which tend to lead to corruption.
I have no doubt that, if we succeed in breaking the Gordian knot anchoring Halacha with the coercive power of the state, it will have a positive effect on Halacha as well, since it will force poskim (halachic adjudicators) to find creative halachic solutions to every issue. For every issue there is a solution to be found that is both faithful to Halacha and also fitting for modern Israeli society.
The time has come to return to the core of Zionism and to fulfill our commitment from the Declaration of Independence. We must separate Halacha from politics and return the power to the people. Every individual and group should be allowed to form their own identity and decide how they want to live their lives.
This way, not only will the State of Israel be more democratic and liberal, but it will also be more Jewish.
The author is an MK with Yesh Atid and a former IDF major-general.
Translated by Hannah Hochner.