Synagogue and state

It is time to stop thinking simply about keeping the details of the status quo, and to start thinking about a framework that will define the relationship between religion and state.

A window is pictured with the Star of David in a new synagogue in Cottbus, Germany (photo credit: REUTERS)
A window is pictured with the Star of David in a new synagogue in Cottbus, Germany
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Israel’s religious status quo is largely based on an agreement between prime minister David Ben-Gurion and the country’s Orthodox parties at the time of the establishment of the State of Israel.
Since then, Israeli society has greatly evolved: The ultra-Orthodox community has grown, the religious Zionist community has advanced to positions of great influence within the public sector, and traditional Mizrahi Jews have grown in numbers.
It is time to stop thinking simply about keeping the details of the status quo, and to start thinking about a framework that will define the relationship between religion and state.
Religion can influence policy
The first principle guiding the relationship between religion and state in Israel should be a complete rejection of the idea that religion should not have any influence on policy.
In a democracy, people vote according to their belief and conscience, and it should not matter what the source of one’s beliefs is. Why would it be legitimate for someone to oppose land concessions because of historical reasons, but not because of religious reasons? By insinuating that religion is not a valid source of moral beliefs that form policy, one is actually trying to silence religious people and bring them out of the democratic game. Their opinions become illegitimate.
Civil servants should also be allowed to find motivation in their religious beliefs in order to be more effective at their jobs. Why would a secular person be allowed to be motivated by modern secular Zionism, while a religious person would not be allowed to be motivated by God? This issue arose several times in the past few years when religious public servants mentioned God as a motivation for their service to the nation.
For example, in the last war in Gaza, Col. Ofer Winter wrote a letter sent to his soldiers before they went into battle. He invoked the Shema, the traditional Jewish prayer of allegiance to the one God, and called upon “the God of Israel” to “make our path successful as we go and stand to fight for the sake of Your people of Israel against a foe which curses Your name.”
For this, Winter was severely criticized by the leftwing media. But why should his motivation for defending his country be any less legitimate than a secular person’s motivation? More recently, Yossi Cohen, the Mossad’s new chief, was quoted as saying during a speech in his synagogue that Israel was created with God’s help and needed God’s help today. Again, this was widely criticized by the left-wing media. However, such words are nothing more than the most basic belief of a religious person who sees Israel as a positive thing. Should religious people holding this belief not be allowed to serve their country, even if they are the most qualified to do so? A person’s religious beliefs should not be an obstacle to his serving his country. More so, it is undemocratic to claim that one’s religious beliefs should not influence his view of what a proper policy should be.
Politicians should not influence religion
While one’s religious beliefs can and should influence his understanding of policy, it is unacceptable for politics to influence religion.
This is the basic foundation behind the American principle of the separation between church and state.
As Ben-Gurion himself put it: “The convenient solution of separation of church and state was adopted in America not for reasons which are anti-religious, but, on the contrary, because of deep attachment to religion and the desire to assure every citizen full religious freedom.”
When the state provides religious services, it has to define what interpretation of religion it will accept.
This makes the state enter the field of religious interpretation to coerce people into accepting its interpretation.
Let us use the conversion crisis as an example: Israel’s government currently controls all conversions done within its borders. This means that the government must decide what is a valid conversion and what is not.
Those who have a more stringent view of religion often criticize the rabbinate and oppose its conversions.
Those who have a more lenient view criticize the government for not allowing more lenient conversions. At the end of the day, no one is happy and everyone is fighting. Instead of just allowing each group to follow its traditions and beliefs, as was done for thousands of years, the government steps in and must decide which group is right.
The same is true with marriage laws, divorce laws, kashrut certification and more. Whenever the government must interfere in order to decide what is religiously acceptable and what is not, it coerces others to follow its opinion. This type of religious coercion is bad not only for the secular who are not interested in religion, but also for the religious who are not interested in being coerced into accepting a certain interpretation of the law.
The current situation in Israel, in which the state controls many aspects of religious life, is very problematic and causes great dissatisfaction. Many studies have actually shown that countries in which government intervenes less in religious affairs have more religious people. This makes sense, since government intervention and coercion make religion less appealing, and pushes people away.
The solution, therefore, would be to privatize religious services and free religion from control of the state. Remove coercion and bring more freedom.
This would also be good for religion itself. Right now, in order to decide what type of religious interpretation is accepted, the only relevant question is who has the most political power in order to coerce his interpretation on others. If Shas does well in one election, it will decide. If Bayit Yehudi does well, then it will decide.
The question is about political power, not the content of the interpretation.
If religious services were to be privatized, there would once again be a free market of religious interpretation.
The question would not be about political power, but about the content of the interpretation: Who has the more accurate interpretation? Those with the most convincing case will be able to convince the most people. This would bring back vitality to our great tradition, which survived 2,000 years of exile thanks to this very vitality.
One might try to argue that in a Jewish state, religious coercion is a must in order to keep the Jewish character of the state. Of them I ask: What is a more “Jewish” state? A state in which no citizens are allowed to use public transportation on Shabbat, causing many to use their own cars or hire cabs, or a state in which people are freed of religious coercion and many decide, out of their own will, to keep Shabbat? A state in which marriage can only be done by the rabbinate, and therefore many people go to Cyprus to get married, or a state where the great majority of the population decides to get married in an Orthodox service out of its own free will? Coercion takes all meaning away from religious observance.
Israel will be a more Jewish state when people choose to be more Jewish, not when they are coerced to be more Jewish.
The state should keep religious practice
That being said, it is important to differentiate between the actions of the individual and of the state.
If an individual should be free to do as he wishes, without coercion, the state should not be allowed to infringe on religious practice.
This makes sense not only because Israel is a Jewish state and should keep such a Jewish character, but also because state action always includes coercion, and by infringing upon religion, it is forcing citizens to take part in this infringement, thus discriminating against observant citizens.
In the previous example about public transportation on Shabbat, as long as the state subsidizes public transportation, taxes pay for buses to run on Shabbat.
This means that religious citizens are paying for what they understand to be religiously forbidden. By allowing public transportation on Shabbat, the state would be coercing them to sponsor the desecration of the Sabbath, something unacceptable in a modern democracy.
Therefore, public offices should be closed on Shabbat. They should serve kosher food. Public transportation should not run on Shabbat, although one might think of a model being developed where unsubsidized public transportation would be allowed to run on the day of rest.
As much as the state should be worried about religious coercion, it should also be worried about secular coercion. As such, it should make sure that its own activities do not infringe upon religious practice.
Rethinking the status quo
Opening up the status quo is scary – no one knows what the result will be. Therefore, politicians on all sides have preferred to stick to the status quo since the creation of the state, avoiding important policy questions regarding religion and state.
However, every so often, a story comes up that reminds us that the status quo is something that leaves everyone unhappy.
Israel has changed a lot since 1948, and it is time to rethink the relations between religion and state. ■
The writer is an attorney and a former legislative adviser to Knesset’s coalition chairman. He previously served in a legal capacity at the Foreign Ministry. He is a graduate of McGill University Law School and Hebrew University’s masters program in public policy.