Last week the UK’s influential weekly Jewish newspaper The Jewish Chronicle in its editorial went directly to the heart of this matter. Responding to the Chief Rabbi’s proposal, it concluded that it is “small wonder that some think the time is long overdue for the separation of synagogue and state in Israel.”
Indeed, the Jewish character of the state of Israel is really what is at stake here.
It's not up to Hitler
Recently I had a conversation with a secular Israeli academic, who said to me that being Jewish is a genetic state and our common connection is the fact that Hitler would have gassed both of us. I find the notion that my identity is defined by Hitler rather offensive.
In fact, it arouses defiance in me. For the first time I realized why so many secular Jews in America choose not to marry Jewish. The more one dilutes the Jewish gene through intermarriage the less one is able to be defined by an evil man such as Hitler.
One may argue that our connection is our common heritage and, although this is a major factor, in the age of globalization it is becoming less and less important to people. I posit that the most important common factor among Jews is in the here and now. Jews have a religion in common – Judaism.
The fact that I can go into any synagogue in the world and pray together with the quorum in a familiar manner, that we all keep the same Shabbat and the same dietary laws, believe in and study the same Torah, have faith in the same God, is what binds us.
The second one takes the religion out of the equation and we are left with an awfully troubling question: What unifying factor do we as Jews have? In fact, without religion, the desirability of living in Israel is severely challenged as well. Who wants to live in a country, Israel, whose whole existence and definition are shaped by a genocidal dictator?
Who will decide?
So if we can agree that it is Judaism that defines and unites us as Jews, the question arises: Who defines Judaism? Liberal and Reform Jews may reply that it is Jews who define Judaism; tradition, however, would suggest that it is the Torah and God that define Judaism.
Whichever way one puts it, the majority of religious Jews in Israel are Traditional and not Reform, Conservative or Liberal; thus, Judaism in Israel, a democratic country, is defined by Traditionalists such as the Sephardic Chief Rabbi.
It does not seem unreasonable for his office to say that they want to rule on this definitively religious matter. Although I have sympathy for those converts whom the Israeli authorities will not accept as Jews, yet denying these authorities the right to decide who is and who is not considered a Jew undermines the Jewish status of Israel and causes the entire character of the Israeli state to fall even further into question.
Separating Traditional Judaism from the state of Israel would in essence transform Israel from a Jewish state into a secular state defined by Hitler and run by Jews. Is this what Jewish leaders in the Diaspora really want to see happen?
Rabbi Levi Brackman is executive director of Judaism in the Foothills and the author of numerous articles on a whole range of topics and issues, many of which can be found on his website