So, Israel, you “wannabe” a Jewish state? The phrase “Jewish state” is a bummer! Ever since Herzl almost everybody has assumed that it is clear and evident. But in reality almost nobody can explain exactly what it means. Is it a state where a Jewish majority lives? Is it a state that exhibits some special clearly defined characteristics that are Jewish? Is it antithetical to “democratic state”? Is it synonymous with “apartheid state”? Wow, and we all thought this was an easy one.
One major reason that the phrase is difficult is that the word “Jewish” refers to a particular religion. The word “State” refers to a political entity. In the modern world, certainly in the West, it has come to be accepted that states should not establish religions. This does not mean that States cannot be associated with a particular religion, e.g. Britain, Ireland, Greece, Sweden, Italy, and more. Nor does it even mean that a State may not show some preference for those who practice the religion associated with the state.
But, it is imperative that the State needs to distinguish between its firm and committed legal connection to a particular religion, and its guarantee of more or less equal rights before the State law for all of its citizens regardless of which religion they practice. This is particularly true in the case of Judaism because several streams of practicing that religion have developed and become firmly established in the last 300 years. To single out one of those streams solely as the legitimate “Jewish” would not only be wrong empirically and morally, but it would weaken the very character of the State as “Jewish.”
Before the modern period most of the ideas and practical approaches of what we know today as “streams of Judaism” co-existed side by side in the reality of the Jewish communities. Indeed, in the Mishna, the foundational text of Judaism as we know it, these streams are found side by side embedded in the variant opinions preserved as legitimate.
In modern times, these ideas, for many different reasons, developed into discrete movements. The reality is that Jewish religion today includes all of these movements. Thus, in order for a State to claim that it is Jewish it must not, ever, establish one of the streams over any other. To that extent, the State must distinguish between its right to impose by force laws on citizens, and remove itself from imposing laws which violate any religious conviction of a legitimate Jewish stream.
True, Judaism is a political religion, but the Mishna makes it clear that the founders of Judaism expected a politics which would protect, preserve and even encourage various interpretations of how to be Jewish. The Mishna includes mechanisms for rule in a situation of multiple opinions and practices. If Israel is to be able to claim that it is a “Jewish State” it must return to that original mentality and conception.
In practice that would mean disestablishing the “religious establishment”, that is the Chief Rabbinate and its court system, and in its place create a “Religious authority” that would fairly and justly support and grant authority and State legitimacy to all streams of Judaism. Yes, there are issues on the boundaries, but there would be almost unanimous agreement on those boundaries. Indeed, the existence of established movements with members, institutions, history etc. would be a major factor in deciding who is included and who is not.
No doubt such a move would be most vociferously opposed by those who today hold State power in their hands. The violence that erupted might be very painful, in some ways seem like a “civil war.” Yet, until a satisfactory modus Vivendi is reached on this issue, Israel will clearly be in danger of implosion. We must go through the process to create a stable and coherent Jewish society that deserves to be called “Jewish State”.
Rabbi Michael Graetz is one of the founders of the Masorti Movement in Israel