How Not to Perpetuate Judaism in the Jewish State

If you value Judaism and wish to see it retain its vitality, keep it out of the hands of the state. Is that so complicated?

July 28 2013
About the author

Moshe Koppel is a member of the department of computer science at Bar-Ilan University and chairman of the Kohelet Policy Forum in Jerusalem.

I am grateful to Mosaic for inviting four such distinguished respondents as Yuval Levin, Ruth Gavison, Joseph Weiler, and Yisrael Aumann to comment on my essay. I am equally grateful to the respondents themselves both for the efforts they have made to address my thesis and for the generosity of spirit with which they have done so. The fact that the differences among us are relatively minor is surely a reflection of the substantial influence each of the four respondents has had on my own thought.

Of the four respondents, the first three all assume that I am making a principled argument for the separation of religion and state in Israel; while agreeing with the main thrust of my remarks, however, they contend that my principles are too weak and my conclusion too strong. For Yuval Levin, I fail to emphasize the exceptional quality of religion as an obligation rather than a choice; for Ruth Gavison, I fail to stress the right of any particular religious denomination not to have the state take the side of its competitors; for Joseph Weiler, I fail to invoke the inherent obtuseness of coercing religious devotion. Each argues that the separation of religion and state, which I am presumed to advocate, is neither implementable nor desirable because it runs counter to the very purposes for which Israel was founded.

There is less to these disagreements than meets the eye—and the reason is that I do not support separation of religion and state in Israel in any of the usual senses of that phrase. Nor, crucially, is my argument a principled one; to the contrary, it is an unprincipled one.

Let me explain what I mean. Broadly speaking, there are two sorts of cases one can advance concerning relations among actors with competing interests. One is to argue that a particular actor should adopt some specific strategy because that strategy will yield benefit to that actor. I’ll call this a “strategic” argument. The alternative is to argue that all participating actors should agree to certain procedural constraints on permissible strategies in order to promote some collective good or to satisfy some principle of fairness. This is what I’ll call a “principled” argument.

In actual debates over public policy, it is common for strategic arguments to be disguised as principled ones. Not satisfied with preaching to the choir, people wishing to advance an agenda that benefits their own community will often frame (or invent) principled arguments to persuade others who do not necessarily stand to benefit from that agenda that they nevertheless have a moral obligation to accede to it.

This “principled” approach strikes me as disingenuous and counter-productive, and I wish to avoid it. Therefore, my argument is unabashedly strategic. For me, those committed to perpetuating Judaism in Israel have an interest in limiting state involvement in religion. If Judaism is to evolve organically, as it must do and as it always has done, it must reflect the sensibilities of those committed to it, not the sensibilities of those who happen to be citizens or officials of the state of Israel. That is mainly why, pace Yuval Levin, I emphasize the voluntary nature of membership in religious communities; such membership is not coextensive with citizenship, and hence citizenship cannot and should not substitute for it.

My strategic and “unprincipled” approach is also the reason that, contrary to the impression of my first three respondents, I do not advocate the separation of religion and state in Israel in the usual sense. Instead, I argue only that the state’s influence on Judaism is bad for Judaism. As for Judaism’s influence on the state, that is a subtler question. From my point of view, such influence is actually desirable—except insofar as it is likely to boomerang. How so? For one thing, certain kinds of legislation based on Judaism inevitably invite the involvement of state institutions in redefining or regulating Judaism. For another, unnecessary and divisive legislation of this kind can provoke culture wars that inspire undesirable counter-legislation or other deleterious consequences.

But, as I write in my essay, deciding the costs and benefits in this case is entirely a prudential matter. There are many instances where a reasonable person might conclude that the benefits of legislation outweigh the costs. That might be the case, for example, with regard to such contemporary hot-button issues as the beginning and end of life or the definition of marriage. It is surely the case with regard to the legislation of the Jewish character of Israel’s symbols, language, calendar, and policy in the sphere of public education and immigration. Although Joseph Weiler assumes (and Ruth Gavison and Yuval Levin implicitly concur) that I would be opposed to such legislation, in fact I co-authored a legislative proposal in just this area which is now being debated in the Knesset.

All this notwithstanding, coercing private behavior that has no public consequences—say, forcing people to keep kosher or observe Shabbat in their own homes—is almost certain to incur small returns at high cost. Since my point here is again strategic rather than principled, I have no need to resort to Joseph Weiler’s argument that coercing devotion is both a contradiction in terms and repugnant to religion itself (both of which principled claims are plausible but not self-evident). 

Finally, to return to Yuval Levin’s defense of the obligatory nature of religion in the eyes of its adherents: as an observant Jew, I am fully in sympathy. But from my strategic perspective I believe that stressing this point is ill-advised in Israel’s case. If my purpose were to persuade the unaffiliated that they owe it to religious people not to interfere with religion—that is, if I were making a principled argument—perhaps I’d proceed along the lines that Levin favors. But as the core of a strategic argument, the practical effect of his reasoning would be (a) to disqualify religion altogether as a basis for legislation since each religion is regarded as a rival of every other religion whose integrity we wish to protect but (b) not to disqualify secular ideologies since, anachronistically, these are not regarded as inherent threats to the integrity of religion. For anyone wishing to encourage the influence of Judaism in Israel, this is indeed a counter-productive approach.


If the first three respondents claim to disagree with me while in fact more or less agreeing, my good friend Yisrael Aumann claims that he “won’t disagree” with me while in fact disagreeing—and on precisely the essential point. Aumann perfectly understands the strategic and unprincipled nature of my argument but disputes me on my own terms. He believes that, given Israel’s purpose as a Jewish nation-state, and the centrality of religion in Jewish identity, direct state involvement in legislating and regulating religion is preferable to the alternative.

I suspect that Aumann is no less aware than I am of the considerable costs of such involvement. Our disagreement lies instead in our respective answers to a counterfactual question: if the state were to limit its involvement in religion, for example by privatizing kashrut supervision or recognizing civil marriages, would the costs be even greater? Aumann is concerned that such a withdrawal on the part of the state might lead to a race to the bottom or to the unraveling of some ephemeral common culture. For my own part, I believe that safeguards are possible to make a race to the bottom no more likely than it already is under the current arrangements. I also maintain that whatever exists in Israel by way of a common Jewish culture grows from the bottom up, and is in no way preserved or enhanced by the state’s guiding hand. Perhaps on this point, Aumann and I can agree to disagree.


To summarize, I am grateful to all four respondents for their cogent remarks. Were I attempting to convince my religious and political opponents that they have a moral obligation to accept my position in support of more limited state involvement in religion, I surely would invoke all the powerful intellectual tools my respondents have put at my disposal.  But the objectives of my “modest proposal” do not require this arsenal. It is enough to appeal to common sense: if you value Judaism and wish to see it retain (or regain) its vitality, keep it out of the hands of the state bureaucracy. Is that so complicated? 

Moshe Koppel, who teaches computer science at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, is the author of two books on the Talmud and co-author of a proposed constitution for the State of Israel, and has published over 100 academic papers in computer science, linguistics, and other disciplines. He is chairman of the Kohelet Policy Forum, a think tank in Jerusalem.

More about: church and state, Free Exercise of Religion, Israel, Jewish identity, Jewish State, Moshe Koppel