Where Israel Differs

Separating religion and state sends the wrong signal in principle, and could wreak havoc in practice.

The provocative “Modest Proposal of my good friend Moshe Koppel is well thought out, lucidly presented, and buttressed by history, logic, facts on the ground, and clear thinking; altogether, it makes fascinating reading, like everything he writes. Had I not been requested explicitly and urgently to do so, I would not have presumed to comment on it; but I was, so I will. I won’t disagree—rather, I will present an alternative view for the readers’ consideration.

Koppel makes two key points: (i) On general philosophical grounds, there is no reason for the state of Israel to refrain from being in the business of religion: regulating marriage and divorce, involving itself in matters of kashrut and the sabbatical year and Shabbat and family purity, financing the building of synagogues, appointing rabbis, supporting religious schools and other cultural institutions, and so on. (ii) Pragmatically, such involvement of the state in religious affairs weakens the impact of traditional religion, so Koppel is against it.

And, at the very beginning of his essay, he writes that “Although my specific concern is Israel, the issues at stake . . . are applicable to every democratic society grappling with the crossroads between religion and state.”

There, precisely, lies the rub. Israel is not like “every democratic society grappling with,” etc. Indeed, other than Israel there are very few such societies, if any. But even if there were, Israel would be different, unique. Israel is a Jewish state. It is also democratic; but first and foremost, it is, or should be, Jewish. Koppel’s reasoning is based on general considerations, on “every democratic society”; it fails to take account of Israel’s unique situation.

For thousands of years, we have been begging G-d, three times a day, to “return in mercy to Your city of Jerusalem.” He has now returned, or so we hope; it is up to us to make Him feel at home, to make Him stay. I myself came from the United States to Israel, some sixty years ago, only because of that: I wanted to come home.

Koppel repeatedly stresses that the “community” is the proper instrument for transmitting Jewish traditions and values. Jewish communities, he writes, “have successfully transmitted. . . Jewish moral traditions for millennia.”¹ But these communities operated in the diaspora, where Jews constituted a numerically negligent minority. Affluent, influential Jews, who derived much of their wealth and power from outside the community, supported it. In Israel, the “community” is the whole state; the “Jewish community” is not, and should not be, a separate entity.

The “community” model sends the wrong signal. It intimates that the state of Israel has no religious identity; its citizens may, or may not, organize themselves into religious communities—Jewish, Muslim, Christian, or Druze—but the state itself is unaffiliated, “disengaged.” As in the diaspora, the communities are divorced from the state.

Looking both outward and inward, the model has disastrous implications. To the world at large, it says that Israel is a state like any other, that we have no special rights in this part of the world. But then we are colonialists, and colonialism has long since breathed its last; as Helen Thomas suggested, we should then go back to the countries that welcomed us and our “communities” before, like Morocco, Yemen, Poland, Germany, Russia, England, the U.S., and many others.

The message to ourselves is, if anything, even worse. As of now, Jewish awareness in Israel is nothing to write home about; already, there are Jewish Israelis who think of themselves primarily as Israelis—citizens of a state, like France or Switzerland—and only secondarily as Jews. Some, unfortunately, do not think of themselves as Jews at all; they have disengaged. But for most Jewish Israelis, the consciousness of being Jewish—as well as some familiarity with Jewish history and culture—is there, is palpable. An official divorce of the state from Judaism would greatly accelerate the process of disengagement from Judaism.

Koppel may protest that he is advocating that the state disengage not from Judaism, but only from Jewish religious practice. Unfortunately—perhaps fortunately—that does not work. Jewish religious practice lies at the core of Judaism, at the core of Jewish culture. In the diaspora, there are not many self-professed Jews whose grandparents or great-grandparents were not observant. I have heard of a Reform rabbi in Florida who boasted that 99 percent of his congregants had no Jewish grandchildren. Though this is no doubt exaggerated, it rings true. “If G-d does not build a house, in vain do its builders labor” (Psalms 127:1). Non-observant Judaism can live and thrive—but only in the shadow of religious observance.

Pragmatically, Koppel’s proposal would create great problems. One of the big advantages of life in Israel is that at almost all—perhaps all—public functions, only kosher food is served. That is true in the government, at the universities, at large corporations, at conferences in hotels, you name it. Though it may sound trivial, it is an important factor in holding the people together.

When you have the kosher certification of the chief rabbinate, that’s easy to do. But if you would not—if there were a dozen different kosher certifications, as in the U.S.—the organizers would not know to whom to turn, and the practice would fizzle out. A single recognized standard of observance is vital, even for those who do not adhere to it.

And what about the army? With a disengaged state, it would not take long before somebody goes to court asking for non-kosher food, non-observance of Shabbat, and so on. We would get separate dining rooms; perhaps, eventually, separate fighting units. Is that what we want?

Far more important, of course, is the matter of marriage and divorce. Right now, you can get married in Cyprus, and the marriage is recognized in Israel. I don’t know how the authorities deal with the very serious halakhic problems this raises, but they deal with them somehow. Though the phenomenon is significant, its magnitude is marginal; mostly, we are talking about couples whose halakhic status poses problems. By and large, even totally non-observant couples want their families and friends at the wedding, they want to be married “at home” and not alone in a strange, foreign place.

Allowing civil marriage and divorce would change all that drastically; it would make the non-halakhic option much more accessible, and so would greatly enlarge the number of couples using it. And so it would force the authorities to face up to the halakhic problems mentioned above, quite possibly creating two communities within Israel; communities that will not—indeed cannot—intermarry, now and for generations to come. That would be absolutely disastrous.

Perhaps most important is the matter of schools. In the non-religious state schools, there is precious little Judaism now; disengaging the state from religion might well lead to its disappearance altogether. And who would pay for the religious schools? The “communities”? Come, that’s laughable. In the United States, tuition at Jewish schools can run to $35,000 per year per child; many families come on aliya for that reason alone. The Jewish community in Israel does shoulder that cost, but it cannot possibly do so on a voluntary basis.

The above are only three examples of involvement of the state in religious matters which it would be difficult to forgo; there are many more.

To summarize: on the surface, Moshe Koppel’s proposal sounds interesting—even tenable—for a “democratic society grappling with the crossroads between religion and state.” But when one takes a closer look at Israel’s particular situation, it becomes less attractive. In principle, it sends the wrong signal, both to the world at large and to ourselves; and in practice, it could wreak havoc with the delicate fabric of Israeli society.

Yisrael Aumann, a 2005 Nobel laureate in economic sciences, is a founder and professor in the Center for Rationality at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is the author of six books and many papers in the area of game theory.


¹One wonders what the adjective “moral” is meant to exclude. Are there amoral traditions that were not transmitted? Does Koppel mean to exclude traditions like kashrut or Shabbat that have no clear moral component?

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