Synagogue and State: A Divorce Made in Heaven

I’ll be participating today in al New Israel Fund webcast:

Religion and State: Fundamentalism or Freedom?

Along with Naomi Chazan, Frances Raday, and Jafar Farah.

8 pm Israel time, 1pm EST, 10am PST

I don’t know how the discussion will develop, but I can describe my starting point: The best way for Jews in Israel to freely debate what it means to live in an independent country where they constitute the majority, and the best way for Judaism to develop and flourish here, is to disconnect the state and religion.

That is, the old secularists and religious camps in Israeli politics are both mistaken. The secularists assume that secularizing the state will complete the secularization of society. The Orthodox political establishment – religious Zionist and ultra-Orthodox – has always agreed with that proposition, and therefore opposed disestablishment. It has been sure that the way to protect Judaism is to link it to the state.

In part, that approach derives from an implicit, shared belief in Israeli society that one’s primary group identity must be as Israeli – with no intermediate identity. If you are a religious Jew, and you believe that Israeli and Jew are synonymous, then the state should express Jewishness, and Jewishness must be religion. If you’re secular, on the other hand, you oppose the idea that people might identify separately with Judaism and with the state.

The result is very similar to the outcome in most Western countries where religion has at least some tenuous marriage with the state: Religion is resented by the majority, and is a fading influence, especially in the educated class. The great exception is the U.S. – as a state, the most secular Western country; as a society, the most religious. This isn’t a contradiction. The secular state allows religion to flourish – and forces it to. If religious leaders, teachers and involved laypeople don’t make religion relevant, it will die.

That said, I don’t believe that separation could take precisely the form here that it has in the US. Every society is different. And political changes have to take the existing society into account. In America, religion is largely treated as an individual matter – and the dominant faith does not make intense religious study its central value. Shared secular public schools are treated as a value. Those who want to opt out must pay their school taxes and pay again for religious schools.

In Israel, separation could mean that the state pays for the core educational curriculum in whatever school parents choose. Citizens could continue to maintain not-for-profit schools that provide religious instruction. They’d pay for the religious side, in whatever form they want.

But: No core curriculum, no funds. That is, the ultra-Orthodox would be free to maintain their own schools – and would get state funds for teaching math, English, history, science and Arabic. If they don’t want those subjects, they’ll have to pay for the full school day. This strikes a balance between the right to separate communities and the need for a common cultural basis.

Some argue that eliminating the state monopoly on marriage, divorce and conversion would lead to the end of a common standard of who’s Jewish and who can marry. It’s as if one argued that getting rid of the rabbinate would subject us all to the law of gravity. The common standard has vanished. There are people living in Jewish society here – hundreds of thousands – who are not Jewish under Jewish law. The rabbinate, as I’ve written, doubts the Jewishness of people born as Jews abroad, and of those who have converted in state-backed conversion courts here. If religion were disestablished, some Orthodox rabbis would perform conversions that other rabbis wouldn’t accept – er, just like today. But the rest of us would not have to pay the salaries of the most extreme elements.

As I said, that’s my starting point. I’m happy to hear suggestions for fine-tuning this. Politically, I suspect that the issue will gain momentum when more religious Jews realize that the state is imposing a form of radical ultra-Orthodoxy that has nothing to do with the Judaism they want.



3 thoughts on “Synagogue and State: A Divorce Made in Heaven”

  1. The implications of such a move go beyond Israeli Jews. A disestablishment of Judaism would of course be a disestablishment of Christianity and Islam as well, insofar as those communities are defined religiously and aspects of their personal life such as marriage, divorce and conversion are governed by religious hierarchies, some of whom rival the ultra-Orthodox rabbis as cultural reactionaries. Also, Cyprus would have to find a replacement for the Israeli wedding trade!

  2. “If you’re secular, on the other hand, you oppose the idea that people might identify separately with Judaism and with the state.”

    Was that really what you wanted to say? Don’t secular people rather support the separation of religion and state? And wouldn’t a secular nationalist emphasize instead the connection between state and Jewishness as an ethnic category, not Judaism, the religion?

    “Some argue that eliminating the state monopoly on marriage, divorce and conversion would lead to the end of a common standard of who’s Jewish and who can marry.”

    The common standard has vanished because the state has delegated these matters to the rabbinate which is only beholden to its own vision of the state. Were the state to take the secular matters – citizenship, civil education and, eventually, civil marriage – in its own hands and leave religious matters to an independent rabbinate, it would inevitably have to make up its mind about its own definition of who is a Jew and consequently about whose state Israel is going to be. Will it continue to be – or pretend to be – the state of only a part of its citizens and at the same time of millions of people abroad who are not its citizens (and have no desire to be) or will it make a U-turn and propose an Israeli identity independent of religion and eventually ethnicity? I’m not optimistic.

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