Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Israel @ 60: A Jewish State or a State of the Jews

Israel’s 60th anniversary has brought an interesting plethora of essays and opinion pieces, regarding Israel’s future. I was particularly drawn to those articles referencing the character of the Jewish state, because like so many I am concerned with the nature and quality of its democracy. In many of those articles the two paradigmatic options are Israel as a Jewish state or Israel as a State of the Jews. Clearly the desirable option is Israel as a Jewish State rather than Israel as a State of the Jews, because as a Jewish State there is a distinct Jewish flavor to the state.

Those that assume that position make the assumption that unless it is a Jewish State and not a State of the Jews, Israel will become like every other nation, the ambivalent dream of the secular Zionists who seek complete assimilation to the point of annihilation. Those critics of the secular Zionists believe that Israel has weakened because it lost its way from its original mission. It will only find its strength again when and if it connects to its past and to its feeling of mission. This is all a code for implementing halachic Judaism wherever possible within the fabric of Israeli society.

The tragedy of Israeli society and the reason why it is spiritually truncated is because there was never a separation of church and state. As with so much else in halachic Judaism, religious “pulchan” ritual, was forced upon those wishing to respect religious values but not necessarily shackled to doctrine and dogma. This brings to mind the “tochecha” where the text reads “If you will follow My decrees and observe My commandments...” (Leviticus 26:3-6). There was rarely a time that catholic Israel ever followed the law. For most of our early history we continued to worship other gods, intermarry, and disregard the words of our prophets. Our kings were no better when it came to following the law. During the second commonwealth there was a very large chasm between the rabbis and scholars and the rest of the people regarding following the strict interpretation of the law. Parenthetically, I wonder what would have been had the text read “If you follow our decrees and observe our commandments…” instead of My commandments. By having done so the people would have been co-opted into a process whereby the law and the people would have taken on a different relationship.
So when the halachists wish for an Israel that reconnects with its past I am forced to ask how far back in the past do they wish to reconnect. I suspect that these halachists would suggest reconnect to the past – all inclusive, which takes us up to and through the period of the Diaspora where so much of the halacha was developed. And here is where the problem lies.

Rabbinic Judaism as it developed in the Diaspora is problematic for Israel, principally because halacha as formulated in the Diaspora was done so with the psychological handicap of the gola, in particular of the Ashkenazi variety. Without going into details here, rabbinic Judaism in “Artzot Ashkenaz” were profoundly influenced by the Catholic Church, and felt the unfortunate necessity to imitate. As the Catholic Church was preoccupied with canon law our rabbis too, mimicked this practice and reduced halacha to a system of dos and don’ts. The rabbinic Judaism we have today is a product of two thousand years of Diaspora with a psychological handicap that has influenced how we understand halacha and its relationship to man and the land he lives on.

It would behoove Israel to set as one of its goal a separation of church and state, where its citizens aren’t captive to a system that impacts heavily on ones mind and soul. By separating the two, Jewish principles aren’t devalued. On the contrary, they will go into a free fall and those that which to attach themselves to it will be able to do so. Those who wish to define their lives with secular values while acknowledging their connection to Jewish culture and values will be able to. In either case the Jewish people come out ahead.

Judaism was never defined as a religion until the nineteenth century. We were always a people, a nation, an “am kohanim v’goy kadosh”, never just a religious system. It is the rabbis of today who do us a great disservice by reducing us to a set of rules outlined in the shulchan aruch, written and edited under the negative influence of the Diaspora. Judaism prior to the nineteenth century was understood to be a culture, a civilization with multiple lines and segments defining and coloring it, appreciating its multiple and varied textures. The religious feature was only one of its components never the sole component. It may have reached dominance in certain periods of our history, but that wasn’t preordained. It happened due to circumstances. So when we assess what is Jewish and even who is a Jew one has to view the collective, the entire context, the full picture. Imagine Judaism to be a mosaic; all the components, language, art, history, custom tradition, values, ethics, and religion together express this rich textured people and give it its meaning. In this tapestry, religion is only one of the many component parts. Every Jew then ought to have the ability to appreciate the tapestry by his/her own interpretation. To do so requires that every Jew be liberated from the shackles that rabbinic Judaism has placed upon him. To do so would require a separation of church and state.