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October 7, 2015 | 24th Tishrei 5776

Pluralism I

Galilee Diary #297, August 6, 2006

Marc J. Rosenstein


Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free

exercise thereof… (U.S. Constitution, Amendment I, 1791)

The purpose of this Basic Law is to protect human dignity and liberty, in order to establish in a Basic Law the values of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. (Preamble to the Basic Law: Human Dignity, State of Israel, 1992)

I don’t get a lot of reader mail in response to my Galilee Diary entries, but of the trickle that does come in a significant portion deals with the issue of the status of Reform Judaism in Israel. This is only natural, as there is something very painful in the sense of disenfranchisement felt by Reform Jews in North America – the feeling that Israel expects our support and our love, but rejects us and questions our authenticity as Jews. I share these feelings, and respect them. At the same time, I think we sometimes fall into an oversimplified view of this issue that is not helpful in trying to see a way to resolution.

I grew up a patriotic American (that is, strongly committed to what I understood to be the democratic values and institutions of the United States, but certainly critical of various acts and policies of the government and aspects of the culture). I always believed, and still believe, that the concept of separation of religion and state - the concept of a national identity that is not attached to any religious belief system – is one of the greatest strengths of the country. It is this principle that has allowed the Jews to find such a secure place in the United States, and to develop such a rich culture there. On the other hand, of course, it has confronted us with the constant and painful challenge of maintaining our own identity in such an open environment; but that’s another story.

It is natural for us to expect Israel, our utopian state, to manifest the same ideals of individual freedom of conscience and of state non-interference in matters of religious belief that we treasure in the United States. However, there is a problem with this expectation: Israel is not the United States, and if it were, it is not clear why we would need it. The Zionist movement and later the state of Israel have always envisioned the state as a Jewish state, not a neutral, multicultural, state. The United States may be dominated by Christian culture, but officially, constitutionally, it is not a Christian state, and if one feels that Christianity or any other religion is exerting undue influence, one can go to court and invoke the First Amendment.

Obviously, one can take a non-Zionist position, and argue that a Jewish state is a bad idea, as Judaism is a religion, not a nationality, and a democratic state should not establish any religion. Thus, the entity we call Israel should, ideally, be like the United States, defined by its borders, such that everyone living within them should have total freedom to believe and practice any religion or no religion equally, with no support or preferential treatment for any religion by the government. This is point of view has strong roots in both the Reform and the Orthodox communities, and indeed, not only roots but branches and flowers as well. However, it has been largely overwhelmed since the Holocaust – and especially since the creation of the state - by the world Jewish consensus in favor of the concept of a Jewish state as an absolute necessity if not the fulfillment of the messianic dream.

Originally, Zionism, as a revolution against the religious definition of Judaism, sought to redefine Jewish identity as cultural and national. As such, a Jewish state would be defined by its borders, its language, and other aspects of culture like food, dress, music, etc. However, Judaism does not lend itself easily to this kind of secularization. We may be, on some level, an ethnic group – but we somehow can’t escape also being, on another level, a religion. That being the case, it becomes difficult to argue that there should be no connection whatsoever between the Jewish religion and the Jewish state, which leaves us struggling to define just what that connection should be…

(…to be continued).

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