A Fluid Definition of Judaism

A people can be scattered around the world, but usually they are concentrated in their homelands, and that’s a good thing. A people’s homeland is the cradle of its culture. However, the world benefits when portions of individual nations migrate from their own lands and return to them occasionally. This movement mixes, connects, and helps nations distinguish themselves while also integrating with each other.

I’ve been privileged here in Israel to have been given a stage for artistic expression, to be in the spotlight and to enjoy generous public attention. I write songs and scour the length and breadth of Hebrew culture, its depths and shallows. My past and present encounters with the human and ideological beauty of this country have left me with troubling questions about identity and place, to which I’ve responded on occasion in my thoughts. I’m the son of Yosef (Jojo) Uzan, a stockkeeper in a local factory, and Rachel (Raymond) Uzan, who managed the absorption ministry office in Sderot. Both immigrated to Israel in the 1950s from Bizerte, a small Tunisian port city. I’m 53 years old and married to Bat Sheva, whose father immigrated from Turkey and whose mother is a second-generation immigrant from Yemen. Our children – Naomi, Hadassah, Heleni and Negev – were born in Tel Aviv and grew up there. I’m very pleased to have this opportunity to organize, in writing, my thoughts about the idea of the Jewish state – thoughts that have been percolating within me since childhood. My answers are woven into a sketch of what’s missing here, in the world’s only Jewish state.

A few personal basic assumptions

Global media, culture and art have been controlled for a long time by corporations. It’s natural that consumerism would be high on their agenda, along with the freedom to move around and buy things. National, tribal, communal, labor, and family frameworks limit the individual’s propensity to make unnecessary purchases; they bargain on his behalf, make him more secure socially, and counteract the feeling, fueled by the marketing world, that buying things fills an emptiness in oneself. For commercial entities it is better to be faced with individual consumers – economically threatened, clustered in small apartments in huge cities, insecure and confused, barely protected by states, communities, labor unions or tribes, the products of fractured families, speaking a global language and lacking national distinctiveness. Individual freedom and weakening collective frameworks have been the spirit of the times for the past century. When we attempt to think freely, we need to remember that we’ve been subject to this corporate ideological influence for years, and without realizing it may ourselves have become marketing agents for some of its messages, which, in the name of freedom, for a variety of reasons, that may or may not be justified, call for the frameworks that protect us as groups to be dismantled. This could leave us standing weakened as individuals when we face the big corporations.

We’ve already been in that situation, in the Book of Genesis. One language prevailed in the Tower of Babel, and all human beings were concentrated in a single center, rather than being scattered and having an influence across the planet. God didn’t care for the global idea, so he confused their language and scattered them, because he created mankind to enrich the world and change it as part of nature. Little by little, the spirit of the times leads us to a sad thought: that man must reduce his role in the world because his impact is harmful, polluting and destructive. Thus, instead of improving our way of being in the world and working on our character traits, we must reconcile ourselves to our harmful propensities, lower our birthrate, concentrate in large cities, and give up on the idea that our impact on the world, for good or ill, is part of nature.

But in the face of this contemporary outlook and the overwhelming power of the economy, we really ought to be strengthening and repairing the old frameworks. With regard to the main issue of this article, I want to emphasize something that was once beyond doubt: It’s good that there are nations. They’re generally diverse and improve the fabric of human existence around the world, and cooperation between them inspires and beautifies life.

But nations are not unchanging entities, and it takes hundreds and thousands of years for a national identity to coalesce. National identity isn’t a museum frozen in time, but rather the behavior of a given nation in the face of its challenges. It’s right for each people to undergo its identity-formation process and explore its own uniqueness, so that it can find and fulfill its role among the nations; not through isolationism and withdrawal into itself, but also not by fusing its national identity into a single supranational identity.

A people can be scattered around the world, but usually they are concentrated in their homelands, and that’s a good thing. A people’s homeland is the cradle of its culture. However, the world benefits when portions of individual nations migrate from their own lands and return to them occasionally. This movement mixes, connects, and helps nations distinguish themselves while also integrating with each other. The global diversity of nations, their products, and their characteristics is good for us all, but their ranking as superior or inferior to others is dangerous. No nation is superior or inferior. It’s better for nations to remain unranked.

Since different nations exist and I respect their identities, I need to examine the legal frameworks in which they live. Our world is divided into states. A state is the life framework of its citizens. Sometimes it unites its resident peoples and citizens into a single nationality and gives them a shared dream and an ethos that brings them closer together, and sometimes it reflects their uniqueness.

People and states have religions and faiths. These manifest among their adherents and believers in a kind of spiritual mindset. This mindset can transcend geographical borders; it can serve as common ground for several different people, and it can also be a line that divides one people into two or more religions.

Judaism is harder to define; its definition is fluid. Judaism is like a family whose members share philosophical ideas, a tradition, and diverse religious practices that emerged in response to events and ideas that influenced them over the years. Judaism is a shared time capsule meant to impart itself to all future generations. Judaism is shared Jewish destiny; a set of behavioral possibilities arrived at through a narrative process transmitted from generation to generation by means of holidays, tradition and study, like a family that meets, opens photo albums documenting its entire past, and remembers people and events. The family may be cohesive or conflict-ridden, but we always return to the family albums.

When I am asked to define a “Jewish state,” I’m aware of the concept’s problematic nature. A state isn’t an individual and can’t take upon itself the yoke of Torah and mitzvot or conversion or affiliation with this or that genealogy. A state is a legal garment for its citizens, which may fit them properly or be too tight. This garment may be generic, or tailor-made.

According to the Jewish people’s family albums, the State of Israel is our patrimony. We have title to the land. Our forefather Abraham, from the Book of the People of the Book, paid full price for the Cave of the Patriarchs. Many read this story as I do, and in our view the return to the Land is a proper, surprising, and heartwarming fulfillment of the destiny of the wandering Jew.

Israel was built as a place of refuge for the Jewish people, a country to which any Jew might immigrate according to the Law of Return and feel protected there. When we talk about a place of refuge for the Jewish people, I picture a building that a few siblings inherited from their common father; some have exercised their right to come to live there, while others have remained in their homes.

And here’s the first hard question: Have Jews who don’t live in Israel effectively given up their inheritance? Can the Israeli Jews who live in the building, who’ve renovated it and defended it with their lives, sell it or change its purpose without consulting with their siblings and fellow heirs? Did the Jews who called themselves Israelis for the first time as the state was being founded disinherit Jews elsewhere in the world from their share in the Jewish people’s place of refuge, and leave them with only the right to immigrate there?

My answer: We need to work on our connection with Diaspora Jewry, and not as a fig leaf or a cash cow. We need to think about real steps we can take and ask ourselves how we can cause those who don’t live here to feel a sense of partnership and responsibility for those who do live here. I agree with the view that the Israeli voice should outweigh that of Diaspora Jewry, since we live here and experience the news first-hand. But various interesting ideas present themselves to my mind’s eye: Maybe let Diaspora Jews vote in Knesset elections (say, half a vote for each Diaspora Jew)? Maybe create a great Jewish congress that would, among other things, participate in Israeli democracy on an advisory basis, be able to authorize laws or dramatic changes to the state? Maybe send every Jewish boy or girl who turns 17 a non-binding invitation to enlist in the IDF, so they’ll feel needed and encouraged to give of themselves to the common place of refuge? Maybe we should proactively take responsibility for Israeli educational networks, in Hebrew, to be operated in countries with Jewish communities? Maybe bar and bat mitzvah activities in Israel?

All this raises another very important question: Who is a Jew?

And who will be the selector at the entrance to the Jewish club? Who will decide?

Our people, the individuals and streams within it, flow between the definitions.

In the era we’re living in, when big companies have personal information about all of us at their disposal, there’s no need, and no reason, to fear the threat of genetic databases or genealogy registries. When someone decides to get married, he can ask for verification of his spouse’s Jewishness. Some will take a strict approach, and some will be lenient. And regarding aliyah to Israel: In accordance with the Law of Return, a council of sages and philosophers should be created, from all the different streams, to decide who’s included. It doesn’t have to be a Jew with a clear genetic connection, or someone who underwent a stringent form of conversion. He could be someone who for many years has had a sense of shared destiny, someone in the zera Yisrael category (a descendant of Jews but not halachically Jewish), someone who’s fought by our side, someone who’s forged a connection with the Jewish people and sees that connection as a mission. Because there will be a database of Jews by conversion or genetics, when a person reaches marriageable age, he will decide how stringent he wants to be about his partner’s Jewishness. A council of sages of this kind could control the entry threshold, to ensure that the dam doesn’t burst. The Jewish people is what it says – a people; it’s not a marketing idea, or a religious creed to be disseminated to the nations; the total number of those who join it is, and should be, small.

Now that I’ve touched on our relationship with world Jewry, it’s time to discuss our country itself, the garment of rights and obligations in which citizens are clothed. To me it’s clear that the garment can’t be generic. It should be tailored to fit this specific people, who after thousands of years of having to adapt itself to many different regimes, decrees, and laws has returned to its homeland and wants to finally feel at home. So it’s important that the state stay loyal to the Jewish story and to Jewish wisdom of the ages. Jewish thinking has democratic, pluralistic foundations, foundations supporting freedom of expression, protections for minorities and their opinions; social ideals and ideals relating to quality of life and community spirit. We can use Jewish wisdom and its encounter with the wisdom of the nations to create a legal garment that fits us, that doesn’t constrain the people of Zion. In the meantime, we have here a state whose guiding principles are a multicolored tapestry; a little British, a little Turkish, a little European, a little contemporary populism.

I’m disappointed that, after the dramatic historical events that led to the founding of the state and our return to it from all corners of the globe, we’ve got a country here that’s just fine, but not exemplary, not even trying to be. As someone who writes, I feel that the Jewish people’s non-normal story can’t end with a “normal” state. It ought to result in a special state. I find a little of this specialness in the Torah, a little in the Mishna and the Gemara, but a lot of it I find in Jewish tradition.

Now I’ll jot down a few Jewish ideas that have occurred to me. I’m sure there are a great many other ideas suited for inclusion in the Jewish idea bank. I should note that, because I don’t see Judaism as just a religion, the ideas I want to raise aren’t necessary halachic. My view is that we shouldn’t create a halachic state, but that at the same time we shouldn’t accept all Western values as fundamental values. We need to find the right combination.

Shabbat, shmita, jubilee, tithes, pe’ah, chametz, and more …

Simply put, as I understand it, Judaism doesn’t like you to keep 100% of anything. It doesn’t want you to work 100% of the time, it doesn’t want you to hang onto 100% of the money, it doesn’t want you to utilize 100% of the Land of Israel. The idea is that your ownership will never be complete; there’ll be days when you’ll have to relax your grip on it; some of it will return to society and the community. Here we’re talking about much more than a day of rest, or about letting the land rest for a year. This worldview springs from a realization that maximization ideas are ones that lead to excessive exploitation of resources and people, and to the bottom line being the most important consideration.

And what actually is the most important consideration? All kinds of things: community, family, caring about others, mutual responsibility, and much more. The religious way is to see the idea of Shabbat as being about the Sabbath day and its associated mitzvot. A Jewish state that’s also home to secular people and to non-Jewish citizens can’t really impose the Shabbat-related mitzvot on everyone. But the idea could be one of the state’s salient characteristics. Here’s an example of how the idea of Shabbat could be implemented differently: When buying a car in Israel, you will purchase it equipped with a license to drive only six days a week. You decide, at the time of purchase, which day of the week the car stays parked. We’ll have cleaner air, and the roads will be less congested. Religious Jews will obviously choose Shabbat itself, but some citizens will choose other days, so they can travel on Shabbat and visit family and friends.

This is also true of various kinds of concessionaires. You can’t have a concession 100% of the time; we shouldn’t be comfortable with the idea of 24/7. And how would this idea be applied to land rights? Any area zoned for construction should have a portion allocated for public housing. And in agriculture – the state should return its land to nature every shmita year, and a special fund should be created that enables farmers to support themselves for an entire year without working the land. That year the fields would once again be open to nature, the climate, insects, animals, and passersby who would also be able to enjoy their produce. Just as the Israeli streets breathe freely on Yom Kippur, so could the land be free of human ownership for a year.

Jewish ideas, if we look at them in a broader and not necessarily halachic context, can display flexibility even for non-religious people. For example, I’m not comfortable with the idea that agencies of the Jewish state pay a higher salary to work on Shabbat. A Jewish state isn’t supposed to encourage working on Shabbat. On the other hand, it is supposed to encourage and enable Jewish workers to rest on their day of rest. Do we need to shut down the entire country on Shabbat because of this? Not at all! If public companies make sure that at least a fifth of the employees on all shifts are not Jewish, this would both be socially just and obviate the need to pay workers extra on the Jewish day of rest. If a Jewish worker chooses to work on Shabbat, that’s his business. He’ll do it for the same pay as on his regular workday. This kind of arrangement would increase the chance that, for reasons of convenience and family life, most people who work on Shabbat will be non-Jews, and that the non-Jews will choose a different day of rest for themselves, say Friday or Sunday, not Shabbat. By the same logic, we could also arrange for public transit to operate on Shabbat. There might even be traditional Jews who’d agree to ride electric buses, driven, for the most part, by non-Jews.

Here I’ve offered a glimpse of my thoughts about the Jewish state. I have more … Is everything set in stone? Is there no more room for creativity and open-mindedness? Does our future lie only in an imported patchwork of ideas to fix the normal country we’ve built? In my humble opinion, we’re capable of working out the details on the path to becoming an exemplary nation. For this to happen, , now that we’re living in our own land and have managed to build it up, not badly at all, we need to come up with a new vision. Let us hope this vision becomes reality.

Kobi Oz is a composer, singer (lead vocalist of the band Teapacks), media personality, and writer.