A Jewish State: The State the Jewish People Deserves

The State of Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people, whose character determines the character of the state. This character is the basic common denominator of the “people who dwell in Zion.” If we so merit, then the minorities among us, minorities that are not Jewish, will become attached to that vision out of respect and appreciation. If not, we will have to improve.

“For I have known him, to the end that he may command his children and his household after him, that they may keep the way of Hashem, to do righteousness and justice” (Genesis 18:19).

Jewish faith is not solely a matter of faith in one God, even if that God is omnipotent and omniscient. Embodied in Jewish faith is the idea that the One God has a “way,” that that way is concerned with “righteousness and justice,” and that the essence of the Jewish people is keeping that way, applying it in the world and trusting in the goodness of the God who gives us the strength to succeed at the task. This, in principle, is the vision for the Jewish state: to be a state that performs “kindness, justice, and righteousness, in the earth” (Jeremiah 9:23), and does so in the name of Heaven.

To this I would like to add a few details and comments.


“By means of our state, we will be able to educate our people for tasks that are as yet beyond our horizon. For God would not have sustained our people for so long a time had there not been another mission designated for us in the history of the human race.”

This sentence, written in 1895, appears in the personal diary of none other than the visionary of the state, Theodor Herzl. Herzl’s attitude toward religion was complicated, to say the least, but there can be no doubt over the sincerity of the above remark. Two years after he wrote it, Herzl published The Menorah, a story whose protagonist, a highly-educated German Jew representing Herzl himself, returns to Judaism. From a standpoint of total indifference to the Jewish religion, the protagonist is drawn by rising antisemitism to “a change that he might never have [experienced] in better days […] He began to love Judaism with great fervor” (quoted in Hazony, 2002, 84).

A quarter of a century later, we embarked on a similar journey on the national level. We too, the entire Jewish people, experienced a political transformation driven by unbearable circumstances. Having been thus privileged, it is appropriate that we proceed to realize the vision set forth by Herzl at a later point in the story that relates to the cumulative light of the Hanukkah candles: “There came the eighth day, on which the entire row of lights is kindled […] A great radiance shone forth from the menorah. The eyes of the children sparkled. For our friend, the occasion became a parable for the awakening of a whole nation […] When all the candles are ablaze everyone must stop in amazement and rejoice at what has been wrought” (Hazony, 85).

Rather than a broad return to Judaism, David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, preferred a narrower return to the Bible in general, and to the Book of Joshua in particular. Once again we conquer the land; once again we tumble the walls of Jericho. In this matter, the visionary of the state deserves to be relied upon, and it seems deeply appropriate that the festival of Hanukkah, instituted by the Sages and celebrated religiously even by those distant from religion, serve as an apt image of the Jewish people’s new political rebirth.

In contrast to the Torah festivals that illuminate the Jewish calendar in the summer months, Hanukkah, a rabbinic festival, is celebrated in the dark depths of winter. Like the Hasmonean victory, achieved only after years of fierce fighting and painful losses, the dark nights of Hanukkah are not brightened by a higher power – like the power that illuminates Passover. The night remains as dark as ever, while the candles that flicker in it are ours, the work of our hands. And it is there that the miracle lies – the miracle of Jewish existence, the miracle of the victory over Greece, and the great miracle of the State of Israel.

Such a miracle constitutes a departure from the way of the world, but one that does not deviate from the framework of nature – and our country certainly fits that definition. Apropos of a verse from Isaiah – “Who hath heard such a thing? Who hath seen such things? Is a land born in one day? Is a nation brought forth at once? For as soon as Zion travailed, she brought forth her children” (66:8) – the Christian theologian Derek Prince described the birth of the state in exuberant terms: “On one day – May 14, 1948 – Israel was born as a complete nation, with its own government, armed forces, and all necessary administrative functions […] So far as I knew, such an event was without parallel in human history” (Prince, 2005, 46). In its rebirth, in its wars, in the ingathering of its children and in how it has flourished over the years, the State of Israel has indeed diverged from the way of the world.

In the religious sphere too, the state has witnessed an unprecedented rebirth. As long ago as the 1980s, the Slonimer Rebbe, Rav Sholom Noach Berezovsky, expressed his gratified amazement at the revival:

What is phenomenal about our generation is that with our own eyes we are seeing revelations that no one dared to imagine or dream of a generation ago. Such a marvelous generation has suddenly sprung up […] The tents of Torah are thriving and the Torah study taking place in them is of the highest caliber, and at the same time the halls of Hassidism are flourishing in all their glory, as well as the amazing and wonderful teshuva [religious revival] movement, the likes of which we never saw in any generation. Doesn’t the question naturally present itself: Who engendered all of this for us? (Berezovsky, 1988, 30).

“There is no natural explanation for this,” Rabbi Berezovsky concludes. And yet the framework remained “the way of the world.”

The realization of the “Jewish state” vision must likewise embody both qualities. The state must indeed behave in accordance with nature – derech eretz or the way of the world common to all mankind. It must be strong militarily, as only thus can it contend with its many enemies; it must flourish economically through a highly-developed free market and a stable judiciary; and it must be on the forefront of research and development, in both the sciences and the humanities. But all of these things – the wisdom, the heroism, and the wealth – are means to an end. Jewish scripture (Jeremiah, op. cit.) commands us not to boast of them; they are not ends in themselves. The purpose they serve is the establishment of a model society founded on benevolence, righteousness, and justice, a society that is an exception to the way of the world and serves as a light unto the nations.

That is how we should translate the “Jewish and democratic” pairing. On the one hand, the state must be democratic: natural, properly functioning, one nation among the family of nations. On the other hand, it must be Jewish: unique, elevated, exceptional. How will this come to pass? The answer is easy: by means of the people.


As with any nation-state, Israel’s Judaism needs to be enshrined in its various official arrangements. As retired Supreme Court Chief Justice Aharon Barak defined it, Israel must be a state whose language is Hebrew and whose holidays reflect the national rebirth; a state where Jewish settlement throughout its territory is at the top of its agenda; a state whose culture and education are Jewish; a state whose values are derived from the Torah and from Jewish heritage; and a state where basic religious functions are under the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate (Barak, 2004, 87-88).

But this is only a framework, a vessel to be filled with actual content. Infusing the state with substance is the task of the sovereign, i.e., ha’am ha’yoshev b’Tziyon – the “people who dwell in Zion.” The sovereign must address a vast range of questions large and small regarding the aforementioned arrangements; it must determine the country’s borders and their character and improve their configuration. The Jewish state may greatly resemble the world’s other developed nations – a “New York for Jews,” as an Israeli friend who lives overseas longingly put it – yet it may also differ greatly from all other nations, unique in its Judaism and exalted in its deep connection to the God of Israel.

The Jewish state’s weekly day of rest is therefore Shabbat, in accordance with the state’s fundamental definition. But what will the character of Shabbat be in the public space? The state’s official language will be Hebrew, but what will its culture look like – its music, literature, film, and its recreational world?  What will be the content of the curricula in the state education system, and what degree of latitude will be granted to private schools? What will be the Jewish state’s economic policy? To what extent will Halacha (Jewish law) constitute a foundational source for state law? What degree of autonomy will be granted to the state’s minority groups? How will the delicate balance between the values of equality and freedom be handled?

The answers to these and to a variety of other major questions must be given by the people. That is, the authority to decide on the hard questions of Jewish existence in Israel does not lie with academic experts, Supreme Court justices, or even great Torah scholars, but rather with the people itself. The authority of the national institutions derives, directly or indirectly, from the “dwellers of Zion.” These institutions lack the authority or the ability to impose their opinion or their will on the people. The answers will thus be determined on the basis of the people’s will and preferences.

Accordingly, those answers will not be fixed, but rather dynamic. The situation of the Jewish people is not static. It constantly changes, just as it changed in ancient times – in the days of the judges and the kings. As the character of the people evolves, so will the arrangements instituted in the various public policy arenas. That is, when the Jewish people moves closer to the tradition of its ancestors and to the spirit of the Torah and the mitzvot, Israel’s governmental arrangements will align with that spirit. During periods when this is not so, the situation will be reflected in changes to the arrangements. At any given time, there will also be a minority that thinks differently from the majority, and the state, via its judicial branch, must ensure that that minority is not crushed under the wheels of government. Nevertheless, the character of the state, its great endeavors and its unique place among the family of nations, will be determined by the majority.

Thus, the vision of the Jewish state will be realized over time, candle by candle, until its light shines in full glory. When we compare the status of the people today to the situation during the early years of Israeli statehood, we find that a profound change has occurred. From a clear trend toward the abandonment of religion and alienation from Judaism’s sacred beliefs, we have reached a place of closeness and respect, connection and searching. The state, whether in the midst of turmoil or in times of calm, is also searching and it will find what it seeks. In this context, and in recognition of Israel’s current demographic trends, a look at the Haredi public is in order.


The most significant demographic development since the founding of the state, the one that denies Israeli decision-makers in nearly all spheres of their sleep, concerns the population group known as “the Haredi public” – a rich variety of communities that have consolidated under the collective identity that goes by that name. In response to the demographic change this specific group is undergoing (changes among other groups have been only minor), President Reuven Rivlin formulated his “four tribes” idea, which he called “Israeli hope.” According to his approach, we need to seek a new, more civic and less Jewish common denominator – one suited to the tribes that make up Israeli society, two of which, the Haredim and the Arabs, do not share the old common ground of a Jewish and Zionist state. In my view, this approach is misguided. A stronger Haredi sector will not undermine the state’s Jewishness. On the contrary, the state will become more Jewish, and even more Zionist.

The British author George Eliot was deeply engaged with Jews and Judaism, and over the years developed a deep respect for our time-honored faith. Among other things, she praised Judaism for giving humanity a “strongly characterised portraiture of a people educated from an earlier or later period to a sense of separateness unique in its intensity, a people taught by many concurrent influences to identify faithfulness to its national traditions with the highest social and religious blessings.” (Quoted in Ehrlich, 2020, 171). Eliot’s further comments, written in 1879 when the Jewish nationalist movement had barely begun to emerge, are reminiscent of a Haredi manifesto:

Thenceforth the virtuous elements of the Jewish life were engaged, as they had been with varying aspects during the long and changeful prophetic period and the restoration under Ezra, on the side of preserving the specific national character against a demoralising fusion with that of foreigners whose religion and ritual were idolatrous and often obscene. There was always a Foreign party reviling the National party as narrow, and sometimes manifesting their own breadth in extensive views of advancement or profit to themselves by flattery of a foreign power. Such internal conflict naturally tightened the bands of conservatism, which needed to be strong if it were to rescue the sacred ark, the vital spirit of a small nation—”the smallest of the nations” (Ehrlich, 171).

The Jewish people’s “national faction” is indeed that segment that is faithful to the Torah and to Jewish tradition and is prepared to fight zealously for them. As Yehezkel Kaufmann explained at length in his books and articles, that faithfulness itself constitutes the safeguarding of the Jewish people’s national “identity card.” On this basis the Haredim, who have taken upon themselves a leading role in preserving the “the cruse of pure oil,” claim a position of honor in the Jewish national endeavor. However, where the embodiment of the national entity itself, the state, is concerned, the Haredim have refrained from participating in the constructive effort. But this abstention did not stem from opposition to the theoretical idea of the Jewish state, but from the sense that secular Zionism poses a danger to the Jewish people itself, i.e., to the essence of Jewish nationalism.

I am reminded of the well-known 1990 “rabbits and pigs’ speech” by Rabbi Elazar Menachem Shach, then the undisputed leader of Litvak Haredi Judaism. The speech, broadcast live on Israeli media, was supposed to address burning political issues. Nevertheless, the Rav chose to discuss secularism and secular culture:

What is your culture? English? Idolators know [English] too. If you have no connection with your father, you will inevitably be lost. That’s the secular Jews, nothing but soccer on their minds […] If there are kibbutzim that don’t know what Yom Kippur is, don’t know what Shabbat is and don’t know what a mikveh is, and they raise rabbits and pigs, what makes them Jewish?

Rabbi Shach knew that secular Judaism would not accept the yoke of Torah and mitzvot, certainly not in the space of a day. But he did expect the secular to maintain a connection with Judaism and to perpetuate, in however narrow and limited a fashion, the heritage of earlier generations. When he said that the secular “don’t know what Yom Kippur is, don’t know what Shabbat is, and don’t know what a mikveh is,” he was not demanding stringent halachic observance, but rather a basic Jewish consciousness of the elements that differentiate and distinguish Judaism from the other nations. Without such consciousness, Rabbi Shach felt, Judaism has no hope: “If you have no connection with your father, you will inevitably be lost.”

But lo and behold, in stark contrast to the state of the Jewish nation overseas, and despite Rav Shach’s gloomy forecast, Israel’s non-mitzvah-observing Jews have remained largely traditional and connected. Many, even very many, Jews continue to circumcise their sons, hold Passover seders, and fast on Yom Kippur; they are scrupulous about marrying Jewish partners; they affix mezuzot to their doorposts and pray to God in times of trouble. They marry according to Jewish law and bring children into the world at a higher rate than in any other developed country. There are deep commonalities between them and the Haredi public – those of a Jewish state with prominent Jewish features, and of a covenant of destiny expressed sometimes in love, and sometimes in anger and frustration. There is no need for a new common denominator.

The details are of course subject to dispute; above all, dialogue is necessary if decisions are to be made. The Haredi public is on the threshold of a new era: the era of partnership. That public – we – have much work ahead: first in clarifying and ironing out the details of what a Jewish state is in Haredi eyes, or in the eyes of each Haredi subsector, and second in communicating with the rest of the “dwellers of Zion,” based on a sincere intention of reaching mutually agreeable arrangements in a situation of non-consensus. Such communication requires language skills in which the Haredi sector is not necessarily well-practiced, and a profound conception of partnership and civic responsibility that has not yet coalesced. This is the order of the day for the Haredi public. The corresponding order of the day for the general public is to reach out – without expecting the Haredim to change their basic values or their way of life, and to internalize the need for sincere dialogue and the willingness to compromise.

The English writer William Henry Wilkins coined a saying in the late 19th century, based on what was apparently an adage of the time: “You get the Jews that you deserve” (the saying appears in the introduction of an antisemitic book by Richard Francis Burton; see Burton, 1898). Today, to our profound good fortune, we will be getting only the Jews and the Jewish state that we ourselves deserve. Our state is made up of the various segments of the people, and its continued flourishing, both on the earthly plane and in the sphere of sanctity, depends on our ability to recognize the depth of the partnership between us, and to realize that partnership in practice. And if not now – when?


Afterword: The State of Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people, whose character determines the character of the state. This character is the basic common denominator of the “people who dwell in Zion.” If we so merit, then the minorities among us, minorities that are not Jewish, will become attached to that vision out of respect and appreciation. If not, we will have to improve. And so, with God’s help, we shall.

Works cited


Barak, Aharon (2004). Judge in a Democracy. University of Haifa Press, Keter and Nevo.

Berezovsky, Sholom Noach (1988). HaHaruga Aleicha. Machon Emuna V’Da’at.

Ehrlich, Tsur (5780-2020). George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans): “The Modern Hep-Hep-Hep,” Chapter 18 of The Impressions of Theophrastus Such, 1879 (Tsur Ehrlich, trans.). In: Tsur Ehrlich – “A Second Level of Tolerance: On George Eliot and ‘The Modern Hep-Hep-Hep.’” Hashiloach 19, 162-181.

Hazony, Yoram (5762-2001, Fall). “Did Herzl Want a ‘Jewish’ State?” Tchelet, 11, 73-105.

Herzl, Theodor (5720-5721-1960-1961). Writings of Herzl in Ten Volumes (Alex Bein and Moshe Sherf, eds.).


Burton, Richard Francis (1898). The Jew, the Gypsy and el Islam. H. S. Stone & Company.

Eliot, George (1879). Impressions of Theophrastus Such. William Blackwood and Sons.

Herzl, Theodor (1897). Die Menora. Die Welt.

Prince, Derek (2005). Promised land: The future of Israel revealed in prophecy. Chosen Books.

Rabbi Yehoshua Pfeffer is Editor-in-Chief of the journal Tzarich Iyun, head of the Tikvah Fund’s Haredi Israel division, a lecturer at Hebrew University and in other academic and religious frameworks, and rabbi of the Ohr Chadash community in Jerusalem. He holds undergraduate and master’s degrees in law from The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.