A Jewish State That Recognizes a Person’s Humanity


This Jewish state will be judged not on how “Jewish” it is in terms of ritual observance, but in terms of how successful it is in creating a spacious structure of national life, in which all the state’s citizens feel that they are visible and have a voice.

The Jewish journey toward fulfillment of the people’s historic mission is moving forward and becoming clear. The State of Israel, which opened its gates by law – the Law of Return – to all Jews whoever and wherever they are, is the realization of the dream cherished by all the generations of exile.

Generations that dreamed of “When the Lord brought back those that returned to Zion” could not, in their wildest imagination, have seen that dream’s fulfillment in its current form. And now we, the heirs of those who built the land and shaped the country’s character, are tasked with delineating a vision of the Jewish state – not as a fantasy but as a dream meant to chart a course for the state’s continued development. In this article I aim to elucidate my own dreams for the state and convey them in the language of current reality, entailing both a bird’s eye view and one closer to the ground. But I will not be able to sketch here the full portrait of a Jewish state. I will confine myself to a single point, what I regard as the Archimedean point, for the fashioning of the nation-state of the Jewish people.

Equality between human beings as the inner essence of the state of the Jewish people

The first Jewish message to the entire world was rebellion against the Egyptian “house of bondage” and the aspiration to a life of freedom. This is the “headline” of the Ten Commandments: “I am the Lord thy God, who brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” The delegitimization of slavery is one of the gifts that the Jewish people gave to the world. For thousands of years, we could not actualize Jewish ideals in a sovereign framework. We were subject to foreign rule and preserved ourselves as a minority surviving in difficult conditions. Only 75 years ago were we privileged to achieve renewed Jewish sovereignty.

Among other things, Israel’s Declaration of Independence defined the character of the new state in terms of the principle of equality between all people:

[I]t will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race, or sex […]

This definition, though drawn from the world of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his liberal-European heirs, nevertheless originates in the world of Judaism, and its realization is part of the realization of the state’s Jewish character. Israel’s definition as the Jewish nation-state and as a state that ensures full equality for its citizens is a fuller and higher implementation of the state’s Jewish values.

A Jewish state that recognizes a person’s humanity entails an entire set of interpersonal behaviors.

Above all, when defining the state’s identity there should be an emphasis on the ideal of equality. In an equal society, no one is invisible, no one is regarded as not being “in the image of God,” no one is of greater worth than others. Equality between people is a basic value and should therefore feature prominently in a definition of the state’s identity. Without such a statement, the nation’s definition remains a body without a soul.

I will use four examples to illustrate how a “Judaism that that recognizes a person’s humanity” can be implemented in Israel – examples that are merely particulars that elucidate the generality.

Treatment of minorities

In a Jewish state, all citizens and all (non-citizen) residents will have equal rights, with no discrimination on the basis of religion or nationality. The Jewish state will minimize the need for control over another people that does not want to be part of its citizenry, in accordance with security requirements and the need to safeguard the lives of all the state’s citizens. The Jewish majority’s treatment of a non-Jewish minority must be strictly consistent with the spirit of the Torah, which sees the human face as the face of God. Over seventy years ago, Rabbi Herzog, Israel’s first Chief Rabbi, contended with this issue. In an article in the journal Tehumin, he noted that minority rights are the main question the state must address. After a halachic discussion showing how the idea of granting civil rights to minorities is embodied in Jewish law, Rabbi Herzog expresses his hope that all who wish for the establishment and strengthening of the state will embrace this ruling without objection: “What must we do? Tell the nations: We cannot accept this condition, because our holy Torah forbids a Jewish government from permitting Christians to settle in our land and, furthermore, it forbids us from allowing their religion to be practiced in our land and from allowing them to purchase land? It seems to me that no Israeli rabbi of intelligence and common sense would hold that we should respond in this way, i.e., that this is our obligation based on the law of our sacred Torah” (Herzog, 5741, 169).

Since the day Rabbi Herzog wrote the above, reality has given resonance to his words. It is an honor for the Jewish nation to have once again become a living player on the stage of world history, and as such it must deepen its sense of responsibility for every living being created by God and sheltered under the wings of the state.

Treatment of people with special needs

The Jewish state will make  a heightened effort to include all people in community life. People with special needs and with unique disabilities will find services within the system and not outside of it, will live in the community rather than being isolated from it, will serve their state and work like all others, rather than dropping out of society. The Jewish state that recognizes a person’s humanity will acknowledge the potential of every person and strive to maximize his abilities through accessibility and public attention. This process of including every person in the circle of belonging is characterized by great tension between the aspiration to freedom and the natural impulse to protect a person from harm. In order to subdue the reflexive impulse to protect those who appear to me unprotected, I have to bolster my own faith in the person’s capabilities, in his desire, his ability to grow from failure.

This move toward freedom requires courage, and all of the state’s social systems must undergo the mental and spiritual training necessary to ensure the journey’s success. It is a journey whose purpose is to elevate society through recognition of the limitations of all of its individual members. The image of the state is determined by the status of those populations that need help in order to stand on their own feet within the various spheres of human life. The more we strive to place people with special needs at the heart of society and the community, the more we will elevate the state’s Jewish character.

Treatment of those disqualified from marriage according to Jewish law

The approach to Judaism that sees the person’s face entails awareness of the reality that hundreds of thousands of citizens cannot formalize their familial status within the state framework, whether because they are not halachically Jewish, because they wish to marry someone of the same sex, or because their belief system precludes their marrying within a religious framework. Many religious Israeli citizens who wish to safeguard the state’s Judaism cannot reconcile themselves, and most do not want to reconcile themselves, to this situation where an entire population is unable to exercise its right to establish a family in Israel. The current system, which ignores the harm done to citizens of the state, has already exacted a high price by leading to hatred of religion and religious institutions. Clearly, we need to create a new system that eases tensions and makes it possible for religious and secular people to exist together in a reasonable and appropriate way. I am inclined to work toward the legislation of a suitably formulated “matrimonial partnership” that would leave untouched the concept of marriage as halachically defined (k’dat Moshe v’Yisrael) but free those who do not want or are unable to marry on that basis to form a shared life framework recognized by the state. In my estimation, the vast majority of Israelis would continue to marry within the traditional framework, because Israeli society is traditional in character. Those unable to marry according to Jewish law or who are radically opposed to such marriage would choose the “matrimonial partnership” option, and the level of hatred would subside.

Treatment of workers

The modern labor market poses many ethical and social questions. Within the narrow bounds of this article, I will note three points on which the worker’s human dignity entails employer obligations and employment policy: terms of employment, public Shabbat observance in the labor market, and withholding wages.

The struggle against slavery was waged over millennia, and in some parts of the world it has yet to end. The modern world features alternate forms of slavery, such as disgraceful employment conditions for “invisible” people. The stronger the global economy grows, the more we risk losing sight of the worker’s humanity. The issue of contract workers and their employment conditions, for example, has to be on the agenda of a Jewish state that wants to safeguard its basic values. The words of Job can serve as a complementary roadmap to the words of the Torah:

If I did despise the cause of my manservant, or of my maidservant, when they contended with me–What then shall I do when God riseth up? And when He remembereth, what shall I answer Him? Did not He that made me in the womb make him? And did not One fashion us in the womb? (Job 31:13-15)

Other employment conditions (hours off and work environment) have implications for the worker’s human dignity as well. They cast a spotlight on the status of Shabbat observance in the public and economic realms: economic interests that violate Shabbat violate the basic values of a state that champions human dignity. L’ma’an yanuach – “that [one] may rest” – is a shining banner that waves above humanity as a whole, and it is also a warning signal to people and governments lest they oppress others, whoever they may be.

The economy knows how to “play” those who desire a secular way of life. Neither merchants nor consumers are ideologically motivated; rather, they express man’s drive for enjoyment and consumption. In the face of this impulse, the state’s leaders must firmly strive to elevate the basic ideal of safeguarding the national day of rest. The debate between those driven to consume and those motivated by ideals and values dates back to the Bible, to the early days of the Second Temple (Nehemiah 13). We, as a Jewish state, are not exempt from that struggle. Here in particular legislation will be no help, as it reflects not consensus but rather arm-twisting. Consensus and unwritten understandings can promote a robust foundation for society, and perhaps they are worth striving for. Great efforts in this direction have already been made, such as the Gavison-Medan Covenant (2003), and these initiatives should be furthered. The issue of Shabbat in the public realm is still being tossed about by political parties seeking to pull us in different directions. If we want the best possible outcome, we will have to find the inner strength to subdue our desires and refrain from imposing our sectoral will on the other side, thereby creating a reality which, though only partly satisfactory to all, nevertheless fosters peace in the land.

Withholding wages is considered a severe prohibition and is addressed by the Torah in harsh terms: “Thou shalt not oppress a hired servant that is poor and needy, whether he be of thy brethren, or of thy strangers that are in thy land within thy gates” (Deuteronomy 24:14). Malachi, the last of the Prophets, describes the retribution to be visited upon those who “oppress the hireling in his wages”:

And I will come near to you to judgment; and I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, and against the adulterers, and against false swearers; and against those that oppress the hireling in his wages, the widow, and the fatherless, and that turn aside the stranger from his right, and fear not Me, saith the Lord of hosts. (Malachi 3:5)

The picture painted by the prophet is very clear. There is a common denominator between all the sinners mentioned in this verse. They are a group of people who “have no God.” They are ever mindful of power and hold sway over others. Sorcerers and various types of “wonder worker” exploit people’s weaknesses and dominate them. Adulterers undermine the marital relationships of others through temptation or domination; false swearers scorn the foundations of the society built on trust. To this elect crew the prophet adds those who withhold the wages of the hireling, the widow, and the orphan. This is exploitation of the weak, of those who cannot rise up against their employers. It is a form of aggression that the prophet regards as antithetical to the “fear of God.” Obviously, the prohibition against withholding wages does not differentiate between Jewish and foreign workers. The commandment “In the same day thou shalt give him his hire” (Deuteronomy 24:15) is all-inclusive and all-encompassing.

The secret of contraction: how to actualize the ideal of equality within the state framework

The perpetual recognition of another person’s presence in my living space requires that I “contract” to some degree; that I restrain my desires, acknowledge the needs of the other and make room for people to move in the same space along many and varied paths. This picture is not that of a “state of all its citizens”; rather, it highlights the state’s Judaism precisely in terms of a Torah-based recognition that the God of Israel created all human beings in infinite variety. So it is written in the Tosefta:

One who sees a crowd says, “Blessed is the Wise One of Secrets, for their faces are not like one another nor are their opinions like one another.” (Berakhot, 6:5).

God, the “Wise One of Secrets,” dispersed the source of divine light in His world and gave each and every person his own unique character.

“’All the ways of a man are clean in his own eyes; but the Lord weigheth the spirits” (Proverbs 16:2). – “For each and every person has his own path to tread, and their understanding is not the same and their faces are not the same and the nature of two different people is not the same” (Vilna Gaon on Proverbs 21). The “spirits” that emanate from the inner world of human beings fill the world with difference that often sparks fierce disagreement. “This difference is decreed by the Supreme Wisdom. Were all human beings identical to each other in their tendencies of spirit, each individual person and each specific group would not be drawn in its own direction in so extreme and impassioned a way, and the world would therefore lack different and inspiring opinions, directions, and ideas” (Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, Ein Ayah).

In order to actualize this value of diversity and multiplicity of aspects and views, we need to learn the secret of tzimtzum or contraction, the secret of the space that one person gives to another, the seeing of the face of the other as the face of God. Sod hatzimtzum, the “secret of contraction,” means a deep recognition of the need to make room, to constrain exclusive self-realization out of an awareness of the existence of the other. Sod hatzimtzum is practiced by individuals, as in a marital or familial context, but the Jewish people’s mission is to uphold this great “secret” as a “kingdom of priests.” Democracy is not merely rule of the people but also ensuring that all parts of the people are represented in the state’s leadership. The Jewish state has the power to create the most perfectly and splendidly democratic climate imaginable by meticulously ensuring maximal representativeness of all the forces operating within it – except for those that seek to undermine the state or to distance it from its basic values.

This Jewish state will be judged not on how “Jewish” it is in terms of ritual observance, but in terms of how successful it is in creating a spacious structure of national life, in which all the state’s citizens feel that they are visible and have a voice. In this place that contracts the “I” for the sake of the other, an accommodating space has been created into which God will enter.

Peace be within thy walls, and prosperity within thy palaces.

For my brethren and companions’ sakes, I will now say: ‘Peace be within thee.’

For the sake of the house of the Lord our God I will seek thy good.

(Psalms 122:7-9)


Work cited

Herzog, Rabbi Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog (5741–1980/1). “Minority Rights According to Halacha.” Tehumin 2, 169-179.

Rabbi Dr. Binyamin Lau is the Director of the 929 Tanakh B’Yachad daily Bible study initiative and Chairman of AKIM Israel.