A State whose Everyday Life and Conduct Breathe Judaism

The “Jewish state” definition means a Jewish collective conducting its affairs in accordance with Jewish values and actualizing through the state the model of a people living in the public realm as a Jewish people.

First of all, let us distinguish between a “Jewish state” and a “state of Jews.” Israel can be a “state of Jews,” the reason for whose existence is to serve as a home for persecuted Jews. Today, when Jews in most countries live in relative security, some would cast doubt on the necessity of such a state. Of course, one might counter that the present conditions could potentially change, that Jews could again face threats in their countries of residence, and that a home is needed to which they could flee should the need arise. And yet this leaves the state’s existence and necessity at the level of a country of refuge only. By contrast, the “Jewish state” definition means a Jewish collective conducting its affairs in accordance with Jewish values and actualizing through the state the model of a people living in the public realm as a Jewish people.

Such a state embodies a much broader and deeper vision. It should be a state that enables Jews not only to live individually in the spirit of Judaism (which is possible in many other countries as well), but that also provides them with the atmosphere and distinctive character of a Jewish people residing in its land and living in accordance with its values and heritage. This would be a state in which Judaism is present in everyday life and conduct, and in this it would differ from all other countries.

A religious Jew will obviously have a different image of a Jewish state from that of a non-observant Jew – and yet it is possible to unite around a shared regard for central features of the Jewish value system, the features that ought to characterize the Jewish state.

The basis for Jewish identity

The Jewish people, especially with regard to its two-thousand-year-long exile, is an exception among the family of nations. The fact that it is one people, despite being dispersed across many countries and despite the differences of culture and mentality between its diverse communities, has often raised questions about its peoplehood. Nor has the commonly-accepted religious definition succeeded in characterizing the Jewish people, because within that people there are those who do not observe the commandments of the Torah, or who even feel no tangible connection to the religion.

A few months after Israel was founded, the Soviet-Jewish writer Ilya Ehrenberg published an article in Pravda in which he contended that the Jewish people does not actually exist. He argued that Jews from different countries have nothing in common, and that if there is some connection between them it stems solely from antisemitism. He likened the Jews to a theoretical situation in which redheads or people with pug noses were to be persecuted. Such persecution would not make them a “people.” Hence the conclusion that Jews who suffer no discrimination in their countries of residence cannot belong to the persecuted Jewish collective, and that in any case they have no distinctive national identity, but are rather part of the respective nations among which they live (Bar-Zohar, 1977, Vol. 2, 914).

Some have called the Jewish people’s existence an “anomaly” or an “enigma.” A number of Zionist thinkers felt uncomfortable with this “anomaly” and hoped to be rid of it through the establishment of an independent state. They assumed that by this means the Jewish people would return to the family of nations, and that the people would become definable in terms of the usual national categories – territory, language, culture, and the like; “a people like all others.”

It goes without saying that this outlook stands in contrast to the consciousness of believing Jews. For the latter, the Jewish people’s existence does not depend on its ability to fit into the national categories that define other peoples. The Jewish people became a people over 3,300 years ago, at the time of the Exodus from Egypt and Ma’amad Har Sinai – the revelation at Mount Sinai, as is written in Deuteronomy 27:9: “This day you have become a people unto the Lord your God.” The designation “people” stems from the covenant made between the people and the Creator of the Universe at the Giving of the Torah. That is why the words that open the Declaration of Independence – “the Land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people” – embody a denial of the age-old Jewish narrative. Our transformation into a people occurred in the wilderness, before we entered Eretz Israel; it was there, at the foot of Mount Sinai, that the Jewish people was “born.”

The Jewish masses dispersed across the globe were not seriously concerned with the question of the Jewish people’s “normality.” They felt their affiliation with the people in every fiber of their being, even if that people did not meet the common definitions of nationality. This deep identification was based on a single commonality – the millennia-long continuity of Jewish tradition, which meticulously maintained the criteria by which a person could be considered a Jew. There were, of course, other elements of commonality – circumcision, bar mitzvah, marriage in accordance with Jewish law, holidays and festivals, the Jewish prayer book (reading of the “Shema Yisrael” prayer), Jewish burial rites and so on. However, the fundamental commonality was the uniform criterion for determining who is a Jew.

In the context of that tradition, Jews yearned for Eretz Israel and their hearts swelled with the hope of redemption, centered around the building of the Beit HaMikdash (the Holy Temple) in Jerusalem, and the return of the Jews to their land, from the lands of their dispersion. Three times a day, when a Jew anywhere in the world engaged in prayer, he turned to face Eretz Israel and Jerusalem. For two thousand years, Jews prayed that the Temple be “rebuilt speedily in our days.” In the thrice-daily Amidah prayer we pray for the ingathering of the exiles (“Sound the great shofar for our freedom”), for the restoration of the Jewish system of justice (“Restore our judges as in former times”), for the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the Temple (“Return in mercy to Jerusalem Your city”) and for the coming of the Messiah (“Speedily cause the scion of David Your servant to flourish”). This is the vision and this is the hope that filled the hearts of Jews over the long years of exile.

There is no question that without that tradition, which fostered in the heart of every Jew the hope of redemption and return to Zion, the great miracle of our times would not have occurred – a miracle that has no parallel in the history of the nations of the world – a people returning to its land after two millennia of exile.

Between continuity and alienation

Many of the founding fathers of Zionism were indeed not mitzvah-observant, yet the vast majority of them bore in their hearts an attachment of some kind to Jewish heritage. In any case, the Jewish masses, who answered the call to go up to Eretz Israel, before or after the founding of the state, certainly came out of a deep faith in the unique nature and sanctity of the land, hopefully anticipating that here they would be able to live full Jewish lives.

This set the background for the profound disappointment experienced by many immigrants when they realized that the situation in Eretz Israel did not accord with their dreams. The sight of kibbutzim and moshavim in which Shabbat and kashrut were not observed tore their hearts. Yemenite Jews to this day bear the scars of what they understand as a deliberate attempt to sever them from their heritage, an endeavor that came to be known as the “shearing of the pe’ot” (the sidelocks worn by religious Jews, based on the injunction not to shave the “sides” of one’s head). Jewish immigrants from Middle Eastern and North African countries felt that they had been deceived when, on arriving in Israel, the parties responsible for their absorption tried to persuade them that in Israel there was no longer any need to observe mitzvot, and that religion and tradition were needed only in the Golah, the exile.

This population, with its profound attachment to Jewish heritage, is unwilling to accept the conception of Judaism as a scaffolding one climbs while the building is under construction, which is then dismantled and discarded once the edifice has been completed. The two-millennia-long hope of a full Jewish life in our land could not have been propelled in the manner of a multistage rocket which, once the desired altitude has been attained, drops into the ocean as scrap metal. One cannot use the deep religious faith of generations as a foundation, and then deny that faith and establish a state that is alienated from Judaism.

In Israeli public discourse one hears calls for separation of religion and state, and for the state’s character to be fashioned in an entirely secular image, based on Western liberal values. Could this be called a Jewish state? Is it enough for the state to have been founded by Jews and for it to open its gates to sons and daughters of the Jewish people?  After all, even this aspect of the state’s character is eroding over time, for the same elements that want Israel to be a secular state fight to keep large numbers of African labor migrants in the country, and for the absorption here of total non-Jews – since any attempt to verify a person’s Jewishness contradicts the liberal worldview. If this trend continues, Israel’s definition as a “state of the Jews” – a country in which the majority of citizens are Jewish – will be cast into doubt.

In the long term, the collective unified as a state will not be spared the processes undergone by individuals within the Jewish people who disengage from their heritage. It is painful to see how many Jews are being lost to the Jewish people due to assimilation. These processes start with disengagement from the Jewish way of life, with abandonment of tradition and with the adoption of universalist culture. Later, even Jewish identity fades and loses its meaning. Chabad emissaries around the world meet such Jews every day, and strive to return them to the Jewish fold. Unfortunately, they are only partly successful. Large numbers of Jews are being lost to our people and becoming assimilated within other nations; their children and grandchildren already don’t even know of their Jewish ancestry.

What will keep Israel from undergoing such a process? If the erosion of Jewish identity and of attachment to Jewish values proceeds in line with current trends, the state will be divested of all Jewish features and become just another liberal-Western country. Its education system will produce young people who may be successful in business and the STEM professions, but whose Jewish identity will have no meaning for them. They will have no understanding of why they shouldn’t link their fate with that of a non-Jewish woman they’ve met on a post-army trip. They will regard as backward and prejudiced anyone who finds such a relationship problematic or insists that a Jewish man should start a family with a Jewish woman. Their attachment to Israel will weaken as well, and many will emigrate to places that seem more glamorous. Could such a country still be called Jewish?

The Lubavitcher Rebbe was concerned about this possibility from the early years of Israeli statehood. In a letter that he sent to then-Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion in 1959 on the question of “Who is a Jew?” he wrote: “However vital the need for religion amongst Diaspora Jewry, it is needed even more for the Jews in Eretz Yisrael. One of the basic reasons for this is that it is precisely in Eretz Yisrael that there exists the danger that a new generation will grow up, a new type bearing the name of Israel but completely divorced from the past of our people and its eternal and essential values, and moreover, hostile to it in its world outlook, its culture, and the content of its daily life; hostile – in spite of the fact that it will speak Hebrew, dwell in the land of the Patriarchs, and wax enthusiastic over the Bible” (The Lubavitcher Rebbe, 1990, p. 213).

It transpires that Ben-Gurion himself was also concerned about this tendency toward disengagement from Judaism. In 1955 he addressed a letter to the Minister of Education and Culture, Zalman Aran, in which he stressed the need to strengthen the Jewish consciousness of Israeli youth: “To the degree that I know our youth (and they are fine youth!), they are very, very lacking in Jewish consciousness, in knowledge of our historical heritage and in moral attachment to world Jewry. A curriculum should be developed that will correct this deficiency without detracting from other crucial academic disciplines” (Israel State Archives, 1955). In response, the Ministry of Education created programs for the cultivation of Jewish consciousness that were implemented within the education system. Over time, however, those who objected to such programs gained influence, and the programs were cancelled in the early 1970s.

Basic values of a Jewish state

For Israel to exist in the long term as a Jewish state, Judaism must be present in its everyday life and in its value system. Universalist values cannot be allowed to supplant traditional Jewish values, which are the lifeblood of the Jewish state and without which the state will lose its right to exist.

It should be noted from the outset that the struggle for the state’s Jewishness is often represented as a demand on the part of the religious public – a minority public. When such demands are met, it can thus seem as though a minority is imposing its will on the majority. This is simply not the case – just as when the demands of environmental organizations are met this does not constitute capitulation to the “green” minority. Those organizations are not working for themselves but for the good of society as a whole, even if environmental awareness is not widely shared. That is how the struggle for Jewish values should be seen. It is not the interest of the religious sector alone, but of the entire Jewish people. Naturally, the sector in which Judaism plays a more dominant role will have greater awareness of the Jewish dimension and greater recognition of its importance and value. In Israel, synagogues are built on the initiative, and usually with the funding, of religious Jews, but in reality they serve the entire public – for holidays and bar mitzvahs or, by contrast, in times of mourning.

Judaism in the Jewish state should, at the very least, manifest itself in the following crucial spheres:

Who is a Jew? The most important factor in ensuring Jewish historical continuity is adherence to the same criteria used over the generations to determine a person’s Jewishness: “A Jew is someone who was born to a Jewish mother or who converted in accordance with Halacha,” the corpus of Torah law as affirmed by Jewish legal rulings across the generations. Any deviation from those criteria undermines the basis for our existence as one people, for as soon as non-Jews are registered as Jews, it is no longer possible to say that “we are all Jews.”

Those who believe in the Torah will never agree to regard as Jews those who are not Jewish. The state’s recognition of the Jewishness of those with non-Jewish mothers, even if they have Jewish fathers or grandparents, or the Jewishness of those who underwent non-authentic “conversions,” will not cause even one religious Jew to include them in a prayer quorum, or to marry them. The result will be an unbridgeable rift between Jews who are Jewish according to the same criteria that have always been employed, and those who may, perhaps, be registered as Jews who but have in fact remained completely non-Jewish.

Ben-Gurion understood this after he posed the “Who is a Jew?” question to 50 individuals whom he designated “chachmei Yisrael” – Jewish scholars and thinkers. Of the 45 who responded, 37 supported the concept that Halacha is the sole basis for determining a person’s Jewishness. In light of this, it was decided that the Population Registry would register as a Jew a person who was “born to a Jewish mother and professes no other faith, or who converted in accordance with Halacha.”

Unfortunately, the Supreme Court decided to intervene on this matter in 1969, in the Shalit case. Benjamin Shalit was married to a non-Jewish woman and demanded that his children be registered as Jews. Here the dam was breached. The Knesset, which had tried to heal the breach with legislation, also left the issue of conversion open to interpretation by omitting the word Halacha. This was followed by Supreme Court rulings recognizing “conversions” that are in fact worthless.

The state’s recognition of the “Jewishness” of people who are not Jewish sends a harmful message to world Jewry. The Jewish state, founded after thousands of years of Jewish continuity on the basis of clear and commonly-accepted definitions, thereby declares that Jewish identity has been thrown to the wind, that the concept “Jewish” has lost its sanctity and its uniqueness, and that anyone can define it as they so wish.

Shabbat. Shabbat is a major pillar of Judaism. The commandment to observe it is one of the Ten Commandments. Shabbat is not merely a day off work; it also has an aspect of sanctity. We welcome it with Kiddush (a blessing over wine), and in the course of the day we are elevated to a more rarefied plane of prayer, Torah study, and spiritual life. Additionally, the family comes together around the Shabbat table.

The Jewish state must reflect these values, at the very least by closing public systems and services on Shabbat. These shutdowns do indeed place certain restrictions on those who are not Shabbat-observant, but in the overall balance their ethical contribution tips the scales. (The closing of places of entertainment on Holocaust Day and Memorial Day also makes some people uncomfortable, but that is the price the individual pays for the upholding of values important to the nation.)

Education. Education in a Jewish state should be strongly oriented toward imparting Jewish heritage. Graduates of the Israeli education system should be well versed in the Bible and the Oral Torah; they should be acquainted with the prayer book and synagogue customs, know what the festivals are about and be familiar with the Hebrew calendar. They should study Jewish history and visit heritage sites in Eretz Israel, especially those sites that have been objects of Jewish yearning for generations – the Western Wall, the Cave of the Patriarchs, Rachel’s Tomb, and the like.

Kashrut. Kashrut is a deep-rooted and salient feature of Jewish life. It is only natural that a Jewish state would accord it special status. The state should prevent kashrut fraud and ensure that kashrut is maintained in its public institutions. In this context, kashrut observance during Passover, and the prohibition during Passover of chametz (foods with leavening agents) in public places such as medical centers, should be important in a Jewish state, overriding the individual’s right to eat whatever he wants.

Marriage and divorce. Over the centuries, Jews were careful to marry and divorce in accordance with Jewish law. This is the basis for the Jewish people’s unity, and for the ability, today, of Jews from communities that were cut off from each other for hundreds of years to marry each other. By contrast, Jewish populations that did not uphold the marriage laws, and in particular the laws pertaining to divorce, have become psulei chitun, disqualified for marriage under Jewish law. In awareness of this, it was decided that marriage and divorce in Israel would be conducted in accordance with Halacha. This value should be bolstered and its tremendous importance recognized.

The right to a life of Torah and mitzvot. One thing that ought to be self-evident in a Jewish state is recognition of the inalienable right of Torah-observant Jews to live according to Halacha. That right has been undermined recently to a troubling degree. A major example of this is the attempt to prohibit the holding of events in public spaces in accordance with the rules of modesty (separation of men and women), or to prevent academic studies from being offered in gender-separate conditions for those who so wish. Other examples are the attempts to interfere with the instruction provided in Talmud Torah schools and in yeshivot. A Jewish state has to enable Torah-observant Jews to educate their children in their own way and in accordance with their faith. These values must be safeguarded even if they are not consistent with liberal-egalitarian attitudes or with certain economic viewpoints.

The key to the state’s future

As believing Jews see it, upholding these basic values in the Jewish state is crucial to enable the state to succeed and flourish. The Torah promises repeatedly that compliance with its laws is the key to peace, security, abundance, and wellbeing. The Creator of the Universe also warns us in His Torah that the abandonment of Torah values could, Heaven forbid, bring about the opposite. If we desire life, and if we wish to secure the State of Israel’s future in the face of all the threats that imperil it, then we must ensure that the basic values of the Jewish people are upheld within it. In this way, Israel will be a Jewish state in the full sense of the term and will survive and prosper until the true and complete redemption is brought about. And may that take place speedily, in our lifetime.

Works cited

Bar-Zohar, Michael (1977). Ben-Gurion (three volumes). Am Oved.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe [Menachem Mendel Schneerson] (1990). Igrot Kodesh (Volume 18). Kehot [Karnei Hod Torah] Publication Society.

Letter from Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion to Minister of Education Zalman Aran (Zalman Aran File, 113/14). (November 7, 1955). Israel State Archives.

Menachem Brod is a writer and an editor with the publishing division of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement. He is the editor of the weekly educational newsletter Sichat HaShavua, published by the Chabad roof organization, Tze’irei Agudas Chabad. He has served as spokesman for Chabad in Israel.