The Covenant State

If we are to formulate a clear vision for the Jewish state, let us say that Judaism should be part of the “basic values of the system.” A Jewish state organizes its way of life on the basis of focused dialogue between the world of Jewish values and the world of liberal-democratic values.

One can hardly overstate the symbolic weight and force of the penultimate sentence of Israel’s Declaration of Independence. It is there that the Declaration’s drafters appeal to world Jewry to stand with the Yishuv and to unite around “the great struggle for the realization of the age-old dream – the redemption of Israel.” For Jews with a national-historical consciousness, such a sentence evokes mythical associations enshrouded in the mists of time. The phrase “redemption of Israel” puts one in mind of the wanderings in the wilderness, the Revelation at Mount Sinai, the conquest of the land, the Tabernacle and the Temple, the Torah and the priesthood, the destruction of the Temple and the exile, the Holocaust and the renewal of Jewish sovereignty; in effect, our entire collective memory extending from the Bible to the Palmach. The Declaration of Independence describes the founding of the Jewish state as a new stage in history, as the object of longing of “the people who wandered like lost sheep,” as R. Judah Halevi put it – who, even in exile, never ceased to hope that God would “remember for them the covenant and oath.”

The Declaration of Independence was fashioned in this way under the inspiration of the founding father of the state, David Ben-Gurion, who regarded Zionism as much more than the means of ensuring a safe haven or a solution to the problem of antisemitism. Ben-Gurion thought big, really big. In his view, the Jewish state was meant to realize “the full and complete redemption of the Jewish people in its land, the ingathering of exiles, renewed national sovereignty” (BaMa’arakhah 1, 190). Though not religiously observant, Ben-Gurion saw the Zionist enterprise as a cross-sectoral theological development that would spark an awakening among all Jews.

The Zionist political conception is first of all a liberation from the theological outlook that prevailed among the Jewish people through all the generations of exile, and not only among those known as Haredi, but also among the secular and the maskilim [adherents of the Enlightenment].… This (exilic) theological outlook is not a religious outlook and has nothing to do with the Judaism of Rabbi Akiva, the Maccabees, Ezra and Nehemiah, Joshua, [or] Moses. (Ben-Gurion, speech to the Mapai council, March 1941; quoted in BaMa’arakhah 3, 52)

Thus, Ben-Gurion demonstrated his alignment with one of the fundamental principles of Jewish mysticism in general and, in particular, with the Zohar, according to which redemption depends on human initiative and action, man’s awakening from below – itaruta diletata.

The broader and deeper conception of the Jewish state has a unique particularistic component. Even if the Jewish state is part of the family of nations, and of the family of Western nations specifically, it has an aspect that does not assimilate completely. That aspect preserves a distinct cultural voice and a singular moral appeal. This is the hidden connection between “lo, it is a people that shall dwell alone” and “for out of Zion shall go forth the law” to the entire world.

This uniqueness is manifested above all in the concept of covenant. The Jewish people arose from a family, which developed into a tribal community, which developed into a nation. The covenant is the constitutive concept of all of these circles, from the biblical accounts of the Patriarchs as makers and bearers of a covenant, to the injustices denounced by the prophets of Israel, most of them connected with the covenant. This covenant has a horizontal element manifested in mutual responsibility and solidarity, and a vertical element that actualizes the transcendent.

It is an open covenant. The Jewish covenant does not enclose the community within itself, but rather imposes a moral obligation upon it, as God says of Abraham: “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 the Lord, to do righteousness and justice” (Genesis 18:19). The covenant acts bidirectionally: It is based on personal affinity and intimate ties between the parties to it, but the solidarity that it develops in the hearts of the parties does not end at the covenant’s spatial boundaries, but rather projects its qualities outward. In the consciousness of the parties to the covenant, “the poor of your city take precedence,” but this mutual responsibility within the covenantal community does not dull the moral sense. The covenant breathes, it has room for those not bound by it, and they are invited to be partners and to connect in various spheres.

The covenant is expressed in a variety of ways: Eretz Israel, as the spatial locus of the covenant, is the national home where the nation puts its inherent qualities into practice; the centrality of the family, as the basis of individual identity and belonging; values such as good faith and fairness in business; the sanctity of Shabbat – one of the Jewish people’s great contributions to humanity – reflecting the importance of freedom and abhorrence of slavery; solidarity and the duty to protect the disadvantaged (“the stranger, the orphan, and the widow”); and more.

But before we talk about specific values and specific institutions, the covenant is first of all a new language, a language characterized by willingness to go from the private to the collective and connective, to depart from the tribal and sectoral and meet in the open space between the different segments of society. In the biblical world the legal system also bears this character: it goes forth from the Hall of Hewn Stones and establishes a dialogue that is not confined to deciding between adversaries, but rather sees common interests and promotes reciprocal relationships for the sake of the whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.


When discussing the state’s Jewish identity, and the way that identity upholds the principle of covenant, we need to correctly define the question, as there is an important difference between Jewish identity in the private and communal space and Jewish identity in the national-political space. Over millennia of exile, Jews lived a covenantal life in familial and communal frameworks; the question, therefore, is what positive justification exists for the political expression of Jewish identity, as opposed to the negative justification derived from antisemitism and the Holocaust. To delve deeper: folklore, symbols, culture, and heritage can flourish in communities but do not necessarily require the political framework of a state. What is there in Jewish identity that can be expressed solely via a political framework?

The answer requires methodology. Methodology is needed in order to conceptualize the manifestations of collective Jewish identity in the living spaces over which the state has a decisive influence and which it shapes and guides: constitution and law, the justice system, public policy, symbols, and ceremonies.

The methodology

In the well-known disagreement between the Israeli Supreme Court Justices Menachem Elon and Aharon Barak regarding the implementation of the Foundations of Law Statute, Barak won. The “Jewish” and the “democratic” were not made into equal forces contending with each other on the basis of parity. The “democratic” component took precedence in determining content, while the “Jewish” component was regarded as a recognition of sociology – i.e., this is a state where Jews live, and “Jewish” is what the Jews do.

This being the case, the Court was prepared to take from the “Jewish” only its liberal-democratic elements, and even those were mainly ornamental. The Court blended the liberal-democratic values intrinsic to Judaism with general liberal-democratic values and got more of the same. This was a missed opportunity, as Judaism is not just sociology but is also characterized by covenant-based features and values. Those features and values are embedded in the “soul of the people” and have the potential to contribute significantly to a common national ethos.

The appropriate methodology for the covenant state appears in Parashat HaMelech, the laws pertaining to the king in the book of Deuteronomy (17:18–20):

And it shall be, when he sitteth upon the throne of his kingdom, that he shall write him a copy of this law in a book, out of that which is before the priests the Levites. And it shall be with him, and he shall read therein all the days of his life; that he may learn to fear the Lord his God, to keep all the words of this law and these statutes, to do them; that his heart be not lifted up above his brethren, and that he turn not aside from the commandment, to the right hand, or to the left; to the end that he may prolong his days in his kingdom, he and his children, in the midst of Israel.

These verses describe an ongoing dialogue between the ruling authority and the wide-ranging Jewish heritage. When questions of public policy arise, when proposals come up for primary legislation, regulations, reform, or a different distribution of budgets, legislators are to ask themselves what Jewish texts have to say about it all. They should have access to the Written and Oral Law: to Scripture, to the Mishnah and Talmud, to the Rishonim and the Acharonim, to the halachic and responsa literature.

If we are to formulate a clear vision for the Jewish state, let us say that Judaism should be part of the “basic values of the system.” A Jewish state organizes its way of life on the basis of focused dialogue between the world of Jewish values and the world of liberal-democratic values. “Jewish” and “democratic” are the set of wings that give Zionism its buoyancy. Dialogue between these foundational elements based on equality and respect ought to be an influential factor in the formulation of the state’s constitution, in its ongoing legislative work, in the drafting of its public policy, and in the decisions rendered by its judicial system.

Actualizing the Jewish element in a modern democratic state poses a formidable, though not unfamiliar, challenge to the Jewish heritage. According to kabbalah, one of God’s attributes is His paradoxicality. Paradox has always been a guiding sentiment in Hebrew culture, which strove to balance conflicting values without negating the extremes and without dulling the tension between them.

This applies, for instance, to the tension between nationalism and universalism. The mission of Abraham, “the father of many nations,” is universal: “and in thee shall all the families of the earth be blessed.” By contrast, the covenant that Abraham makes establishes a core familial identity that evolves into a national identity; the 613 mitzvot received by the Israelites include national sovereignty over the land, alongside 36 appearances of the command to “love the stranger”; the Torah stipulates full equality before the law, as in “thou shalt not respect the person of the poor, nor favor the person of the mighty,” while also endorsing essentialist views that honor distinct qualities of the individuals in society. Additional well-known ethical/ideological tensions include property rights versus the sabbatical and jubilee years, inheritance versus exile, free choice versus restraint and loyalty. These tensions produce the richness and depth of Hebrew culture.

Constitution and law

Justice Elon’s Human Dignity and Freedom in the Methods of Enforcement of Justice (1999), which had a decisive impact on the drafting of the Execution of Court Decisions Law, 5727-1967, is an excellent example of how the legislative process should be conducted in a Jewish state. Israeli law benefited from Justice Elon’s halachic research, and the state’s law books thereby became a little more “Jewish.” This one-time, point-specific course of action should be developed into a methodology. Israel’s constitution and Israeli law should draw much more extensively from the rich heritage of Jewish law. For example, the socioeconomic orientation of Jewish law prefers such values as charity/righteousness, liberty, and fraternity over distributive justice and equality of outcome; in labor and tort law it favors equality before the law over approaches that assign greater responsibility to the “deep pocket.”

The justice system

Under the heading “Irrelevant or Suspect Considerations,” Supreme Court Justice Daphne Barak-Erez (in her 2017 book on administrative law) writes that “the assumption is that the state authorities are not supposed to bring religious considerations to bear” (Volume 3, 53). In a Jewish state, the opposite approach should be taken: Jewish values are part of the “values of the system,” and the legal system respects them. If modesty, for instance, is a commonly observed traditional value, then legal rulings should respect Haredi communities that want to hold gender-separate musical performances in public places, or religious female singers who want to rent public venues for performances intended for women.

Symbols and ceremonies

The magnificent ceremonies held as part of Elizabeth II’s state funeral in 2022 showed even the staunchest cynics what “the spirit of the people” means. Even those citizens of the UK and elsewhere who regard the monarchy as a wasteful, archaic institution were impressed by the emotional response of millions of Britons to the transition between monarchs. Great Britain again demonstrated the cohesive power of its “totem,” which makes the transcendent present in the political sphere and symbolizes a stable and vital unifying national identity that has flourished for many centuries.

The ancient way the Jews actualized the transcendent in their national life was different. The Jewish “totem” is not a tangible and finite object but rather an infinite nothingness that contracts its presence and allows worlds to be created and to exist with a consciousness of freedom and autonomy. The unfathomable God speaks from the space between the two cherubs and forbids the making of graven images; the Holy of Holies in the Second Temple is an empty space; and the burial place of Moses is unknown.

The outcome is that the sacred is present in national life, but in a non-violent, non-coercive way. It makes room and leaves space for worlds of human creative endeavor. Thus did the Jewish “open source” model arise, with its characteristic dynamism, mobility, flexibility, and creativity.

Sod hatzimtzum, or “the secret of contraction,” generates presence and absence simultaneously and lies at the heart of a different approach to sovereignty: a state with a strong identity but a light touch in terms of control, and a sovereignty that respects freedom and makes room for diversity and for different voices in society. The “contraction” limits and softens ownership and governmental power and safeguards individual freedom.

In biblical times, this softened form of sovereignty was manifested in checks and balances imposed on the ruling authority. Jewish law made the king subject to the law and to clear restrictions on the amassing of power and personal wealth; there was a separation of powers between the king and the Sanhedrin (the judicial branch); the prophets were fully at liberty to criticize misdeeds of rulers; and citizens were not subject to extrajudicial penalization or to measures not authorized by a complete judicial process. Sod hatzimtzum also influenced the way citizens lived. It was manifested in mitzvot such as Shabbat, the sabbatical year, the jubilee year, charity, and tithes. These things drove home the idea that private ownership is a protected value but not the main thing; it is balanced by fraternity and solidarity. The sabbatical and jubilee years memorialized the exile and mobility embedded within control and sovereignty.

The task before us is to be inspired by these values as we formulate public policy. Empowering local government, for instance, is consistent with the aforementioned ethos. A strong political identity recognizes differences between the “tribes” and gives them ample space for the self-regulation of community life.


This great spirit does not animate all Israelis. Not all Israelis want a “Jewish state” in the broader and deeper sense. The high energies of the Declaration of Independence, with which our discussion opened, are antithetical to the liberal sensibility, which views the state as a “social contract” and nothing more. Advocates of the civil state regard the governmental-administrative system as a civil contract between individuals, to be understood in the light of expectations limited to material interests. Libertarians want a “thin” state with minimal intervention in citizens’ lives, while progressives want to use state power to establish individual rights and impose universal values. What would the state be for either group, or for minorities that have no sense of connection or solidarity with its deep-rooted particularistic identity components?

Here the political science perspective, which sees the state as more than one thing, can be helpful. The state is a social contract (per Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, or John Rawls); it is also a force sometimes put to negative use by elites that control and exploit public resources (as in the prophet Samuel’s “manner of the king” speech and according to Plato, Karl Marx, and Friedrich Nietzsche); a crucial framework for humanity’s moral development (Aristotle); a platform for the development of values such as liberty and individual rights, and for the individual’s ability to “live a general life” (Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel); and a profound expression of the “spirit of the nation” (Ernest Renan, Johann Gottfried von Herder, and Rabbi Kook, who called the State of Israel, which in his lifetime had yet to be established, “the foundation of God’s throne in the world”).

These functions can be seen as the layers of an onion, from the identity-based core to the functional-administrative periphery. Each citizen of the state can connect to the layer that suits him or her. Some will wish to encounter the state only at the external-functional layer of the social contract, and to experience partnership with other citizens on this basis; and there will be others whose historical and spiritual relationship with Jewish identity will be manifested in a stronger affinity. The latter group will experience civil partnership as the realization of their deep-rooted identity.

Works cited

Elon, Menachem (1999). Human Dignity and Freedom in the Methods of Enforcement of Justice (second edition, expanded and revised). Magnes. [Hebrew]

Ben-Gurion, David (1950). BaMa’arakhah (three volumes). Mifleget Poalei Eretz Yisrael. [Hebrew]

Barak-Erez, Daphne (2017). Administrative Law in Israel (three volumes). Open University of Israel Press. [Hebrew]


Dr. Yehuda Yifrach is a journalist and head of the legal desk at the Israeli newspaper Makor Rishon.