A Shared Vision for the Jewish State

The appropriate path for Israeli society to follow on its way to a Jewish state worthy of the name, a state whose population enjoys high levels of social capital and a high degree of consensus, is the path of Jewish common ground – as seen in our ancient sources that call upon us, again and again, to assist the poor and give aid to the orphan, the widow, and the stranger, the blind and the weak.

As a Haredi man, a believer and someone who leads a Torah-observant life, in accordance with Halacha, the sages and their rulings, my position on the tests for entry into the Jewish nation is clear: It is Halacha that determines who is eligible to become part of the nation. It is not enough to feel a sense of belonging, however strong, if that feeling is not accompanied by acts that have been established as sufficient by Halacha, and that have been approved by the sages. However, this does not answer the question of the Jewish state’s identity. There is no one single halachic answer to this question; many different opinions on this matter can be found among Torah-observant people generally, and within Haredi society in particular.

In my view, the appropriate path for Israeli society to follow on its way to a Jewish state worthy of the name, a state whose population enjoys high levels of social capital and a high degree of consensus, is the path of Jewish common ground – as seen in our ancient sources that call upon us, again and again, to assist the poor and give aid to the orphan, the widow, and the stranger, the blind and the weak.

Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? when thou seest the naked, that thou cover him, and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh? (Isaiah 58:7)

And the Levite, because he hath no portion nor inheritance with thee, and the stranger, and the fatherless, and the widow, that are within thy gates, shall come, and shall eat and be satisfied; that the Lord thy God may bless thee in all the work of thy hand which thou doest. (Deuteronomy 14:29)

In “translation” to contemporary language, it’s tempting to read these verses through a political lens and place a “social,” “social-democratic,” or “economic-left” heading above them. But this would do them an injustice and place a shared vision and identity for Israeli society that much farther out of reach. These texts were written thousands of years before the aforementioned labels gained currency. In any event, this is not the main thing; it is rather the distinction that needs to be made between shared identity – the agreed-upon common ground – and issues in the political sphere. Embracing the Torah’s precepts as such, and accepting them as an ethos and as the basis for a common identity, will not eradicate political disagreement or make democratic processes superfluous. Nor will they make our society a socialist or leftist one, just as they won’t make it more, or less, religious. Our fierce political disagreements will remain in the foreseeable future. But if Israeli society succeeds in creating fundamental Jewish commonalities, it will be secure in the knowledge that it stands on solid ground and can move in the directions desired by the public, according to its judgment and understanding in every generation.

It hath been told thee, O man, what is good, and what the Lord doth require of thee: only to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God. (Micah, 6:8)

For years, the liberal worldview provided, and to a certain degree still provides, a shared basis for most Western nations – the democratic and liberal nations. These nations differ greatly on social and economic issues, as well as on foreign affairs and security, but the liberal ethos is shared by both sides of the political divide and by almost all citizens of these countries.

Israeli society is blessed with a unique heritage unlike any other, the heritage of the Bible and of Jewish culture. This is unquestionably a religious heritage, but also a cultural, ethical, and geographic heritage that predated the liberal heritage by thousands of years. With all due respect to liberalism, we will be doing an injustice to ourselves, our identity, our forefathers, and future generations if we do not embrace our heritage and make it a basic and fundamental element of our Israeli identity. This will strengthen the shared ethos of the Jewish state among different groups in Israeli society that differ on the degree and the kind of “Judaism” that should manifest in the public space, on how to correctly balance the principle of equality with freedom in economic and private life, and so on. Values such as assistance to others, charity and justice (leaving aside the tension between these terms), a committed effort to reduce social gaps by aiding society’s neediest and most disadvantaged members and working to elevate them, are fundamental Jewish values that will serve us as we build a Jewish state and society.

These values, which are a cornerstone of Jewish tradition, generally manifest as mitzvot in the normative halachic system, consisting of obligations and prohibitions. However, these are not faith-related mitzvot but rather what we might call “politeness” mitzvot or “rational” mitzvot. This being the case, even Israeli citizens who, unfortunately in my view, do not yet hold a faith-based or Jewish outlook would not find it hard to embrace these mitzvot. There is thus no reason to expect strong opposition on the part of those who disagree with me on the precise relationship between religion and state, or on the very existence of such a relationship, and who do not see themselves as obligated by Halacha. Indeed, the right to minimally adequate living conditions, the right not to die of hunger, the right to be clothed and housed, the right to an equal opportunity to succeed, and the right to equal treatment in the legal system and before the law and the authorities, all in fact originated with the three verses I quoted above, and with many other Jewish sources, well before they were adopted by liberalism and later worldviews (socialism, revisionism, and the like). In other words, these are Jewish values which, if adhered to and embraced as a purpose and as an ethos, are not part of any universal struggle on behalf of a new and foreign ideology. Rather, they are a part of the struggle for Jewish identity and constitute part of our inner identity. It is no coincidence that Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty, which was enacted in order to establish the state’s basic values in a supra-legal text, states that these values are those of “the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.” It would be a mistake to ascribe the values pertaining to dignity and liberty protected in the Basic Law solely, or chiefly, to the democratic side of the equation. The central and binding basis of these values, which can serve as the shared vision for Israeli society, lies on the Jewish side of the state, the state of the Jews.

These and other sources establish our Jewish ethical duty as an imperative of the highest order, thus enabling Israeli society, as a society that wishes to define itself as a Jewish society (even if some of its members do not currently observe all 613 mitzvot), to adopt a fully-formulated, established and consistent moral code – without conceding on points of dispute, without creating artificial unification and without having to fully embrace a religious approach to the big issues that are currently on the agenda and will remain there.

Beyond the points made above, I think it is important for readers to be aware of my own worldview. The aforementioned values are definitely not the only ones to which I am committed. I will personally pray and work to ensure that the state’s Jewish character be evident in all its actions. It is for this purpose as well that I am currently active in the legislative branch. Many Israelis do not share this hope, and the discourse on the topic drives numerous political disputes. Political and ethical disagreements are an unavoidable consequence of our reality, and in a democracy they are also desirable. However, we ought to regard political disagreements as a “necessary evil,” or even as a necessary evil with certain advantages. We seem to have become enamored of argument and discord, neglecting the common good and the common ground that exists on other issues that might bring us together at times of deep conflict.

An exchange of letters between the literary scholar and intellectual Baruch Kurzweil and Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, was recently published. The correspondence dates from the early 1960s and is chiefly concerned with Jewish nationalism and religion’s place within it. It is evident that the writers addressed the issue from completely different perspectives. Still, I’d like to call attention to the end of Kurzweil’s response to Ben-Gurion’s letter, which encompasses several questions. Kurzweil answers in accordance with his outlook, concluding as follows: “I have great hope that, in a joint quest for the path, we will succeed in finding it, and perhaps our main role as educators and as people who have spiritual matters close to their hearts is to always be those who follow the path and to know that we have not reached our destination.” My hope is that, in this project of the Jewish People Policy Institute, we will all move a few steps forward for the good of Israeli society and for the good of the State of Israel, the nation state of the Jewish people.

Moshe Arbel is a Member of Knesset for the Shas party, an attorney, and a Ph.D. candidate at Reichman University’s Harry Radzyner Law School.