Judaism and the State of Israel
Competing claims of religion and secular statehood are fought over daily on the political stage. Expelled from Spain, Jews found safe haven in Turkey and elsewhere. But the scourge of anti-Semitism and the need to reconcile religious and secular demands continue to challenge Jews.
FIVE hundred years after the expulsion from Spain, Jews in the State of Israel are struggling to recreate their "golden age," this time in their own homeland.Skip to next paragraph
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But their efforts to build a modern state while remaining loyal to their religious traditions have sparked conflicts that some philosophers fear could threaten the future of Judaism.
"Either there will be a powerful renaissance, or enormous assimilation," predicts David Hartman, an orthodox rabbi and leading Jewish thinker. "It is not going to be neutral."
And in a manner unique to Israel, the competing claims of religion and secular statehood are not only debated among philosophers of religion, but fought over daily on the political stage.
"Everyone wants to find a balance between tradition and modernity," says David Rosen, a former chief rabbi of Ireland. "All the drama of life in Israel is in finding that balance." Institutional religion
Although no exact figures are available, about 20 percent of the Israeli population observes Jewish religious laws, an equal proportion define themselves as secular, and a large group in the middle reflect a wide range of levels of attachment to Judaism.
They live in a secular state, but one in which Judaism plays the role of an institutionalized religion, bestowed at the foundation of the country in 1948.
That confusing and often confused circumstance is reflected in the fact that in this modern state, there is no such thing as a civil marriage. A rabbinate representing social attitudes that the majority of Israelis regard as deeply outmoded, if not medieval, enjoys the exclusive power to marry Jews and to grant them divorces.
At the same time, religious academies known as yeshivas enjoy generous state funding, the Knesset (parliament) has passed laws seeking to enforce religious observance, and yeshiva students are excused from the one central duty of all other Israelis: military service.
Such issues have staked out the battleground in Israel between the authorities of orthodox Judaism and those citizens who resent such intrusions into their private lives.
The result, respected philosopher of religion Yeshayahu Leibowitz worries, is that "here, Judaism is despised, because it is a department of a secular power. And as an office of state, Judaism is doomed."
Ruth Weissert, a pediatrician, reflects the views of most Israelis when she complains that the rabbinate "intrudes very deeply into very private parts of people's lives, and does not realize that it is not bearable." But Dr. Weissert also speaks for the broad majority of Jews here when she says that although she herself feels no moral obligation to abide by Jewish law, "Israel would almost not be rightfully existent if religion played no role at all." Secular Zionism
The Zionists who dreamed and then created the State of Israel often saw Judaism as an obstacle and were widely viewed as hostile to religion, says Mr. Hartman. The fact that they chose the land of Israel in which to found their state itself had deep religious significance, he adds.
"Zionism on one level was a secular revolution," he says. "But it happened in a place that returns people to religion." The land of Israel, rich in Biblical place names and allusions, "forces you into remembering the past," he points out, and the Jews' past is inextricably linked with their religion.