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.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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."

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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.

Among orthodox Jews to whom the past is centrally important, the creation of the State of Israel is viewed in many different ways. Some ultra-orthodox believers see the state as an abomination, a heretical attempt by man to tamper with God's timetable for the Jews.

Others regard the birth of the state as the beginning of the Jews' redemption. Still others do not believe the state has any religious significance at all.

At Hartman's synagogue, for example, Israel's independence day is marked by four different services, catering to four different levels of commitment to the state that prevail among the congregation.

For Professor Leibowitz, although he supports the normalization of Jewish life that statehood allows, Israel's existence has forced Jews to face religious problems that have so far proved insuperable.

Two Jewish families cannot intermarry, for example, if one is observant and the other is not, he points out. And although that holds true in the Diaspora, too, "there, they would both be conscious of their Jewishness, making them different together from the rest of society. In Israel, everyone is a Jew, so the fact they cannot marry is a dividing factor," Leibowitz argues. "The cleavage is more pronounced. This is a great crisis of the Jewish people and of Judaism."

Israel's existence also poses the danger that while historically Jews identified themselves by their religion, now they can do so by their nationality alone. State as 'threat to Judaism'

"In the Diaspora, without the synagogue you don't have a sense of community," says Hartman.

"Here the sense of connectedness with a people is given by the state. And the state is thus the greatest threat to Judaism because it offers an alternative identity."

Leibowitz agrees, pointing out that the laws of Israel are passed by the parliament, not laid down by the Torah. "This is the state of the Jews, not a Jewish state," he insists.

Hartman says he believes that most Israelis nonetheless do attribute historical-religious significance to the state. They are almost unanimous, for example, in their insistence that the ancient city of Jerusalem should be their country's capital, rather than the deliberately modern and secular Tel Aviv.

Hartman says that, despite all the dangers and problems, Israel's existence is positive for Judaism, since it "creates a framework for a culture that allows total Jewishness."

"It invites greater responsibility and initiative on the part of the community," he wrote in his book "A Living Covenant."

"Jews in Israel are given the opportunity to bring economic, social, and political issues into the center of their religious consciousness," after centuries of exile, when they left such concerns to gentiles. Finding the highest value

To do so, however, a way must be found for the timeless precepts of religious law and the temporal concerns of modern statehood to mesh. But, as Leibowitz points out, "this is a profound religious problem. Is statehood the highest value, in which case you have to change the law to accommodate the needs of the state? Or is religion the highest value, in which case conflicts between religion and statehood cannot be avoided?"

Whether the Jews of Israel can resolve that dilemma, and how they might take total responsibility for the affairs of state within their religious tradition "is still working itself out," Hartman says.

"That is very healthy for Judaism, because it is alive, still experimenting," he adds. "Israel offers the most powerful conflict between tradition and modernity anywhere in the world."

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