The Concept of a Jewish State

One of the most important questions Jews and Israelis may ask themselves, in context of the state of Israel, is how we wish the state to be defined and how it should work. The most common notion of Israel is that of Israel as the Jewish state, but what is meant with this adjective, Jewish?

While there definitely is a range of conceptions, when we mention “Jewish” as an adjective to Israel, one of them seems – obviously – to be “Israel as a state of the Jewish religion and traditions”, and here mainly as “Rabbinic Judaism” – that is “Jewish religion and traditions as defined by the Rabbinic interpretation”. I believe that this is the case, even if we accept the differences between the major Jewish denominations, Reform, Orthodox and Conservative Judaism, since all three of them to some extent or not are relating to traditional Rabbinic Judaism.

However, this particular conception of “Jewish” seems to collide with another adjective associated with Israel, namely that of “Democratic”, as in (and maybe particularly) “Israel, the only Democracy in the Middle East” (we could easily just stop at Israel as a Democracy). This clash seems to be of even greater need of focus, considering the growing rate of religious Jews in Israel, both the higher rate of births among the religious, as well as the many “ba’alei t’shuvah”, those who become masters of the question, or rather, those who return to the correct path.


So what is the problem? Or maybe rather the essence of the problem? Can’t a state be religious, or at least based on religion? Well, first and foremost, no. A State cannot be religious, its citizens can. And of course these citizens can define their state as a religious state, as in a state that is based on the religious conceptions of whatever religion they might follow. The problem mainly exists in the different concepts of the role of the citizens as defined by a democracy and those defined by Judaism. In a democracy the citizens have rights, rights based on the believe that all humans hold equal worth, and that all humans should be free to choose their own path.
There definitely are examples on an equal understanding in the Jewish Bible, particularly in the Creation Myth, where man is said to be created in the image of God, as man and woman.  But yet this is not the normative understanding in Judaism, or rather, in Halachah (Jewish religious law), where “obligations” is what is found instead of “rights”. That is, in a democracy the individual is owed rights by the community, while in Halachah the individual is obliged to the community.

Another essential difference between the two is found in the basis of the society or the raison d’être of the society; where we in a democracy have a society which is agreed about by the community, a community of individuals agreeing to be part of this community, we in Judaism have a community caused by an external factor, God’s commanding the Israelites to form a (Holy) community, following Torah. While the Jews did accept this themselves, it is still an obligation that is accepted (as is also the case when we relate to the morning prayer said every morning, where the Jew accepts “’Ol haShamayim”, the yoke of Heaven). The Jew is accepting his obligations as an individual of this community, rather than insisting on his rights as an individual, he understands and accepts that he is a servant to God.

What is furthermore evident is that each man is not created equal according to Judaism. While Judaism is not encouraging racism or negative approaches to people, there definitely is a matter of differentiation between classes and sexes. For example, a normal Jew, an “Israelite”, has different obligations than a Cohen, a member of the priestly Aronite family, these being more clearly expressed while there is a Temple than when not, while a man has different obligations than a woman, for example having to pray three times a day, where the woman doesn’t have this obligation.[1]

Also between the Jew and the non-Jew does halachah differ. A non-Jew cannot become a judge, to mention one example, an example that clearly expose one problem of a Jewish State based on the religion vs. a Jewish State based on Democracy.

Of course, as the individuals in a democratic state have obligations to the state, so do individuals in a Jewish religious state have rights. But the essence differs. Where the citizens in a democratic state state that “we have this community together, built and structured like this, because we choose so!” the citizens in the Jewish religious state state that “we have this community, built and structured this way, because we are commanded so”. The choice is based on the individual in the one case, while it is the choice of the community as a whole (pointing back in history to the giving of Torah, which – should we believe the midrash – wasn’t as much a choice as it was a demand from God) in the other case. The one is freedom to choose, the other coercion to accept.

But is it not possible to make a combination, to combine the rights and freedom of the individuals found in Democracy, with the obligations and devotion found in Judaism, in what could define a Jewish Democratic State of Israel?

I think the answer differ according to who you ask. I’m not so convinced myself, at least less than I have been. But I would like to raise that discussion and get a better understanding of where we – Jews and Israelis – are standing now, and where we are moving toward.


[1] An interesting sidenote; the question of the obligations of a man vs. a woman in context of the Jewish rituals, has become an issue of rights in our modern times, where some Jewish feminist movements, particularly within the Reform movement, are insisting that the woman has as much rights to be obliged as the man.

Author: Peter Kaltoft

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