Israel at 75: The nation where faith is both a state and a debate

Secularists, traditionalists, religious Zionists and strictly Orthodox Jews all vie to realise their vision for the country


Israel ticks to a Jewish clock. The national day of rest is Shabbat, the festivals are national holidays and most of the food in the supermarkets is kosher. Best of all, Israel has myriad charitable organisations established to improve the lives of citizens.

Yet Israel reflects the Jewish capacity to argue. In addition to its non-Jewish minorities, it is home to seven million Jews who thrive on debate.

Secularists, traditionalists, religious Zionists and strictly Orthodox Jews all vie to realise their vision for the country. Israel’s history is punctuated by the rise and fall of their competing approaches from the dawn of the state until today.

When in 1936 the Royal Commission investigating the future of the British Mandate asked the Zionist leader David Ben-Gurion to justify his claim for a Jewish state, he answered: “The Bible is our mandate.”

But, despite his fascination with biblical history, Ben-Gurion breakfasted on bacon, paid scant attention to Shabbat and married in a civil ceremony without a rabbi. He understood that his secularism was extreme.

Around a third of the nascent state self-defined as traditional Jews in addition to those who were strictly observant.

Ben-Gurion needed their support to build a government and this required handing the rabbis some authority over religious affairs in the fledgling state.

Once the State of Israel was declared, Ben-Gurion dispatched future prime minister and president Shimon Peres to negotiate with religious leaders about the role of religion in the Jewish state.

Peres may have started out with a secular stance, but looking at the rabbis seated before him, he was haunted by the memory of his Polish grandfather; Rabbi Zvi Meltzer, who had been herded into a synagogue and burned alive there by the Nazis. Peres could not resist the rabbis’ appeals and he deferred to them.

The result was that while most of the country’s laws remained under the control of a largely secular Knesset, control of marriage and divorce were handed over to the Chief Rabbinate.

There was also a nod to the religious world that had been decimated in the Holocaust. Since it seemed unlikely ever to recover, Israel’s leaders had few qualms about exempting 400 strictly Orthodox scholars from military service. They would form a small cadre engaged in full-time Torah study.

While in the early days of the state politicians compromised with Orthodox leaders, some army officers were less accommodating.

When two religious soldiers refused to break Shabbat and cook their battalion’s breakfast, their commander accused them of insubordination. Their heads were shaved and they were thrown into prison. Uproar followed. One minister resigned from the government and demonstrations were held across a number of cities.

Religious Jews rightfully resented the lack of respect for their lifestyle. They demanded separate military units for observant soldiers where the young men could serve without compromising their religious beliefs. Secular soldiers concurred. “Let them pray and eat cholent all day, every day,” they said, “just so long as they don’t interfere with the rest of our army.”

Rabbi Shlomo Goren, the first Chief Rabbi of the Israel Defence Forces, opposed such segregation. He wanted religious and secular soldiers to coexist, so that the new Jewish state would unify Jews rather than divide them. Moreover, he feared that if observant soldiers abandoned mainstream army units, it would further erode the Jewish character of the army.

Today, Israel’s army kitchens are kosher and, except in wartime, the soldiers rest on Shabbat. In fact, the religious soldiers who were once derided for their faith, are now replacing kibbutzniks as the core of Israel’s military.

Since Israel’s astonishing victory in the Six Day War, communities of Jews who are both religious and Zionist have grown enormously. Many men and women combine their national service with yeshivah study.

The religious Zionist principles they imbibe in these programmes deepen their determination to defend the Jewish State. The result is that while only 10 per cent of Israelis identify as religious Zionists, they currently comprise close to half of all army cadets with even greater representation among the officer corps.

Even some strictly Orthodox Jews now enlist in the army through special programmes tailored to their needs. But most do not. Ben-Gurion’s initial exemptions granted to a small cadre of scholars now apply to 65,000 men enrolled in yeshivot. For the duration of their exemption, they must be full-time yeshivah students; they cannot join the workforce, or earn a living.

As a result, few of them are paying taxes; instead, most receive grants from the government. The strictly Orthodox parties who now dominate the government are determined to cement these rights in law and to block Israel’s courts from any possibility of overriding these laws.

Meanwhile, the debates that centred on the army reverberate in other contexts. While some religious Jews are happy to live side by side with people who are less observant, others establish their own exclusively religious neighbourhoods.

For the residents, these communities constitute mini-paradises where the atmosphere is religious, synagogues abound, and the roads are quiet on shabbat.

The separation also receives tacit support from secularists, who are spared the challenges of sharing a neighbourhood with people whose lifestyle might encroach on their own.

In state education too, religious and secular students are divided. When enrolling their children in kindergarten, parents choose the stream most suited to their values. From here on, there is scarcely any contact between religious and secular children until they reach the age of military service.

Yet, here too, some are challenging the culture of separation. Former government minister Rabbi Michael Melchior has established a network of educational institutions in which religious, traditional and secular Jews study together in a culture which respects the differences between them.

Thanks to a grant from Britain’s Montefiore Endowment, even Jerusalem’s “Secular Yeshivah” welcomes me to give regular classes from an Orthodox perspective to their students.

These young Israelis appreciate encountering tolerant, compassionate Orthodox Judaism. But they are the exception: most secular Jews don’t have those opportunities. If one consequence of segregation was that the secular Jews would have no exposure to religion, the other is that rabbis have little contact with most of Israel’s secular citizens. When they do, it’s normally to rule on ritual law.

Secular Jews are rarely exposed to Judaism’s compassionate ethical ideas, which would speak to their hearts. Interactions between secular and religious leaders frequently end in misunderstandings, and offence on all sides.

Recently, on a flight to Israel, I met a young British Jew from a non-observant family who shared her story. During a gap-year on kibbutz, she fell in love with a secular Israeli. She made aliyah and set about creating her dream wedding.

But the happiest day of her life was marred when the officiating rabbi saw her wedding dress. Since, by religious standards, it was insufficiently modest, he felt compromised and compelled her to cover herself.

With the ceremony about to commence, her only option was to borrow a shirt from one of her guests and place it over her wedding dress. So much for her picture-perfect wedding photos.

Dialogue with a sensitive rabbi might have helped her to overcome the humiliation, but with no connection to a religious community and no encouragement to advance her Jewish knowledge, the misunderstandings multiplied.

A few years later, she was blessed with a daughter. When the little girl innocently brought sandwiches to a Passover holiday camp, her counsellor was shocked by such a blatant breach of the festival. He confiscated the forbidden food and destroyed it.

The child cried, and her distraught mother wept. Another round of misunderstanding and animosity began between two well-intentioned Israelis. Since then, progress has been made in making Judaism more accessible.

The Tzohar organisation eases interactions between secular Jews and the rabbinic authorities. Chabad continue their outstanding outreach work and Rabbis Michael Melchior and Shlomo Riskin have established prayer services and educational activities for secular Jews in community centres, reaching out to Jews who otherwise would never see the inside of a synagogue.
Israel is a wondrous country.

According to the United Nations index, it’s the fourth happiest country in the world. Religiously, it is flourishing in ways that in 1948 seemed inconceivable.

Some religious Jews choose to live more cloistered lives, others integrate with secular society more, but everywhere, religious men and women are studying Judaism in greater depth than ever before.

Scholars abound and a dizzying array of institutions enable religious Jews to express their creativity in the arts, sciences, military, media, politics and academia.

But, whereas in the diaspora our mainstream synagogues fight to hold on to every Jew, in Israel, being a Jewish country, this has been less of a priority and Jews can easily shed any connection to our religious heritage.

Let’s hope that in the next 75 years, Israel’s rabbinate will expand its work to provide confident, compassionate spiritual leadership to the majority of Israelis who are less engaged with Jewish tradition, inspiring them with a love of our heritage.

Rabbi Gideon Sylvester is the British United Synagogue’s Israel Rabbi

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