Naftali Rothenberg

A state of compassion and kindness

“There are three distinguishing marks of this nation: merciful, shamefaced, and they perform acts of kindness.” (BT 79A)

The image of a state is the pattern of the landscape of its citizens, a reflection of the people living within it. The majority of Israel’s citizens, about three quarters, are Jews. The majority group is diverse. Judaism is not homogenous and there is no way to choose one Jewish cultural identity and draw the image of the state based on it alone. But despite the great diversity and deep differences between Jewish groups and subgroups, the general and shared elements of Jewish culture and identity are not confined to communal frameworks but are dominantly present in all areas of the public arena. The influence of these expressions in Jewish culture is not limited to the majority society but also affects the minorities. The image and the cultural environment of the society in Israel is Jewish as a result of the demographic fact that a considerable majority of its citizens are Jews.

There are politicians who try to drag us into frequent fights about the “Jewish image of the state”. The artificial frictions they create help them garner some support at the ballot box, especially from concerned and scared citizens. Those who are sure that we are closer to “Halachic state” than to the Iranian bomb and in contrast others who fear that Israel is on the verge of ceasing to be a Jewish state.

The propaganda of fear is effective in hiding the facts: the flourishing of Jewish culture in Israel. The development of the Torah world and love of Torah and mitzvot among the general public in the country. The deepening of the Jewish identity in its nuances among large sections of the public who consciously broke away from it, in the first decades of the state.

Not only that the fears they are trying to amplify have no grip on reality, but even the claim that as members of the Knesset they will be able to influence the image of the state is based on a common mistake, as if the “image of the state” is determined in the legislature.

The old National Religious Party (In the Knesset: 1956-2008), which was the most activist party in so-called “religious legislation”, realized already decades ago that its legislative initiatives do not determine the image of the state.

The personal status laws (marriage and divorce; conversion), which were established in the Ottoman Empire, developed during the British mandate, adopted by Ben Gurion government, did not prevent assimilation and intermarriage. Preventing public transportation on Shabbat did not reduce mass Shabbat desecration at the resorts, entertainment and shopping centers, perhaps the other way around. “Religious” legislation does not add sanctity to the state but weakens the Torah. The use of secular law to give effect to what appears to be a “religious” law creates a dependency of religion on an occasional majority in the Knesset and limits the independence of rabbis and rabbinical courts.

The only practical result of the statements and promises of the parties hawking “the image of the state”, so to speak, is the continuation of the barren quarrel and distraction from the real and difficult problems that the citizens of Israel face.

Politicians who really want to influence the Jewish image of the state in the spirit of the Torah of Israel have the power to do so: to build a state of compassion and kindness. King David is quoted in the Talmud as the one who characterized the nation by showing mercy to every creature; in a restrained, non-forceful, shy and humble demeanor. These features enable a government work program of public service, of benevolence. These are topics that they can also apply, not just declare. For example: How can politicians who have a heart, for whom the Torah and Mitzvot are important, be sympathetic to the existence of homeless people in Israel? How can they agree to the continuing gap between the immediate need and the suffering of the poor families, and the supply in public housing? Ignore the suffering of patients, especially the elderly, in the face of the bureaucracy of the health systems? Caring for the weak, the disabled, single parents, hungry children, youth and women at risk, the mentally challenged, asylum seekers, this is Torah, this is Judaism. Daily dealings of the Knesset and the government with these and other difficulties  may truly determine the Jewish image of the state for the benefit of all its citizens.

About the Author
Rabbi Naftali Rothenberg is the rabbi of Har Adar township, Israel, and a senior research fellow at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute
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