Ben Rothke

Book review: Being a Nation State in the Twenty-First Century

The Talmud in Tamid quotes Alexander who asked the Elders “Who is a chacham (wise person)?”. They replied to him one who sees and anticipates the consequences of his behavior. Previous to October 7, the previous few years in Israel were a cauldron, such that one did not have to be a chacham to see that the boiling point was imminent.

Much of the current strife in Israel, which, in fact, goes back to its founding, is the tension between the secular and religious communities, and their vision for how the State of Israel should be run.

In light of the events of October 7, Being a Nation State in the Twenty-First Century – Between State and Synagogue in Modern Israel (Academic Studies Press) by Rabbi Dr. Shuki Friedman is a timely read. Friedman is the former director of the Center for Religion, Nation and State, and teaches at the Peres Academic Center, and is has his pulse on the topic of religion and state in Israel.

Many of the political and religious problems in Israel stem from the fact that Israel lacks a constitution. In that constitutional vacuum since 1948, fourteen quasi-constitutional laws, known as Chukei HaYesod (Basic Laws) have been created. The Basic Laws were meant to be placeholders until a formal constitution was created. But don’t expect that anytime soon. And Israel is but one of five countries that lack a constitution. The other four are New Zealand, San Marino, Saudi Arabia, and the United Kingdom.

Adding to the mess is the Status Quo arrangement between political understanding between the secular and religious political parties to give the Chief Rabbinate control over issues such as marriage and divorce, that Shabbat would be the national day of rest, and more.

But as Friedman astutely notes, the Status Quo is an imagined reality that is a hollow shell that should be replaced by a coherent arrangement that governs issues of religion and state. Over the years, the Status Quo has acquired the status of a magic spell used by politicians and the courts to denote the relationship between religion and state.

In a little over 100 pages, Friedman does a good job detailing the myriad tensions in the Israel secular and religious divide. The Knesset has been reticent to deal directly with most of the issues, and as such, it has been left to the Supreme Court to provide remedies on issues of religion and state. Which lead to the near civil war in Israel this past year.

The book is fascinating read for readers outside of Israel, that may not understand the basics of, and the inherent complexities of how the government of Israel operates, its laws, and the many tensions between the secular and religious communities.

The book does a great job of laying out the problems, but Friedman doesn’t provide any concrete answers on the way out of the morass. He closes the book with the high-level, and to a degree messianic observation, that “only a broad coalition of leading politicians and the Israeli public itself can institute such agreements and redeem Israeli society from the fierce struggle that has plagued it since the establishment of the state”. One can only hope that will come very soon.

About the Author
I’m a senior information security and risk management professional, based in New York City. I speak at industry conferences, and write on information security, social media, privacy and technology. My book reviews are on information security, privacy, technology, and risk management. My reviews for the Times of Israel focus on Judaism, Talmud, religion and philosophy.
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