Democracy or Theocracy?

My university student grandson and I, sitting at the table, began a discussion which he initiated on the question he put before me… “is Israel a democracy or a theocracy.” What began as an open discussion became increasingly “warm” until I decided to put an end to it for the sake of “shalom bayit” (family peace)..

I expressed my feelings and he expressed his. Neither of the ‘twain could agree.

Our Israeli government, in its Knesset, is based upon democratic ideas of freedom of speech and expression of ideas. But those two ideals are frequently weakened and undermined by the attitude of ultra-Orthodox parties, remnants of 16th century Judaism , who intend to restrict certain elements of our democracy.

Sadly….very sadly… Israel, unlike most enlightened western countries, (Muslims excluded) has nothing in its laws separating religion and state. We have no protective Constitution and in the eyes of the ultra-Orthodox members of government, the Torah is our Constitution.

I have written and lectured frequently about the sad and often bitter situation between religionists and secularists in Israel. While freedom of religion and non-governmental  control of religious affairs for members of the Christian and Muslim religions in Israel exists, regrettably there is no freedom of religious expression for Jews !

From birth to death, every aspect of life for Jews is strictly controlled by a political Chief Rabbinate, an often corrupt gang of semi-theologians.

From the circumcision of an 8-day-old baby boy, the commandment must be performed only by an Orthodox mohel, not by a surgeon or any non-Orthodox mohel who is unrecognized by the government’s religious parties.

There is no civil marriage and no civil divorce for Jews in Israel.  It causes too many Israelis who reject the stringencies and demands of an out-dated rabbinate to fly to Cyprus for a civil marriage which, upon the couple’s return, can be registered with the interior ministry.

Same-sex marriages are not allowed and if performed elsewhere are never recognized by the rabbinate. Divorce must be applied and performed only by the Chief Rabbinate. No lawyer can draw up a bill of divorce.

Burials are performed by the local chevra kaddisha under the supervision and control of the rabbinate.

In Israel, all members of the clergy of all recognized religions are paid salaries by the Israeli government. Only a government rabbi can officiate at ceremonies and write religious documents. Therefore, since all our rabbis are civil servants, dependant on their salaries paid by the government, they must adhere to the strict and too often very unfair requirements of the  Israeli rabbinate.

An estimate from 2016 indicates that approximately 80% of Israeli Jews are secular or non-Orthodox, while the remaining 20% identify as religious.  And the 80% are chained by the 20% minority.

The other streams of Judaism, Conservative and Reform, are not recognized by the rabbinate nor the government.  It is Orthodoxy or nothing else.

Is this democracy or theocracy?  My grandson cannot comprehend the secular meaning of a theocracy. It implies rule by an official state religion on all aspects of life.

I am religiously observant in many ways. I observe the laws of kashrut and I worship in an Orthodox synagogue. I recite my daily prayers wearing tallit and tefillin.  I do not follow the strict prohibitions for Shabbat.  I turn on lights and often watch news broadcasts on television.

It does not make me less a Jew but I refuse to be chained to a medieval Judaism. What we need in Israel, more than peace with the Palestinians, is a Judaism that is not restrained by elderly rabbis who have little or no contact with the 80% of the Jewish secular world which surrounds them.

I do not know if my baal teshuva grandson can accept my explanation and rejection of a government controlled by religious zealots.  From lack of response by many readers, I cannot know their feelings.

But for me, the answer I gave to my grandson is that Israel is a “democratic state controlled by theocratic rabbis”.   Not moronic perhaps but oxymoronic at least !

I don’t know if he can live with that definition.    But I know that I can !!!

About the Author
Esor Ben-Sorek is a retired professor of Hebrew, Biblical literature & history of Israel. Conversant in 8 languages: Hebrew, Yiddish, English, French, German, Spanish, Polish & Dutch. Very proud of being an Israeli citizen. A follower of Trumpeldor & Jabotinsky & Begin.
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