The Jewish people are assigned a role in this world: it is to represent the path of Hashem and to bring the world to recognize His rule. The contrasting concepts of sanctifying and desecrating His name play a major role in Judaism, on both an individual and a communal level. Indeed, the Zionist movement, throughout its history, including its secular and anti-religious components, described the Israeli state not only as a refuge for the Jews from the Diaspora, but also as a model state.
That said, Israeli political discourse often revolves around Israel’s balancing act as both a Jewish and a democratic state. The fact that there was no Jewish state for 2,000 years, taken together with the radical technological, economic and cultural changes in society, has left a lacuna in the traditional Jewish sources that would otherwise be sought out for religious guidance – for example, how to apply Halakhah (Jewish law) to a modern state, when the majority of its citizens is not observant and the 20-percent Arab minority is not Jewish.
In the founding years of Israel, Rabbi Yitzchak Herzog, the Ashkenazi chief rabbi, and others worked diligently to fill the gap, but their efforts did not have impact on the Israeli legal system. Other attempts more recently, such as the Medan-Gavison compact, have tried to bridge the gap between the religious and secular communities and to define a public role for Jewish observance.
The lack of interest by the leadership of the religious parties in continuing these efforts is disappointing, to say the least. Worse, the most recent proposal for judicial reform by the head of the Religious Zionism party includes decriminalizing misconduct by political figures, which would enable them to stay in power. This lack of concern regarding corruption is troubling from a traditional Jewish perspective. Similarly, a stark indifference to society’s most vulnerable – except for when those who suffering hail from these politicians’ own communities — goes against the Jewish grain. It is therefore ironic that Israel’s religious parties focus on military might, and question the ethical code of the Israel Defense Forces, complaining that it reflects a western non-Jewish morality.
In the Torah, God explains His special relationship with Abraham: Abraham will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of Hashem to do justice and judgment (Genesis 15:19). Strikingly, the prophet Isaiah conditions Zion’s redemption on this same judgment — and those who return to her with righteousness (1:27). The exact same Hebrew words are used in the two biblical passages — the prophet connects the exile of the Israelites with their corruption and mistreatment of the vulnerable in society.
The existing religious parties reflect one model of a Jewish state but it is not the only possible one. For a long while, it has been a given that religious parties are on the right, with the Religious Zionism party and its partners, Otzma Yehudit and Noam, on the relatively extreme right. The Religious Zionism party takes a strong stand on Jewish sovereignty with regard to all of biblical Israel, and opposes the Arab parties and the Israeli Supreme Court. The Haredi parties are less well-placed on the political spectrum; their primary concern is preserving their communities. That is, dependent on government services for economic survival as they are, they have little to say about policies that do not directly affect them. In fact, both the Bible and later rabbinic authorities stress a necessary component for a Jewish state’s existence that none of the parties mention. The primary role of a Jewish state is to model for the world a functioning society based on justice, integrity and compassion.
Jewish tradition is complex enough and rich enough to support wildly divergent positions (depending on the topic). At present, those in Israeli religious political life tune out the voices promoting a humanistic, tolerant, and ethically sensitive Judaism. In its absence, the Jewish state presents a distorted conception of a Judaism in thrall to power, and that is what the non-Orthodox world sees as the essence of Zionism or religious Zionism. For the sanctification of Israel through Joshua’s conquering the land was not permanent; Jewish redemption requires judgment and righteousness (mishpat u’tzedakah).