Why a First Amendment would benefit both the citizenry and organized religion
Earlier this July, the city of Ramat Gan, Israel passed legislation that would allow public transportation to operate on Shabbat, the Jewish holy day of rest, a day traditional Jewish practice teaches it is forbidden to drive. The move drew large rebuke from Orthodox politicians.
Many of Israel’s official laws are based on religion. Israeli laws sanction private entities with heavy taxes for violating Shabbat and they require businesses to be issued work permits if they want to operate on Saturday. There are some in the Israeli parliament that envision a state which forbids non-kosher food or any other violation of Jewish law.
Tel Aviv, the cultural center of Israel, harbors the most anti-religious sentiments in the country. It is the most liberal area of Israel and is one that constantly challenges the Orthodox religious establishment.
When I was in Israel earlier this summer, I saw some artistic graffiti in Tel Aviv. There were many beautiful pieces including murals, cartoons and patterns. But the one piece that most caught my attention was a graffiti line that read, “if I forget you, Jerusalem, it is because of Tel Aviv.”
The graffiti is a parody of Psalm 137, one of the most famous verses in the book of psalms: “If I forget you, Jerusalem, may my right hand cease to function. May my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth if I don’t remember you.” The verse is read aloud in every Jewish wedding. It reminds Jews to never forget their roots and to constantly recognize their Jewish identity.
So what is the message of the parodied graffiti? One interpretation is this: the greatest danger to the Jewish religion is not an external threat but rather an internal one. The fear is that Judaism will seek to exist because Jewish secularism will overtake the Jewish religion. It’s a reasonable fear to have. But the remedy to alleviate this fear is not to impose religion. In fact, forcing the practice of religion is a catalyst for ensuring this prediction will come true.
The common counter to this argument is that religion protected the Jews for thousands of years before the Jewish people had a homeland. Jews were scattered in the diaspora and had nothing to unite them besides their common religion. But while the traditional halachic teaching is that the Torah and commandments protected the Jewish people, perhaps it was the other way around. It wasn’t the commandments that protected the Jews. It was the Jews who protected the commandments, which in turn preserved the Jewish identity. Jews would have assimilated had they not endeavored to safeguard the Torah. The Jewish identity remained robust not because the Torah was forced upon the Jews, but rather because Jews chose to keep their identity.
Identity is meaningless if it is forced. Identity exists only when individuals choose it and choose to maintain it. Time and time again, it has been proven that Judaism is strongest when Jews desire to practice their religion and decide to do so willingly. In the State of Israel today, several government mandates take away the free-will choice to practice religion. They force it.
Many of Israel’s domestic problems and divisions stem from the fact that the country has no First Amendment. There is no separation between church — or rather, synagogue — and state.
The phrase “separation between church and state” can be traced back to an 1802 letter written by Thomas Jefferson that was published in a Massachusetts newspaper. The letter in part reads: “Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God … I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.”
There is no denying that the founders of the United States did not leave their homeland to escape religion; they left in order to practice their religion without persecution. The founding fabric of America is not freedom from religion but rather freedom to religion. However, the founding fathers maintain that religion “is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God.” For this reason, the First Amendment not only forbids creating laws against religion, but it also forbids laws forcing any one religion, “establishing” one, as the text says.
Therefore, in a country where the spirit of the First Amendment is maintained, religious disagreement should not be a political matter. That’s certainly not the case in Israel. The reason there is a sharp division between secular and religious Jews in Israel (resulting in a distaste for religion as a whole) is that the disagreements between the two groups are played out in the political arena. Israeli Jews must choose between religious and secular groups and political parties, with few middle grounds.
Of course, it is unreasonable to argue that the “Jewish homeland” should have an absolute separation from Judaism. What is reasonable is for the government to adopt a more hands-off philosophy toward religion. Perhaps a more libertarian “you do you, I do me” approach is what the country needs. I am not claiming to have all the answers, but a debate on where to draw the religious-political line is certainly necessary. Should the government have the power to tell private businesses to follow strict Jewish law? Should the laws of marriage and divorce be governed by the Chief Rabbinate? These are questions worthy of public debate.
Despite Israel’s domestic issues, this column in way argues that the Jews do not need a homeland. Before the State of Israel was founded, the noun most frequently paired with the word “Jewish” was “refugee.” Antisemitism based on Jewish religion and culture reveals that we need a home country where Jews can live freely under the protection of their own military. What this column is shedding light on, though, is that because of religion being infused in Israeli politics, the Jewish homeland today ironically harbors some of the most fierce anti-Orthodox Jewish sentiment in the world.