Todd Berman

Let’s Stand for Freedom

Education Minister Naftali Bennet recently posted the following statement:

All Jews are Jews.
Whether conservative, reform, orthodox, haredi or secular.
And Israel is their home.
Share and spread the word.

I congratulate the Mr. Bennet on his formulation. But let’s be honest and put all our cards on the table. Orthodox interpretation of Judaism in general and Jewish law in particular is in conflict with the democratic principle of freedom espoused by the head of the Bayit HaYehudi party.

From a traditional perspective, acceptance of basic principles of faith and adherence to traditional Halacha are the sin qua non of authentic Judaism. Even taking one of the most limited positions in the classical commentaries this would include a belief in God, revelation, and reward and punishment (Sefer Ikarim Introduction.) Traditional Judaism also demands adherence to Jewish law as interpreted by the great rabbis throughout the generations. The non-Orthodox streams each in their own various ways don’t adhere to some or all of these ideas.

Yet, the State of Israel was founded on principles which diverge from those of tradition. The founding fathers expressed this in the Declaration of Independence:

THE STATE OF ISRAEL will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.

Orthodox Judaism by definition cannot fully support freedom of religion; at least not for fellow Jews. The democratic state, by definition, must allow for those freedoms.  In this way, the European Orthodox rabbis who opposed the founding of the state where correct. There is no simple way to reconcile Orthodox Judaism with democratic freedoms.

Rabbi Soloveitchik powerfully spelled out this dichotomy between traditional Judaism and a broader world view:

The principle of unity expresses itself in two ways. First the unity of Jews as members of a spiritual community, as a congregation which was established through the conclusion of the covenant and Mt. Sinai: “You shall be unto me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”(Ex. 19:6). The unity of the Jewish people as a community based upon the uniqueness of the Jewish way of life as practiced by us – a Torah existence.  What ties the Yeminite water carrier in the streets of Tel Aviv to the Jews of Boston?  A uniform Orah Hayyim, the Shema Yisrael, Shabbat, Kol Nidrei night, the Seder night, kashrut, tefillin…

Secondly, unity manifests itself in our unique political-historical lot as a nation. We are unique not only in our way of life, but also on our historical transmigrations and in our paradoxical fate. Our history would not fit into a different historical framework, and our fate is incomprehensible… No Jew can renounce his part of unity, which is based upon a fate of loneliness of the Jewish people as a nation.  Religious Jews or irreleligious Jews…all are included in one nation…The Hebrew word am, nation, is identical to the Hebrew word, im, with. Our fate of unity manifests itself through a historical indispensable union

(Community, Covenant and Commitment pp. 144 ff.)

So the spiritual community is defined by uniformity of Jewish law and the political community is defined by a unity of history. We as a nation state need to decide who we are and who we want to be. Which wins out?

It seems to me that there is only one way to cut this Gordian knot. The time has come to find ways to separate the spiritual aspect of the Jewish community from the State of Israel. While the State may have been founded with this goal in mind, the present monopoly of personal status issues by the Orthodox rabbinate is creating a twisted and perverted mixture.  More and more a myopic and anti-modern rabbinical establishment is squashing freedom of religion in violation of the very founding principles of the state.  Not only is this course alienating other Jews, it is destructive to the very fiber of the country.  Just as I desire to live my life within the boundaries of Orthodoxy so too others deserve the opportunity to reject those claims. This is the price of democracy. And as Churchill is quoted as saying, “[it] is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”  Well, I for one, choose to live in this worst form of government.

So I praise Naftali Bennet’s declaration inviting all Jews to see Israel as their home and hope and pray that we can make it a warm one; however, I would like to slightly expand the scope of this message.

Israel was founded as the unique home of the beleaguered Jewish people ready to return to its homeland: a special and necessary place safe haven among the community of nations. But this country we have built has become somewhat more than this. Israel is also the home of a wide variety of citizens: Jews, Christians, Muslims, secular, and more. So I would like to say that if you are a citizen loyal to this country, then this country is your home too.  Period. Share and spread the word.

About the Author
Rabbi Berman is the Associate Director at Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi. In addition, he has held numerous posts in education from the high school level through adult education. He founded the Jewish Learning Initiative (JLI) at Brandeis University and served as rabbinic advisory to the Orthodox community there for several years. Previously, he was a RaM at Midreshet Lindenbaum where he also served as the Rav of the dormitory.