Elchanan Poupko

Religious Jews owe Ben Gurion a visit

Secular Israelis are rightfully wondering if they have a future in Israel
Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion at the entrance to the home of the Chazon Ish in Bnei Brak with his assitant Yitzchak Navon. (Wikipedia))

On October 20th, 1952, David Ben Gurion showed up in the orthodox town of Bnei Brak at the home of Rabbi Isaiah Karelitz, also known as the Chazon Ish, to discuss the way for religious and non-religious Jews to live side by side in the newly born State of Israel. Ben Gurion did not have to come to this meeting. His party Mapai had 45 seats in the Knesset, and his coalition was made of 87 Knesset members. He came because he genuinely cared for the future of Jews in Israel. It is high time religious Jews show moral responsibility and a vision for the future and reciprocate that visit. It is time to return what every religious Jew in Israel owes David Ben Gurion. 

Make no mistake, David Ben Gurion had the overwhelming majority, power, and authority to make traditional observance far less prevalent. Ben Gurion, a non-observant Jew, did not have to exempt any Yeshiva students or orthodox women from army service; he did not have to make sure that all IDF kitchens are Kosher or that laws protecting the Sabbath, Passover, and other aspects of Jewish law were enacted. In a 1953 law that may upset secular Israelis to this day, Ben Gurion mandated that all matters related to marriage and divorce would be given in full to the hands of the Israeli Rabbinate. Had Ben Gurion taken the path of separating religion from the state, he would have easily had the political support to do that. Had Ben Gurion decided to follow the path of every country around the world and be less generous to religion, everyone would have understood—but he did not take that path. 

It has been noted that from the day Ben Gurion retired from the Mapai party, they did not bring forward another single piece of legislation supporting religion in the Knesset. It was David Ben Gurion who took all those steps toward accommodating Judaism and Halacha. 

Why did Ben Gurion do all this and insist on going to the home of Rabbi Karelitz? No one could have said it better than Ben Gurion himself. After their conversation, which did not yield any progress or better understanding, Ben Gurion said: “And how will we live in this country? Gathering of the exiles is not a simple thing. Many things that can tear our society apart, but this is the most important question. This is a graver danger than an external enemy.”

These almost prophetic words echo today in a most tragic way as we watch with a broken heart the distrust and tensions between religious and no religious Jews ravaging the fabric of Israeli society. It was with this understanding in mind that Ben Gurion did his best to find a path that would accommodate all Jews living in Israel. While some like it and others do not, the path Ben Gurion has taken has given birth to an Israel in which orthodoxy thrives more than anywhere else in the world. Torah study and observance in Israel cannot be compared to that of any other diaspora community. By diaspora standards, the majority of Israelis are, in fact, orthodox, and that is something that is growing from day to day. 

The realization that Israel is becoming a majority orthodox country and the uncertainty of where that path will go is very much at the heart of the protests and civil unrest we have seen in Israel over the past few months. Secular Israelis are rightfully wondering if they have a future in Israel. 

It is at this time that religious Jews who care for Israel’s future must return a favor to David Ben Gurion and must go “visit” their non-religious brethren. Ben Gurion asked Rabbi Karelitz how it is that different kinds of Jews will live together because he wanted to make sure that Israel is not a majoritarian country that tramples the rights of a minority—even if it could. That is the question Israel’s new majority needs to show it is serious about. 

While there were many issues Ben Gurion could have asked Rabbi Karelitz, what he did say was: “I came to speak to you about one subject: how will religious and non-religious Jews live together in this country without exploding from the inside? Jews are coming here from many countries…with different traditions, from different cultures, and different outlooks….these are Jews, and these are Jews, and how can will they live together?”

This was not lip service. Ben Gurion’s actions show that he did everything he could to avoid a chasm between religious and non-religious Jews. Despite Ben Guirion’s best efforts, that chasm is here. 

Religious Jews and those who feel like they are the new majority in Israel seeking to replace an old majority have two options: they can return the profound moral debt orthodoxy has to David Ben Gurion and secular Jews, or face the conflict Ben Gurion sought to avoid. Religious Israelis can take the path of reconciliation and ask very loudly what they can do to reassure a non-religious minority that its rights will be guaranteed in a majority-religious Israel, or they can risk what Ben Gurion saw as a clash that can lead to the destruction of Israel. That is the gamble, and these are the stakes. As a rabbi and a religious Jew I urge my fellow religious Jews to make that visit. To go to secular Jews and address every one of their fears and concerns in a way that ends up being grounded in law. We owe it to Ben Gurion who did it for us, we owe it to history, and we owe it to the very future of Israel.  

About the Author
Rabbi Elchanan Poupko is a New England based eleventh-generation rabbi, teacher, and author. He has written Sacred Days on the Jewish Holidays, Poupko on the Parsha, and hundreds of articles published in five languages. He is the president of EITAN--The American Israeli Jewish Network.
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