Saving Religion from the State

“I want the State to hold religion in its hands, and not the other way round”

-David Ben-Gurion

Ben-Gurion was a smart man. He understood the secret, and for over 60 years his political descendants have duped the Israeli public. A religion – that is grounded in the free will of the masses, and that is independent of government interference – acts as the most powerful check to a centralized state authority. When a state allies itself with religion, the former always controls the latter.

Full disclosure: I am far from an objective observer. I want to live in a ‘Jewish State’, and not just a ‘State of the Jews’. I want to see Judaism as a strong, ethical, and moral force within our country. I want to see our society permeated with Jewish values. I want to see more people keeping Shabbat and Kashrut. I want our citizens to marry Jewish, within religious Jewish ceremonies.  The best way to achieve these goals, is to separate religion from the State. I know this seems a little radical, so allow me to make it sound more palatable. I want to completely remove the state apparatus from religion.

Removing the State from religion is the best and most efficient means to strengthen the power of religion within society. The opposite is also true. As Ben-Gurion understood, fusing religion with the state is the best way to weaken the power of religion within society. Think about it. The United States of America’s annual budget for religious services reaches the grand sum of $0. The United States happens to be one of the most religious countries in the world. Indeed, as Christian opponents of birth control have learned this past week, religious interests can indeed effectively control governmental authority.  A Judaism that is separate from state power, and that is therefore practiced out of free choice by the citizens of Israel, is the ultimate check to secular State authority.

Milton Friedman famously quipped “If you put the federal government in charge of the Sahara desert in five years there will be a shortage of sand”.  The same is equally true for religion. Recently my Orthodox compatriots were up in arms over the State of Israel’s decision to fund the salaries of non-Orthodox Rabbi’s. I am not sure what the Orthodox were so upset about. State support is the most efficient way of controlling (and weakening) religious strength. The religious establishment has not yet caught on to this fact, but ironically (and perhaps diabolically), public funding is the most efficient way of weakening Reform Judaism’s influence in Israel.

Time and again religious Jews continue to fall victim to Ben-Gurion’s classic bait-and-switch. Religion is one of the most persuasive forces within society. It is one of two institutions (the other being the ‘family’) which provide an alternative to the monopoly that government claims to possess over our lives and loyalties. A Judaism, that untethers itself from governmental support and financial funding, and which appeals to the free choices of free citizens, is one that severely threatens the secular and left-of-center agenda in this country.

Did you know that Meretz – the self-proclaimed grand vanguard of the Left – does not actually want to separate religion from the State?  Just the opposite, in fact, they want to equally fund all religious streams within the State of Israel. They’re a little shy about it, so you have to carefully read the party platform.

“Ensuring that religious services are granted by the state in an equal manner, to all religions, and to all the streams of Judaism, according to their proportion of the population, and in accordance with “religious services funding”, which will be anchored in law, and based on the provisions of a special public council”

Effectively the goal of the Left is to broaden and strengthen the State bureaucracy over religious services.  “Religious services funding”, and “public councils” are to have authority over the State of Israel’s rich religious traditions? If you thought the current Rabbanut was onerous, well you ‘ain’t seen nothing yet’. How could this be you ask? After all, Meretz is famous for their supposed preoccupation with democracy and liberty. They seem like such a secular and open-minded political party. Well perhaps they are, but they are also the secular party of big government. To strengthen the arm of the State, one must first weaken the hand of religion. To do that most effectively, all one has to do is fund religion. The Left understands Ben-Gurion’s little secret. When will everyone else wake up….?




About the Author
Nehemia Stern is a PhD Candidate in the Graduate Division of Religion at Emory University. He lives in Jerusalem and is trying to find as many ways as possible to procrastinate while finishing a dissertation.