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Time for a crash course on religious toleration

As long as Haredim view IDF service as a religious violation, coercion will not work; what that means for a potential coalition merits careful consideration
Illustrative. Police spray water to try and disperse a protest by ultra-Orthodox Jews against the conscription of members of their community to the IDF at the entrance to Jerusalem on October 23, 2017. (AFP Photo/Ahmad Gharabli)
Illustrative. Police spray water to try and disperse a protest by ultra-Orthodox Jews against the conscription of members of their community to the IDF at the entrance to Jerusalem on October 23, 2017. (AFP Photo/Ahmad Gharabli)

With the theoretical impossibility of forming a coalition following the latest Israeli elections, some dead ends are more artificial than others. Along these lines, both Avigdor Liberman and Yair Lapid have built much of their popularity around the notion of countering Haredi power in the Knesset. Yet neither man seems to have any rooted sense of what it is that he is opposing or why.

Anyone with any real knowledge of the religious parties knows that all the hype about a “medinat halacha” — a state that is run according to Jewish law — is just that. It may be a great way to manipulate some segments of the secular public to vote for certain parties, but it is on no one’s true horizon. Granted, enforcement of public Shabbat and kashrut observance will continue to be a thorny issue that divides us — as it has from even before the creation of the state. But this is simply an expression of differing views on what it means to be a Jewish state and how the status quo agreement is supposed to play itself out.

The real issue that Liberman used as the pretext for bolting — and really caused Lapid to bolt before him — is the issue of yeshiva students’ obligation to serve in the army. Their lack of service understandably causes great resentment to those of us who send our children to serve and give a large chunk of their young years, not to speak of the real danger to their actual lives that inevitably comes with it.

Yet the fact that almost all non-Haredim in Israel believe that the yeshiva students should serve in the army does not automatically mean that coercing them to do so is the road that should be traveled. Were some of our politicians more versed in the writings of the great liberal philosopher John Locke, they would know this and they would also know why. Among Locke’s most important and influential works is his Letter Concerning Toleration, which speaks directly to this issue. As part of his first argument as to why a state cannot impose one religious system over another upon on its citizens, he writes, “No man can so far abandon the care of his own salvation as blindly to leave to the choice of any other, whether prince or subject, to prescribe to him what… worship he shall embrace.” In other words, truly religious people will usually continue to follow their conscience regardless of a state’s attempts to coerce them to do otherwise.

One could argue that Locke’s doctrine is rooted in the Protestant tradition and has little application to a Jewish state. No less a secularist than David Ben Gurion recognized that such a vision of separation is less natural to Judaism then it may have been for Locke’s Protestantism. (Actually, Locke essentially said the same thing in a passage he writes about Hebrew exceptionalism.) Moreover, Israel was not started — nor has it ever existed — with a unified political philosophy like the United States, France or even China. Rather, necessity forced Israel to adopt a messy compromise of various secular and religious ideologies. Nevertheless, understanding what Locke had to say about the interplay of religion and statecraft might go a long way towards understanding why some of Israel’s secular politicians are barking up the wrong tree.

But if Locke doesn’t do it, perhaps hearing something very similar from one of Israel’s most moderate religious voices might do the trick. In an interview with the Israel Democracy Institute in the ’90s, my late teacher, Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein opined:

I think that there are certain moral and other values that stand above the rule-of-law… One should not conclude that I am therefore not committed to uphold the rule-of-law. It is however a secondary (emphasis in the original) commitment to my commitment to halakhah… The religious outlook cannot place civil, state or political law at the top of the pyramid. It is out of the question.

That is to say that so long as the Haredim view yeshiva study trumping army service as a religious value, coercion will not work. Does that mean that the rest of us have to accept the cost to the state and to everyone else of any religious doctrine that flies in the face of our own beliefs? While the answer is obviously no, the follow-up question should always be what is the most effective way to get as much of what we want as possible. Included in that equation is the question of whether we seek to continue to bring in the growing Haredi sector into Israeli society or seek to reverse that trend and fuel its more extremist elements who will essentially tell their fellows, “We told you not to have anything to do with the ‘medinah’ (state).”

Since it looks increasingly unlikely that a coalition can be put together without at least one of the Haredi parties, these are questions that political leaders opposed to their worldview will need to revisit with greater understanding, as well as with greater toleration.

About the Author
Rabbi Francis Nataf is a Jerusalem-based educator and thinker. He is the author of the Redeeming Relevance series on the Torah and of many articles.
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