Why the Jewish state is nothing without Judaism

Israel is often referred to as a Jewish state. If that phrase is to mean anything positive, it must surely be more than a state where the majority of citizens happen to be Jewish. It should mean that the Jewish religion plays a major role in the country’s national profile.

Ever since the Zionist movement started, there have been strong differences between the religious and the secular.

Many of the “founding fathers” – especially Theodor Herzl – believed a Jewish state would create an entity that would serve as an effective substitute for the traditional Jewish faith.

In their intellectual naivety, they opined that most of the problems of anti-Semitism were a consequence of Jews being a visibly different and antiquated minority throughout the “diaspora”; that a modern secular state would make the Jews fully accepted -– a nation like any other.

After 1948, Israel’s first political leaders, while defending the right of individuals to be non-observant, reluctantly recognised that without the Torah , the Jewish people would long ago have become extinct.

Although non-observant themselves, they ensured that on key public issues, religion would have a significant role. Shabbat and festivals were established as public holidays, marriage and divorce were subject to rabbinic law, yeshiva exemption from army service was introduced, and authority in many areas of life became vested in the Religious Affairs Ministry.

Unfortunately, politicians in recent years have made a principle out of being anti-religious. Some have actively led political parties that undermine Jewish observance.

Such people would go around preaching tolerance, equality and anti-racism – towards just about everyone in the world, except Orthodox Jews.

It is therefore heartening that some renewed, positive decision-making at government level is reinforcing basic tenets of Judaism. One is the recent law to endorse Chief Rabbinate control over conversions to Judaism within the country.

There are few things more damaging to Jewish continuity than confusion over Jewish status, a problem of non-Orthodox movements that recognise converts who have not been taught any real commitment to the commandments or the divinity of Torah and the Oral Law.

If the reformists were really concerned about the unity of the Jewish people, they would leave conversions to the Orthodox, and cease their militancy on this issue.

Another welcome development is the increasing pressure within the Knesset to halt public works, such as highways construction, on Shabbat. Observance of Shabbat lies at the heart of being Jewish. If Israel officially sanctions desecration of Shabbat, it imperils the stability of the state.

As for the Western Wall, it is a great relief that the campaign for a mixed prayer section has been rejected. Women publicly reading from the scrolls and wearing tefillin (which is where the campaign would lead) is not an act of faith and sincerity. It is an act of rebellion and defiance. Whether motivated by liberalism, egalitarianism or feminism, it should be
recognised for the travesty that it is.

The privilege we have had since 1967 to enjoy unfettered access to pray at the Kotel in a united Jerusalem is exceptionally precious. It should not be abused. It is right that our holiest site should continue to remain open for all Jews, and indeed non-Jews, alike.

But this must be in an Orthodox setting – just as it was in Temple times thousands of years ago.

About the Author
Brian Gordon is a Conservative councillor in Barnet
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