Separation of Religion and State in Israel

    April Passover 2003 Edition            
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Religion and Politics

By Prof. Paul Eidelberg

Rabbi Benny Elon advocates separation of religion and politics, which can only mean separation of religion and state. Should Israel imitate America?

James Madison, the father of the American Constitution, held that the political activity of the clergy in the state governments was corrupting the church, that separation of church and state would purify religion and, at the same time, remove a bitter source of conflict from state politics.

Whether separation purified religion in America may be left open; it certainly did not purify politics or elevate public life. America today is steeped in crime and drug addiction, loveless sex and pornography, broken homes and abortion, obscene music and hedonism--in a word, moral decay. A primary cause of this decay is the indiscriminate freedom and moral egalitarianism typical of the secular democratic state.

Insofar as such decay will be found in Israel, it can hardly be attributed to the mixture of religion and politics. Religious parties do not propagate permissiveness and moral relativism. It’s not the religious but the secular parties, in particular, Labor, that have dominated Israel’s educational and cultural institutions, and it is these institutions that propagate the relativism that punctuates the mentality of Israel’s political and judicial elites. (Thus, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon declared, in an April 2001 interview in Ha’aretz discussing Israel’s conflict with the Arabs, that he does not think in “black and white” terms. Neither does Chief Justice Aharon Barak, who places homosexual and heterosexual relations on the same moral level.)

This is not to suggest that the religious parties are paragons of virtue. Indeed, no one can seriously argue that the religious parties have elevated the moral level of Israeli politics. Their wheeling and dealing with the secular parties before, during, and after elections generates cynicism among religionists and contempt among secularists.

It can be argued, of course, that the religious parties preserve Israel as a Jewish state. True, they secure public funds for yeshivot which they might not otherwise obtain. They oppose civil marriages and other laws endangering the integrity of the Jewish family. And they help maintain Shabbat and religious festivals on the part of the public. It may nonetheless be said that Israel would be better off religiously if religion were divorced from politics.

After all, politics involves bargaining, sometimes rather shoddy. This we expect from political leaders and let it go at that. But we want something more from religious leaders. We expect them to set an example of sincerity, of intellectual integrity, of selfless dedication to Torah values. And if they have to compromise, it should not be at the expense basic principles: they should not play fast and loose with the Halacha, for this can only distance secularists from the beauty of Jewish law.

Secularists are understandably unaware that Jewish law is more comprehensive and coherent, more humane and progressive than the legal systems of any modern state. Nevertheless, they can see when the religious parties use the Torah for the sake of politics rather than politics for the sake of Torah. This cannot but further alienate them from Judaism.

A religious party may counter as follows. Israel cannot be preserved as a Jewish state if the social and economic relations of its citizens are governed by non-Jewish law—much the case of Israel today given the ultra-secular orientation of the Supreme Court. Only with religious parties in the Knesset will public law in Israel have any Jewish content. Otherwise, the Torah will be relegated to the home and synagogue, and Israel will cease to be a Jewish state.

This was understood by secular Zionists in the pre-state period. They recognized that a Jewish state must be governed by Jewish law. As early as 1909, the Israel office of the Zionist Organization declared:

Our law is one of the most valuable assets of our national culture, and a unifying force [among Jews] throughout the world. The Jewish people have developed and maintained a remarkable system of law, whose foundations were laid at the dawn of our national existence; hundreds of generations have toiled over it, perfected it, and adorned it, and even today it retains the powers to renew its youth and to develop in a manner appropriate to the outlook of our time. During the thousands of years of the existence of our nation, this law was influenced by many material and spiritual factors. It absorbed religious and ethical concepts; it reflected cultural, economic, and social values; and it can still faithfully reflect the life of the people throughout the future.

The present writer therefore contends that one cannot separate religion and politics without undermining the Jewish essence of the State. Separation may purify religion, but it will not purify politics, and it is politics that will shape the character of the State. It has already done so, much to our dismay. Rabbi Elon should think again.


from the April Passover 2003 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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