What Makes Our State Jewish?

What does 'participation in the historical-covenantal Jewish experience" entail?

Dr. Chaim Charles Cohen,

Judaism Chaim C. Cohen
Chaim C. Cohen

The question of the Jewish character of the state of Israel is currently a hotly debated topic in the Knesset and in the media. The topic arose in negotiations with the Palestinian Arabs, in political and social commentary around our 66th Independence Day, and with Prime Minister Netanyahu's proposed Basic Law that would constitutionally establish the national Jewish character of our state.

This article presents a Torah oriented sociological answer to the question:"What will make the state of Israel ' be Jewish'?

My answer is a very simple one: the state of Israel will be Jewish to the extent that its citizens 'do Jewish things-live Jewish experiences'.

And what does it mean 'to do Jewish things-live Jewish experiences'? The answer is that 'one does' or lives Jewish experiences to the extent that  one  consciously  feels that he is a active partner in G-d's historical, covenantal relationship with the Jewish people. This is to say, that to the extent that more citizens, more intensely live their lives as active participants in the G-d - Jewish historical experience, our state will have a more Jewish character.

And the opposite is also true, that to the extent that citizens live their lives with little, diluted, or no sense of participating in the G-d-Jewish covenantal experience, our state will possess little tangible Jewish character.

Before I detail six different gradations of 'participation in the historical-covenantal Jewish experience', it is important to clarify two frequently misunderstood ideas. The first clarification is my belief that the state's Jewish character cannot be promoted through religious legislation. One's participation in the Jewish covenantal experience will be meaningful only if it is based on free choice and not coercion. Governmental action is truly required in only two areas: the funding of Jewish educational programs, and legislation prohibiting commerce on Shabbat.

The second clarification is that the halacha , while being the most important basis for building our state's Jewish character, cannot be the only  'context' for enhancing its Jewishness. Twenty per cent of the adult population define themselves as being religious or ultra-orthodox.  For the foreseeable future the majority of the state's population will not be religiously observant. However, non-observant Jews can significantly contribute to the state's Jewish character if they understand their life in historical-covenantal Jewish terms.

These clarifications allow us now to return with greater understanding to our original question, how can our state be Jewish?  I will now detail the six basic gradations of historical-covenantal Jewish experiences, (proceeding from the most powerful to the least influential), that currently act  to determine our state's Jewish character.

First, the most powerful factor is a life based on the mitzvoth of the Torah and halakha (Shulchan Aruch). If we all did the mitzvoth, with each person flavoring and spicing them with his particular G-d given personality, Israel would possess a very, very intense, alive Jewish character. Arriving at such a state should be our goal and prayer.

The second most significant factor is the ability to experience life's drama through the spiritual understandings of Torah and rabbinic wisdom (such as the teachings of hassidism, Rav Kook, and musar, ethics). Even when our mitzvah observance is incomplete, due to personal weakness or social circumstance, if we live the moments of crisis and happiness in our lives with the help of Torah wisdom, we will each add an additional building block to the state's Jewish character.

Now we turn to Rav Kook (Israel's first Chief Rabbi, an iconic Religious Zionist leader, philosopher and Torah sage) in order to learn additional steps for adding Jewish character to our state.  Up until our national return to Zion, an individual life based on mitzvoth and faith was the primary way a Jew participated in G-d's historic covenantal relationship. However, now that the Jewish people are building a state in the Land of Israel, G-d has granted us additional, very challenging ways to add Jewish character to our state.

Based on Rav Kook's teachings, we can, thirdly, add Jewish character to our state when we fulfill our societal roles with Torah content.  We are now at a stage in our national history in which we are slowly learning how to combine secular and Torah knowledge so that we can fulfill our roles as army officers, psychologists, economists, lawyers and artists with a Torah oriented school of professional knowledge. A state in which 20-30% of its professionals will fulfill their societal roles with a Torah orientation will definitely possess an enhanced Jewish character.

Fourth, a weaker, but still influential, factor is when we practice our societal roles as soldiers, judges, social workers, bankers and farmers without a Torah orientated  professional knowledge base, but with a   self sacrificing commitment to furthering the welfare of the Jewish people, and to building and defending a stronger, more socially just  Jewish state. For example, the founders of the kibbutzim practiced a non-Torah ideology of socialism. Similarly, today most secular professionals see themselves as practicing a secular, liberal humanism. However when they combine these non-Torah orientations with an active participation in advancing the national welfare of the Jewish people, these Jews also enhance our state's Jewish character.

A fifth, weaker, yet still positive, factor is the creating of a non-halachic relationship with sources of Torah spirituality. An increasing number of Jews sense a social-existential emptiness in their personal life, and they turn to, and use, Torah sources of Jewish spirituality, in a non-halachic manner, in order to attain a truer sense of self fulfillment in their lives. They search for Jewish spirituality, but are not yet able to accept the strictures of Jewish religious law. I believe that such sincere, spiritual searching and creativity, despite it weak connection with the halakha, enhances our state's Jewish character, even in a diluted fashion.

Sixth, the observance of the remembrance dates of Yom Hashoah,Yom Atzmaut, and Yom Yerushalyim also provide an opportunity for strengthening the consciousness of being part of an ongoing historical, Jewish experience. Again, when these holidays are understood as an actualization of G-d's non-breakable covenant with his Jewish people they have a much more powerful, positive effect on our state's Jewish character.

In summary, what makes our state Jewish? The answer is that our state will have a Jewish character to the extent that its citizens live their lives with a consciousness of participating in G-d's ongoing, 3000 year covenantal relationship with his Jewish people. Religious legislation is a very ineffective way to promote such a consciousness. Actualizing Torah content in all aspects of our personal and national social life is the most effective way to build a Jewish state.

However, all Jews who contribute to the welfare of a reborn Jewish state because they consciously understand themselves to be actors in a 3000 year covenantal drama also strengthen daily our state's Jewish character.