By AVI SAGI
The ruling of the High Court of Justice in favor of writer Yoram Kaniuk’s request to be registered in the country with his religion as “none” but his nationality as “Jewish,” apparently presents a revolutionary position, according to which Jewish nationality is not dependent on religion. This concept, however, is too simplistic. The High Court, like any other political or social body, can deal with questions of identification, but not with those of identity. The term “identification” refers to the way people, institutions, and societies relate to human beings. Identification is basically used for the purposes of management, supervision and police work.
When we identify someone as ultra-Orthodox or secular, we are not necessarily making a statement about who he really is, because we may in the end be wrong about him. Identification does, however, enable us to organize our society in accordance with our needs, which may at times either reject or accept ultra-Orthodox or secular people.
The High Court ruling has ramifications in the judicial-bureaucratic sphere. The ruling was fair and is in line with freedom of expression. The principle of freedom of religion also means freedom from religion. A liberal country must not force any religion upon its citizens. They are free to choose whatever religion they want, or to choose no religion at all.
But, on the other hand, no government should use its judicial system, through which people can be registered and identified in the national census, to define identities and national belonging. Identities and national belonging, as opposed to identification, constitute the stories of individuals, from birth to death. Jewish identity is the sole business of the person himself. It is not determined by external methods of identification. But identity is not established at ground level by the individual. The Jew is not a product of the sea. A person who wants to be Jewish is opting to belong to an existing social-cultural identity. A person’s identity lies between his future and his past. A person is not only what he can be, but also what he already is. We are born into a culture, tradition, language, memories, myths and a specific practicality of life. During our lives, we conduct a dialogue between our past and what lies on the horizon. To be a Jew means to maintain a complex linkage among the Jewish past, present, and future.
Can someone maintain this complex linkage while rejecting his membership in the Jewish religion? The answer apparently is no, since religion is an integral part of the Jewish nation. This claim has an inherent error: Cultural phenomena, like nations, do not reflect extraneous, absolute, historical and metaphysical identities. Cultural phenomena are dynamic, because people are prone to change. Every society and culture undergoes changes, and each one lacks an absolute essence.
The Jewish nation has undergone many permutations. In our own days, many Jews have ceased to follow a religious way of life, but they have not abandoned their desire to remain Jewish. The Zionist movement epitomized the return to Jewishness, but not a return to Judaism. For many, their Jewish bond has taken on the form of cultural ties, as opposed to religious ties. They define themselves as part of a nation that established itself, rather than a nation created by God. The Judaism of secular Zionist Jews was not based on the Jewish religion, which is what helped preserve their Jewishness. There is no value in or need for an agreement on a singular definition of our nation and Jewish identity. Jewish existence is not dependent upon on any particular agreement. It is rather dependent on the willingness of Jews to be part of the Jewish story, its myriad discoveries, and our desire to accept it as an important component in our lives.
The High Court ruling unleashed a threatening shadow. Jews are now free to feel free of their Jewish heritage and identity, without being constantly threatened by control and supervisory mechanisms. From a religious perspective, the ruling frees the Jewish religion from political, governmental, and rabbinic oversight. Jews are now able to investigate Judaism and their association with it in a free and honorable way.
According to Judaism, a Jew is Jewish even if he renounces his religion, as it is written in the Talmud, “Even if he sins, he is still a Jew.” This means a Jew can claim he is not Jewish, or is not religious, and still be considered Jewish according to halakha (Jewish religious law). The High Court ruling is in harmony with halakha on this matter, and it opens the matter to an even freer discussion, on Jewish identity. If only we knew how to take advantage of this….
Originally posted on the website of Israel Hayom.