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Religious Freedom in a Jewish and Democratic State

Israel is a collective project of all the Jewish people. The legal system is not just secular but also Jewish and cannot be privatized.
Rabbi Dr. Shraga Bar-On is the Vice President and Director of the Kogod Research Center for Contemporary Jewish Thought and the David Hartman Center for Intellectual Excellence, and a lecturer of Talmud and Jewish Thought at Shalem College. At the David Hartman Center, he is responsible for the advanced training of aspiring public intellectuals through the Beit Midrash for Israeli Rabbis, the David Hartman postdoctoral fellowship, and the Maskilot fellowship for women pursuing their doctorate. His research in Jewish philosophy

This essay responds to video commentary by Donniel Hartman on the topic of finding a Torah for a Jewish democracy and is part of a Call & Responsa Series.

Religious Freedom in a Jewish and Democratic State

Rabbi Donniel Hartman has said that many Israelis will never be satisfied with the liberal solution for the religion-state problem, which calls for neutralizing the public sphere from Judaism. I’m a good example of this kind of Israeli. For me, divorcing Judaism from the public sphere equals divorcing the Zionist enterprise from its essence. I oppose this solution not because of my religious beliefs, but rather because of my national beliefs.

Asher Ginzburg, the prominent Jewish thinker and writer known as wrote: “It is not only Jews who have come out of the Ghetto: Judaism has come out, too….”

Israel is not merely a state of Jews but also a “Jewish State,” as specified in the Declaration of Independence. There is a sharp difference between the Diaspora and Israel. Diaspora is, by definition, a privatization of Jewish experience, while a Jewish state means a collectivization of Jewish experience. American Jews live their Jewishness privately; in Israel they live it collectively.

Hence, there is – and should be – a difference in the meaning of “Jewish pluralism” between Diaspora and Israel. Outside Israel, Jewish pluralism can mean only “live and let live.” Every denomination, and even every congregation, has its own way of granting a full Jewish experience for its congregants. Jewish society is a network of separated communities.

This model cannot work for Israel. Israel is a collective project of all the Jewish people. The legal system is not just secular but also Jewish and cannot be privatized. The IDF is a Jewish army which belongs to all Israelis and cannot be privatized. The Western Wall belongs to all Jews and cannot be privatized.

I don’t believe we should give up the aspiration to shape a full Jewish culture – a Jewish state that includes a Jewish parliament, a Jewish health system, Jewish foreign affairs, Jewish courts, etc., just because of the challenges we face. On the contrary, we must face those challenges and overcome them.

I like the idea that each tribe in Israel cares for the Jewish identity of the rest and tries to influence the public sphere. What I don’t like are the attempts to enforce one Jewish identity and to coerce Jews to follow only one Jewish way.

Here we face a huge challenge in nurturing a Jewish and democratic state. To achieve it, we must engage in a threefold project: educational, legal, and sociological. We must know each other better, acknowledge each other, and deepen our collaborations. Knowing each other is a precondition for solidarity, but it is not enough. We must acknowledge each other – and that means granting the same values and rights to the various tribes. Then we’d be able to celebrate the mosaic of different Jewish and Israeli identities – sometimes by compromising and sharing the public sphere, but hopefully most of the time by celebrating together the beliefs and Judaism that we all share.

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