A study just released by the Israel Democracy Institute indicates that some 80 percent of Israelis profess belief in the existence of God. This is hardly a surprising result. Israel is a society in which God is never too far away. Whether we are busy praying to Him, arguing with Him or doubting Him, God is the Jewish people’s interlocutor par excellence. And His book, the Torah, is our text par excellence. Whether revering, reinterpreting, rebelling against it, or even just trying to ignore it, we are somehow in constant dialogue with its ever-hovering presence.
In the land of Abraham, where the faithful turn to pray, where God has been dragged onto the battlefield for centuries, where shrines holy to so many reside (sometimes uncomfortably) side by side, it could hardly be otherwise. The growing strength of the Orthodox in Israeli society is a steady reminder that, even as religion’s public profile wanes in many parts of the world, faith remains a profoundly powerful force in Israel, as it is in the broader Middle East.
Across Europe, God has become a somewhat unwelcome visitor – secularism pushes Him from the public square, and leaves Him to find refuge in private hearts. But in our region the idea of a sterile division between mosque or synagogue and State seems inconceivable. So many people carry God, or their version of Him, into the public arena. And their hopes are not just for an individual life of faith, but for a sovereign society of spiritual significance.
When faith is so central to the convictions and self-definition of so many, public policy cannot be devoid of a spiritual dimension. Those committed to a secular vision of Israel recoil at the idea of religious interference in governance. But religious forces are too instrumental in shaping Israeli politics, too capable of preventing outcomes they deem objectionable, to be ignored. What’s more, a “neutral” public sphere is inconsistent with Israel’s aspiration to be a Jewish homeland. Israel is not about merely tolerating faith but creating a society where both Jewish values and democratic principles are in perpetual conversation and both find public expression.
This situation presents a two-fold challenge for policy makers. The first is to develop policy that is sensitive to, and resonates with, key spiritual and theological beliefs. Such thinking is lacking in the way we confront multiple policy challenges, but a prime example is in attitudes toward the peace process. Negotiations with our neighbors have been treated largely as a secular exercise. The assumption seems to be that a Western style, “split the difference” compromise would be reached between secular figures from both sides and that the religious leaders and their followers would either acquiesce or be overrun.
It will not turn out that way. To be accepted, a peace agreement that decides the fate of so many believing Jews and Muslims must be placed in a meaningful theological context, not just a security or policy one. An agreement cannot be about Jerusalem and the future borders of the Holy Land without somehow being about God as well. This agreement must be recast in a way that carries religious meaning for core Jewish and Muslim audiences, or it may never be reached at all.
But if the first challenge in a society of so many believers is how to bring spirituality into the public sphere, the second is how to ensure that one group’s conception of the spiritual and the sacred does not dictate the public space for all others. To do this, foundational democratic values of equality and pluralism and minority rights must be safeguarded. Israel must be as Jewish as democracy allows, not the other way around. But these democratic values have a greater chance of being enshrined and respected by certain key groups in society if they are conceived less as secular counterweights to religious convictions and more as elementary religious principles themselves.
The question is not about how to keep religion out of the public sphere, but which core religious values preserve a public sphere in which competing voices can coexist in relative harmony. Can we encourage different religious groups to focus not only on what they need to preserve their own sectoral religious interests, but on what spiritual values society as a whole needs to uphold, so that its infrastructure does not disintegrate? Can we ask religious leaders to take a share of responsibility not just for the fate of their flock, but for the welfare of a sovereign community with so many disparate voices?
Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook (1865-1935), Israel’s first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi and the spiritual father of religious Zionism, could not imagine a role for the Jewish religion in the world, or in the Jewish state itself, without its inner core being a concern for the welfare of all. In his writings he regularly emphasizes this idea:
“The desire of being good to all, without any earthly limitation, either in the number of beneficiaries of the good, or in the quality of the goodness, this is the inner kernel of the essential soul of Knesset Yisrael”. (Orot Yisrael, Chapter 1, Paragraph 4).faith
Imagine if this were the way religion and religious leaders were recognized in the public arena. Imagine if bringing God into the public square meant a supreme concern for the welfare of the collective, rather than the restricted needs of separate religious communities. Imagine if Israel’s religious parties were more known for their tireless efforts on behalf of the poor throughout society, for their dogged insistence on mutual respect in public discourse, for Israel’s humanitarian contribution to the world, for the equal treatment of all as created in God’s image. Religious leaders would no doubt object to this being the exclusive expression of God’s presence in Israel’s public sphere. But, even for them, it sure seems like a good place to start.