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The Call to Create Torah for a Democratic State Tears Me in Two

Like any good rabbi, I have better questions than answers. But I have deep faith in the relevant power of Torah as we begin to write this new Talmud together.
Rabbi Sarah Mulhern is a former faculty member of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. She serves as the Rabbi of Base LNCLN, a Jewish home for college students and young adults in Lincoln Park, Chicago. While at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, Sarah led the Created Equal Project: teaching, writing, doing research, developing curricula, training educators, and directing educational programs on topics related to gender, ethical leadership, and moral use of

This essay responds to video commentary by Donniel Hartman on the topic of finding a Torah for a Jewish democracy. 

The Call to Create Torah for a Democratic State Tears Me in Two

One part of my heart thrills. Discovering Torah and building my life on its foundation has transformed me personally. What would it be like to experience such transformation on the level of a society? Torah has much to say about how to build a just and holy nation. What could be a more exciting challenge than to “pressure test” that for-so-long-theoretical wisdom in the real world?

I connect most deeply to peoplehood when it contains the content of shared values, practices, and frameworks for understanding the world – in a word, Torah – and as such the project of building the State of Israel engages me more profoundly if it can be a substantively Jewish state, and not merely, as Ahad Ha’am cautioned us, a ”state for the Jews.“ In short, I agree with Donniel Hartman’s contention that, “Israel as homeland has to have Jewishness in the public sphere in ways a secular liberal democracy doesn’t allow us.”

But as an American and student of Jewish history, the idea of religion backed by the coercive and inherently violent power of the state, as Robert Cover and others have taught us, frightens me deeply. I do not want to live in or support a Jewish theocracy – nor do I want to create a secular Torah stripped of its foundational theo-centricism. I do not want to live in or support a state which uses its power to enforce an individual’s Jewish practice – nor do I want to create a Torah stripped of its foundational concepts of obligation and command. I do not want to live in or support a state which adjudicates an individual’s Jewish identity or privileges some of its citizens over others based on their Jewish status or lack thereof– nor do I want to create a Torah stripped of its particularism or covenantal nature.

Where does this leave me in my desire to create a Torah for a modern Jewish state?

I do not, like Donniel Hartman, wish for a solution that involves segmenting the Jewish population of Eretz Yisrael and giving each group different, recognized religious authorities. I object to this suggestion primarily because I, certainly idealistically, want to see Am Yisrael struggle with these questions, among the most important to face Judaism in 2,000 years, together. Further, I fear such a process of segmentation would fundamentally undermine peoplehood and, as many of the issues we must face center on the question of what the public square should look like, accelerate the current concerning retreat into segregated public spaces. And can we imagine the nightmare of trying to define and enforce the boundaries of the subgroups?

The answers to these questions will not – and should not- be answered that simply. They are of the scale and importance of the questions which faced us during the last great challenge to Judaism: the vast project of defining what Judaism meant without a Temple and outside the Land of Israel after the destruction and expulsion. The process which moved us forward on those issues required several hundred years of patient conversation and debate, generating the Talmud and Rabbinic Judaism. Here we will similarly need a new Talmud, one crafted by the many diverse and divergent voices committed to this project. Through the slow and holy work of proposal and counterproposal, law and narrative, question and yet another question we will build a new Jewish society in the same way our people has been building for 2,000 years.

I want to propose two sets of questions which I hope will spark sugyot (Talmudic discussions) in the broader tapestry of this new Talmud.

There are some areas where the Torah we already have deserves serious thought in the context of a modern Jewish state. For example, I want to see a State of Israel which takes the Torah of Shabbat seriously. The resources and practices our civilization has developed in this area are tremendous gifts to humanity and deeply radical, and the Jewish state should pay attention.

I want to push farther on this issue than Professor Ruth Gavison and Rabbi Yaakov Medan, who propose Shabbat as a day of rest and leisure for all Israelis. What would it mean for Shabbat to be a day different from the American weekend, in that it was not only a day for leisure for those of the financially comfortable classes, but a day which took seriously the Torah’s injunction (Exodus 23:6) that we rest on the seventh day precisely to make it possible for the most economically vulnerable to rest? If Shabbat is a day for enjoying oneself in cafes and theaters, how do we ensure that there is rest and justice for those who cook the food and clean the bathrooms in those cafes and theaters? Is it possible in a modern capitalist economy to have any regular moment in time when we all take a break from our economic roles and interact outside that system, as equals in our full humanity? Could this audacious culture change take place through the power of expectation, conversation, and inspiration, rather than through the violent enforcement the Bible imagines (Exodus 31:14)?

There are also areas where the Torah we have is not yet ready for this radically new context of a in a Jewish state with coercive power, such as that on how to treat non-Jews. This Torah on this topic is either several thousand years old or developed as a thought experiment, often in the context of Jewish fear and marginalization. We must now ask: What can we learn from that material which is still relevant today? What must be excised? What entirely new Torah do we need to develop as we think about the role of people in a Jewish state who are not Jewish? How can we draw on our deep commitment to love the stranger and to learn from our own mythic and recent historical experiences as strangers and marginalized people to create a Torah for us now as people in power over others? Is there a way to do this without letting go of the particularist nature of our covenantal relationship as Jews with other Jews and of the Jewish people with God?

Like any good rabbi, I have better questions than answers. But I have deep faith in the resourcefulness of Am Yisrael and the endlessly relevant power of the wellspring of Torah as we begin to write this new Talmud together.

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