Rabbi Donniel Hartman has placed before us an important challenge on the 70th anniversary of the founding of Israel. Although the Declaration of Independence of the State of Israel clearly states that “The State of Israel …will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture,” this has not been the case for Judaism, which has been defined by and functions under the political-legal domination of the Orthodox rabbinate.
Matters affecting the interface of state and religion have been defined by adherence to the “status quo” between observant and non-observant segments of Israeli society. These agreements were established during the defining years of the State of Israel, but complex developments in Israeli society have affected the “status quo,” and it has lost its bonding power, except for its use as a political slogan.
Over the decades, those in favor of increased Orthodox control over institutional Jewish governance have resorted to coalition agreements and Knesset legislation to assert exclusive jurisdiction and authority.
Those who favor more halakhically diverse and religiously pluralistic approaches in matters of state and religion, including many Diaspora Jews, have relied on the judicial system to secure those rights. This has resulted in the pitting of the courts and legislature in opposition to one another, with a secondary effect of increased attacks on the legal system, growing efforts to constrain judicial authority, and issues of religious pluralism being associated with the liberal side of the Israeli political spectrum.
It is imperative to restore issues of respect for religious diversity to a common public agenda for the long-term benefit of the growing diversity of Israeli society. In addition, it would be valuable to move toward a public conversation that emphasizes resolving or managing a conflict, rather than deciding it through the legal or legislative systems. The social-religious covenant developed in 2003 by Prof. Ruth Gavison and Rabbi Yaakov Medan remains a major step in this direction, by proposing difficult conversations and compromises to overcome what is perceived as a perpetual conflict between the observant and secular segments of society.
The Gavison-Medan Covenant, which was incubated at the Hartman Institute, differentiates among the State of Israel (where the interests of the Jewish majority may be pursued, while protecting the rights of the Arab minority), the people of Israel (which includes Israelis whose halakhic status may not be universally accepted, as well as Jews from the Diaspora), and Judaism (with different expressions of a religious and halakhic system). The Gavison-Medan Covenant concentrates on issues related to internal Jewish relations and uses the differentiation between national identity (people of Israel) and spiritual commitment (to the religion of Judaism) to develop a broad consensus about Israeli Jewish identity that extends beyond Hebrew as a national language, a socioeconomic vision based on the prophets of Israel, and a recognition of Shabbat and Yom Tov as official days of rest.
Gavison and Medan seek ways to create an inclusive model for the principle of return (a Zionist ideal) by recognizing personal status through birth to a Jewish mother or by becoming a member of the people of Israel through any conversion process accepted by any established Jewish community. Any marriage would be registered if the individuals were previously recognized as single (emphasizing divorce being under Orthodox auspices). Shabbat would be maintained as the official day of rest, with allowances for the operation of cultural and entertainment facilities and some public transportation and protection of workers from compulsion to work on Shabbat. In a comparable way, there would be an acceptance of non-coercion for lifestyle, burial, kashrut supervision, individual Shabbat observance, religious services, and diverse access to the Western Wall.
In keeping with Gavison’s general approach to law and society, she prefers to move to this framework through conversation, collaboration, and consensus, leading to a deeper trust and greater social cohesion, rather than through the blunt instruments of legislation or court decision. In this path, she often differed from Justice Aharon Barak, whose suggestion is cited by Rabbi Donniel Hartman as a possible solution to the current kulturkampf within Israel. The principled debate between Gavison and Barak (both of whom I personally like, admire, and respect) as well as the discussion suggested by the Gavison-Medan Covenant are worthy examples of “these and these are both the words of the living God,” and should be thoughtfully considered as we celebrate the 70th anniversary of Israel and take upon ourselves the challenges of the next 70 years.
Baruch Frydman-Kohl is Senior Rabbi of Beth Tzedec Congregation in Toronto and a Rabbinic Fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute. He was awarded a doctorate in Philosophies of Judaism by the Jewish Theological Seminary and is completing an LLM degree in Dispute Resolution at the Osgoode Hall Law School of York University.