The First Scroll, Israeli Democracy and the Secular Religious Impasse
To read the Hebrew version click here.
Early on when the modern state of Israel was founded, Israeli society has enabled the extreme Jewish religious right to assume legal and cultural control over our people’s most cherished collective possession, the Torah. Recently I heard a moderate religious speaker at a pro-democracy rally express the sentiment, “they (the religious right) stole our Torah and we need to steal it back from them.”
How did it happen? Then prime minister, David Ben Gurion, entrusted matters of legal Jewish status and law, such as marriage, divorce, burial, conversion, sacred text study, and more, into the hands of an Orthodox state rabbinate. The practical urgencies of building and protecting the new state dominated the leaders’ agenda. As a result, ensuring equal representation for the entire range of Jewish faith styles, and ideological world views where put on the back burner thus solidifying the Orthodox minority’s power over shaping Jewish identity and the Jewish character of the state. This created deep alienation among the religious and secular extremes. We believe that this social and psychological alienation are a core factor energizing hundreds of thousands of Israelis to fiercely protest week after week.
Let’s take a close look at the religious/secular alienation dynamics. The first and most conspicuous is the alienation between the Orthodox and secularists in the form of mutual judgments and animosity. The second is inter-secular. Secular persons are alienated from their very own Jewish identities. They have failed to fully and coherently blend their Jewish and democratic values. In the secularist camp people are typically more fluent within the universalist democracy space but are too often ignorant about the Jewish identity space. Extreme secularists in Israel often call for abandoning Jewish identity altogether. The third is inter-traditionalist. Stuck in defending the Jewish traditions of the past, ultra-traditionalists are alienated from this historical moment’s demand for change. They seem alienated from modern Israel while cleaving to a diaspora past. Traditionalists have forgotten that Adonai is “The One who renews the act of creation... everyday and forever ” הַמְחַדֵּשׁ בְּטוּבוֹ בְּכָל יוֹם תָּמִיד מַעֲשֵׂה בְרֵאשִׁית (Zohar Pedukei 52). Often the Israeli rabbinate is divorced from genuine “Love of (all of) Israel” and the basic humility that it requires.
Most secularists, seduced by the material as well as intellectual temptations of modernity, fend off the seemingly restricting influences of Torah as they neglect to fully take responsibility for their own as well as their country’s Jewish identity. Most traditionalists, critical of, and scared by, modernity invest much of their energies in fending off the seemingly negative influences of secularism attempting to shape Israel into a biblical fantasyland. To date the Orthodox hegemony along with its religious coercion has caused enormous alienation and untold damage to the Jews of modern Israel as well as to Jews abroad.
Secularism alone denies Israel’s Jewish roots and raison d'être. Tradition alone can produce dangerously fanatical fantasies. Both traditionalists and secularists are alienated from their inevitable interdependency. Each side needs the other, as together we are parts of a greater Israeli whole.
Rambam (Maimonides) coined the terms “The Golden Mean”. He writes וְאָמְנָם יְשֻׁבַּח בֶּאֱמֶת הַמְמֻצָּע,וְאֵלָיו צָרִיךְ לָאָדָם שֶׁיְּכַוֵּן וְיִשְׁקֹל פְּעֻלּוֹתָיו כֻּלָּם תָּמִיד עַד שֶׁיִּתְמַצְעוּ. “And indeed the middle way is best, towards which a person should aim in his/her conduct always until it reaches the middle.” (Eight Chapters). He teaches that correct ideation and conduct is found in the center between the extremes.
The Center of Israeli politics and Israel’s society is where Torah and democracy - rooted Jewish identity and best governing practices - are merging. The pro-democracy protests have become the petri dish in which a strong center is finding its voice. As the Israeli writer Yossi Klein Halevi said at a recent speech “Israel today is living through a dispute between the center and the right over what a Jewish state and a democratic state mean…” (Hartman Institute, Jerusalem).
On a warm and humid summer night back in Philadelphia in the early 1990s I had a long conversion with my neighbor, Rabbi Dr. Arthur Green. He, a published author, Jewish theologian, and professor of Jewish studies. I, a young secular Israeli and recent Yored (immigrant from Israel) with an enormous gap in Jewish knowledge and intense negative feelings toward Jewish religion and its Orthodox emissaries.
Rabbi Green, who used to spend a good portion of each year immersing in the Israeli zeitgeist, explained that “The future of Judaism is being shaped primarily by the secular community in Israel, not by the diaspora religious traditions. The old-time traditions are going to wither-on-the-vine while a new form of Judaism, authentic to our times, emerges”. To me, Rabbi Green’s ideas were beyond comprehension at the time. I could not imagine a Judaism looking much different than the yarmulka bearing, black suited men and Sheitel (religious head covering) wearing women I knew from back home. “Alienated secular Israelis with their wrenching identity conundrums and intense hate of the religious establishment, having a constructive role in Judaism’s future? Impossible!”, I thought.
Now, thirty years hence, with energetic democracy protests all over Israel, Rabbi Green’s vision is manifesting, bridging the Israeli alienation gap and reviving the Israeli center. Two radical assumptions are animating this center. The first assumption is that Torah is not antithetical to modernism and secularism. To the contrary it is undeniably the core of our Jewish and Israeli identity. The second radical assumption is that the long entrenched hegemony of Orthodoxy over Torah interpretation and over shaping Jewish lifestyles in Israel is categorically wrong. In a healthy center, Orthodox, Secular, Conservative, Humanist, Reform, and Other will collaboratively draw the contours of Israel’s Jewish and democratic identity.
“The Jewish people possess a natural right to be a nation like all nations who control their own destiny in their own sovereign state” (Israel’s Scroll of Independence). “זו זכותו הטבעית של העם היהודי להיות ככל עם ועם עומד ברשות עצמו במדינתו הריבונית. What is the meaning of “to be a nation like all nations”? Does it mean being like Denmark with her enlightened democracy? Or does it mean expressing our own unique identity and governing solutions just like other nations express theirs? In our opinion, the Jewish sovereign state, by definition, governs itself through an exemplary democracy based on the values and wisdom of Torah and Jewish tradition. Furthermore, the guiding principles of most modern democracies: Justice and fairness, protection for the rights of the minority, legal limitations upon the executive branch, debate and persuasion leading to a vote by majority are instructed in the Torah.
The first two chapters of Parashat Shoftim, in the book of Devarim (Deuteronomy) read:
שֹׁפְטִ֣ים וְשֹֽׁטְרִ֗ים תִּֽתֶּן־לְךָ֙ בְּכָל־שְׁעָרֶ֔יךָ אֲשֶׁ֨ר יְהוָ֧ה אֱלֹהֶ֛יךָ נֹתֵ֥ן לְךָ֖ לִשְׁבָטֶ֑יךָ וְשָׁפְט֥וּ אֶת־הָעָ֖ם מִשְׁפַּט־צֶֽדֶק׃
Deut. 16:18 - You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes,... and they shall govern the people with due justice.
לֹא־תַטֶּ֣ה מִשְׁפָּ֔ט לֹ֥א תַכִּ֖יר פָּנִ֑ים וְלֹא־תִקַּ֣ח שֹׁ֔חַד כִּ֣י הַשֹּׁ֗חַד יְעַוֵּר֙ עֵינֵ֣י חֲכָמִ֔ים וִֽיסַלֵּ֖ף דִּבְרֵ֥י צַדִּיקִֽם׃
Deut. 16:19 - You shall not judge unfairly: you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just.
צֶ֥דֶק צֶ֖דֶק תִּרְדֹּ֑ף לְמַ֤עַן תִּֽחְיֶה֙ וְיָרַשְׁתָּ֣ אֶת־הָאָ֔רֶץ אֲשֶׁר־יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ נֹתֵ֥ן לָֽךְ׃
Deut. 16:20 - Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive....
כִּֽי־תָבֹ֣א אֶל־הָאָ֗רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֨ר יְהוָ֤ה אֱלֹהֶ֙יךָ֙ נֹתֵ֣ן לָ֔ךְ וִֽירִשְׁתָּ֖הּ וְיָשַׁ֣בְתָּה בָּ֑הּ וְאָמַרְתָּ֗ אָשִׂ֤ימָה עָלַי֙ מֶ֔לֶךְ כְּכָל־הַגּוֹיִ֖ם אֲשֶׁ֥ר סְבִיבֹתָֽי׃
Deut. 17:14 - If, … you decide, “I will set a king over me, as do all the nations about me,”
רַק֮ לֹא־יַרְבֶּה־לּ֣וֹ סוּסִים֒ וְלֹֽא־יָשִׁ֤יב אֶת־הָעָם֙ מִצְרַ֔יְמָה לְמַ֖עַן הַרְבּ֣וֹת ס֑וּס וַֽיהוָה֙ אָמַ֣ר לָכֶ֔ם לֹ֣א תֹסִפ֗וּן לָשׁ֛וּב בַּדֶּ֥רֶךְ הַזֶּ֖ה עֽוֹד׃
Deut. 17:16 - Moreover, he shall not keep many horses or send people back to Egypt to add to his horses,...”
וְלֹ֤א יַרְבֶּה־לּוֹ֙ נָשִׁ֔ים וְלֹ֥א יָס֖וּר לְבָב֑וֹ וְכֶ֣סֶף וְזָהָ֔ב לֹ֥א יַרְבֶּה־לּ֖וֹ מְאֹֽד׃
Deut. 17:17 - And he shall not have many wives, lest his heart go astray; nor shall he amass silver and gold to excess.
וְהָיָ֣ה כְשִׁבְתּ֔וֹ עַ֖ל כִּסֵּ֣א מַמְלַכְתּ֑וֹ וְכָ֨תַב ל֜וֹ אֶת־מִשְׁנֵ֨ה הַתּוֹרָ֤ה הַזֹּאת֙ עַל־סֵ֔פֶר מִלִּפְנֵ֥י הַכֹּהֲנִ֖ים הַלְוִיִּֽם׃
Deut. 17:18 - When he is seated on his royal throne, he shall have a copy of this Teaching (Torah) written for him....
וְהָיְתָ֣ה עִמּ֔וֹ וְקָ֥רָא ב֖וֹ כָּל־יְמֵ֣י חַיָּ֑יו לְמַ֣עַן יִלְמַ֗ד לְיִרְאָה֙ אֶת־יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהָ֔יו לִ֠שְׁמֹר אֶֽת־כָּל־דִּבְרֵ֞י הַתּוֹרָ֥ה הַזֹּ֛את וְאֶת־הַחֻקִּ֥ים הָאֵ֖לֶּה לַעֲשֹׂתָֽם׃
Deut. 17:19 - Let it remain with him and let him read in it all his life, ..., to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching (Torah) as well as these laws.
לְבִלְתִּ֤י רוּם־לְבָבוֹ֙ מֵֽאֶחָ֔יו וּלְבִלְתִּ֛י ס֥וּר מִן־הַמִּצְוָ֖ה יָמִ֣ין וּשְׂמֹ֑אול לְמַעַן֩ יַאֲרִ֨יךְ יָמִ֧ים עַל־מַמְלַכְתּ֛וֹ ה֥וּא וּבָנָ֖יו בְּקֶ֥רֶב יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃
Deut. 17:20 - Thus he will not act haughtily toward his fellows or deviate from the Instruction to the right or to the left,....
The Torah is setting limits on both the judiciary and executive branches. These limits are guided by justice, moderation, and a commitment to the people’s common good.
Parashat Kedoshim, in the book of VaYikra (Leviticus), offers additional guardrails and foundational principles for just conduct:
לֹֽא־תִקֹּ֤ם וְלֹֽא־תִטֹּר֙ אֶת־בְּנֵ֣י עַמֶּ֔ךָ וְאָֽהַבְתָּ֥ לְרֵעֲךָ֖ כָּמ֑וֹךָ אֲנִ֖י יְהוָֽה׃
Leviticus 19:18 - You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against members of your people. Love your fellow as yourself ….
וְכִֽי־יָג֧וּר אִתְּךָ֛ גֵּ֖ר בְּאַרְצְכֶ֑ם לֹ֥א תוֹנ֖וּ אֹתֽוֹ׃
Leviticus 19: 33 - When strangers reside with you in your land, you shall not wrong them.
כְּאֶזְרָ֣ח מִכֶּם֩ יִהְיֶ֨ה לָכֶ֜ם הַגֵּ֣ר ׀ הַגָּ֣ר אִתְּכֶ֗ם וְאָהַבְתָּ֥ לוֹ֙ כָּמ֔וֹךָ כִּֽי־גֵרִ֥ים הֱיִיתֶ֖ם בְּאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרָ֑יִם אֲנִ֖י יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם׃
Leviticus 19: 34 - The strangers who reside with you shall be to you as your citizens; you shall love each one as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt ....
In other words, the system of government instructed by Torah serves all the inhabitants of the land applying justice equally to the Jewish majority, the Jewish minority, and to the non-Jew.
According to the Torah and to Jewish tradition the Israelite system of government was divinely ordained. However it was not to be divinely executed. Implementation is entirely up to us humans here on earth.
כִּ֚י הַמִּצְוָ֣ה הַזֹּ֔את אֲשֶׁ֛ר אָנֹכִ֥י מְצַוְּךָ֖ הַיּ֑וֹם לֹֽא־נִפְלֵ֥את הִוא֙ מִמְּךָ֔ וְלֹ֥א רְחֹקָ֖ה הִֽוא׃
Deut. 30:11 - Surely, this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach.
לֹ֥א בַשָּׁמַ֖יִם הִ֑וא לֵאמֹ֗ר מִ֣י יַעֲלֶה־לָּ֤נוּ הַשָּׁמַ֙יְמָה֙ וְיִקָּחֶ֣הָ לָּ֔נוּ וְיַשְׁמִעֵ֥נוּ אֹתָ֖הּ וְנַעֲשֶֽׂנָּה׃
Deut. 30:12 - It is not in the heavens, that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?”
כִּֽי־קָר֥וֹב אֵלֶ֛יךָ הַדָּבָ֖ר מְאֹ֑ד בְּפִ֥יךָ וּבִֽלְבָבְךָ֖ לַעֲשֹׂתֽוֹ׃
Deut. 30:14 - No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth (ordinary language) and in your heart (mind), to observe it.
The Talmud offers an interpertaion of “It is not in the heavens… the thing is very close to you…” that expresses the political principle of ‘deliberative process’ leading to a binding ruling of the legislative majority.
In the following Talmudic episode an assembly of rabbis are debating a matter of Kosher law. Rabbi Eliezer, ruled that an object was Kosher, while the majority of the attending rabbis ruled it not Kosher. Rabbi Eliezer uses his spiritual powers to request Heaven’s intervention. Indeed, a Heavenly voice rumbles from on-high declaring Rabbi Eliezer’s ruling correct. At this dramatic moment the speaker for the majority...
עמד רבי יהושע על רגליו ואמר (דברים ל, יב) לא בשמים היא מאי לא בשמים היא אמר רבי ירמיה שכבר נתנה תורה מהר סיני אין אנו משגיחין בבת קול שכבר כתבת בהר סיני בתורה (שמות כג, ב) אחרי רבים להטות אשכחיה רבי נתן לאליהו א"ל מאי עביד קוב"ה בההיא שעתא א"ל קא חייך ואמר נצחוני בני נצחוני בני
..."Rabbi Yehoshua stood on his feet and said: It is written (in the Torah): “It is not in heaven” (Deuteronomy 30:12). The Gemara asks: What is the relevance of the phrase “It is not in heaven” in this context? Rabbi Yirmeya says: Since the Torah has already been given at Mount Sinai, we do not regard a Divine Voice, as You (God) already wrote... in the Torah: “After a majority to incline” (Exodus 23:2). Since the majority of Rabbis disagreed with Rabbi Eliezer’s opinion, the Halakha (law) is not ruled in accordance with his opinion. The Gemara adds: Years later, Rabbi Natan encountered Elijah the prophet and said to him: What did the Holy One, Blessed Be, do at that time, when Rabbi Yehoshua issued his declaration? Elijah said to him: The Holy One, Blessed Be, smiled and said: My children have triumphed over Me; My children have triumphed over Me.” (Baba Metzia 59:b)
Stringing together these verses from Parashat Shoftim, Parashat Kedoshim, and the Talmud, a teaching emerges instructing us to form a system of government that includes a Judiciary, an executive, and a legislator. The Judiciary shall strictly follow the principles of justice, impartiality and fairness. The executive branch shall function under strict limitations guided by a constitution, the Torah. The legislative body shall use the best of its human deliberative capacity, not spiritual signs and portents, as the majority decides the law. The democratic process has been spelled out in the Torah and her interpretations long before ancient Athens and ancient Rome had experimented with theirs. We, Jewish Israelis, indeed have a sophisticated, wise, and time-honored heritage to draw on.
We, Israel’s secular and moderate religious center have been politically awakened by the judicial coup and thrust into a second “war of independence” for the soul if not the body of Israel. For Israeli democracy to be truly sovereign, as the Scroll Of Independence calls for, and for our system to be widely adopted by our people it must be rooted in the soul and deep purpose of the modern state of Israel. The ideological and conceptual framework for Israeli democracy needs to draw on the best assets of our rich Jewish heritage. To that end we must unravel the holding pattern of Israeli alienation and embrace the center where religious and secular alienation dissolves allowing for a renewed Jewish future.
It is now time to rally around a new shared mission for modern Israel, which includes modeling for the world an exemplary democracy that extends from the Torah values of diversity, justice, and decency.
Megilat HaAtzma’ut, Israel’s Scroll Of Independence commits us to ensuring freedom and justice for all of Israel’s inhabitants, “religious and secular, rightists and leftists, Jewish and Arab, and more.” However, Megilat HaAtzna’ut is the second Scroll Of Independence. The first scroll of independence, the Torah, marked Israel’s liberation from slavery and stated the people’s mission to build a society based on justice and freedom in our ancestral homeland. As we demonstrate weekly in order to quash an extreme rightwing religious takeover we are reclaiming Israel’s core common values that are articulated in both of our Scrolls Of Independence, the ancient one and the recent one. Our nation’s peace and security, our prosperity, and our future depends on reclaiming both with vigor and with love.