Beit Midrash

  • Family and Society
  • Leadership
To dedicate this lesson

A Jewish Democracy


Rabbi Berel Wein

Nissan 5768
The Basic Laws of the State of Israel declare that Israel is to be Jewish and democratic. Like all high-sounding phrases, this one lacks true practical definition. What does "Jewish" really mean? Who defines what is "Jewish?" What does "democratic" mean? How are we to rule if the two concepts seemingly clash in certain instances? In short, what type of Judaism and what type of democracy is envisioned in this statement? This question has plagued Israeli society and its court system for the past number of decades. We Orthodox Jews define "Jewish" in terms of traditional Jewish life, its customs and observances. It is obvious that we also believe that when this definition of "Jewish" clashes with "democratic," then out of respect to Judaism and its past of Jewish life and norms "democratic" should give way. There has been a status quo arrangement regarding public observances of Judaism - Shabat, kashrut, etc. - in place for sixty years. It is an arrangement that satisfies no particular interest group fully but generally speaking it has been found acceptable to most of Israeli society - a live and let live type of arrangement. However both the extreme secularists and the extreme religious have always attempted to alter this status quo, each one in its own perceived favor. Thus there is always present in Israeli public life an underlying tension that is continuous, gnawing and divisive. These tensions usually end up in the Israeli public court system where the prevailing mood is that "democratic" trumps "Jewish." This causes the large religious section of the population to distrust the court system and only become embittered at the legal authorities and their behavior and attitudes.

Two incidents that were in the news last week highlight this sore problem. A supermarket chain intends to be open on a 24/7 basis thus apparently violating the status quo arrangements regarding the public observance of Shabat. This company also owns a chain of supermarkets that caters to the Charedi religious community. In order to pressure the company to rescind its new 24/7 policy, some of the Charedi leaders (mostly self-proclaimed ones at that) have proclaimed a boycott of the chain that sells to the Charedi public. Boycotts and bans are the usual weapons employed by these leaders even though experience should have shown them that by the end of the day these tactics are woefully ineffective and usually counterproductive. Nevertheless, it is obvious that the company’s breach of the status quo, of defining "democratic" in terms of its perceived economic benefit allowed it to ignore completely the "Jewish" aspect of Israel. It was irresponsible on its part to succumb to greed at the expense of community comity. It was also terribly insensitive to the Jewish nature of the state and continues a pattern of wider and wider public Shabat desecration in all areas of Israeli life. To somehow believe that the "Jewish" character of the state can succesfully be preserved, let alone enhanced, by destroying the public Shabat in Israel is malicious folly. I doubt if the boycott tactic will work - perversely, I hope it does - but this is a battle that religious Jews have to join and wage, not only for our sake but for the future of the State of Israel itself.

The second incident was the ruling by an Israeli court that chametz may be sold on Pesach by Jewish stores and restaurants. Again this is a clear breach of the status quo and even of local laws that forbid this practice. The group that brought the suit is against religious coercion. But they do not understand that every society has coercion in one way or another. Otherwise pure anarchy reigns. The laws that coerce are those that form the consensus basis of the society itself. Pesach and chametz have a long history amongst Jews - longer than the existence of the State of Israel and modern progressivism. Disregarding this history and the sensitivity of the vast majority of Israelis in this matter only confirms that as far as Israeli courts are concerned "Jewish" really doesn’t exist in the face of perceived "democratic." The prophet Yechezkel records for us that long ago Jews proclaimed that they were just like other nations -"democratic" to the core. God’s response was that He would not allow that to happen - that anti-Semitism and the hostility of nations would coerce (there is that word again) the Jewish nation to remain "Jewish." Perhaps we are seeing a replay of this scenario again in our state. God apparently prefers "Jewish" to "democratic" if somehow the two must necessarily clash. A little common sense, sensitivity to others, a feeling of altruism and good will - all of which are unfortunately in short supply in many sectors of our society - would go a long way in making the State of Israel a truly Jewish democratic state
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