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Wednesday, January 06, 2010

State, Army and Religion

The past few weeks have seen the age-old discussion about the relationship between state and religion in Israel make the front pages again. The current debate was prompted by Defense Minister Barak’s decision to kick out the Har Beracha Yeshiva from the “Hesder”, literally “arrangement”, by which religious boys can do a shortened army service (about half, 1.5 years) and spend the rest of the time continuing their studies. This arrangement has been around for decades and the army tolerates it because most of the religious soldiers join elite combat units, meaning they will spend considerable time each year doing meaningful reserve duty.

Barak’s decision came after the head of the Har Beracha Yeshiva, R. Eliezer Melamed, vociferously backed a handful of Hesder soldiers that wrote banners proclaiming their right-wing political views, specifically that they would refuse to obey an order to evacuate Jewish settlements. He stated that the soldiers should follow the rabbis’ rulings and where there is a conflict with a military order, they should prefer the rabbi’s directive. Obviously, from the army’s point of view, this is an unacceptable stance. Both R. Melamed and Barak climbed very tall trees and it seems hard for them to find a ladder to climb down. The debate escalated after some of R. Melamed’s colleagues backed him, while other Hesder rabbis sought to calm things down.

The truth of the matter is that once this debate turns to the question of whose authority the religious soldiers should listen to above all else – the army’s or the rabbis’ – there is no way out. No religious person can accept a statement that there is a higher authority than God. And no army will accept a statement that a soldier can decide whether to carry out an order based on his religious belief. (I’m assuming, for the sake of the discussion only, that the rabbis’ right-wing stance faithfully represents God’s will; in my opinion, it doesn’t). So trying to bring the discussion to a head on this point is useless. It will cause more harm than good.

To me, what needs to be done is very clear: a separation of state and religion. Israel is a secular country that has an army to protect it. The army is an organization that has no religious significance, just as the government has no religious significance. A decision by the government to build settlements or to evacuate them is a legitimate democratic decision that has no religious bearing. Speaking of the State of Israel, its government or its army as having any kind of religious meaning is not only ridiculous from the secular state’s point of view. It is also ridiculous from the religion’s point of view! It belittles the Jewish religion and relegates it to a position of subservience to a civilian organization, instead of allowing it to be independent of any authority. Israel is not governed by the laws of the Torah and by associating themselves with it from a religious standpoint, the various religions institutions are, pardon the expression, prostituting themselves and the religion they purport to represent.

Compare it if you will to religion and science, or religion and academia in general. There are many religious scientists and professors in Israel. Some of them are prominent figures in their field of expertise. Some of them deal with issues that are clearly in contrast with their religious views, like the age of the universe, or contraception and abortion, or the study of the New Testament. Yet they continue their work and excel in their fields precisely because there is a clear separation between science and religion. They do not go and ask their rabbi whether to believe the universe is 4 billion years or a mere 6,000 years old. They do not ask for permission to read Luke or Matthew. They understand there are areas of life that Halacha does not cover.

In short, there are two, and only two, decisions a religious person can make regarding the secular State of Israel (and its army). He can either decide, like the extreme ultra-orthodox among us, that until a Jewish religious state, i.e. one that is governed by Halacha, can be established, one cannot recognise the State of Israel or benefit from it. Or he can decide that he has a religious duty (a kind of dina demalchuta) to be a fully loyal citizen of the secular State of Israel, just as he would be a fully loyal citizen of France or India if he were living there as a Jew. All other “in between” combinations are nothing but compromises that do more damage to the religion and to religious people.

Brave rabbis (sounds like an oxymoron in our day and age) should tell their students very clearly that the Jewish religion has nothing to do with a government decision to evacuate settlements. Just as religion has nothing to do with government decisions to provide healthcare or build roads or tax income. Only a clear separation between the domains can solve the non-existent dilemma these rabbis have plunged their students and followers into.


Religion and State in Israel said...

Thanks for a very interesting post.

For more on this issue, check out Religion and State in Israel and @religion_state on Twitter.

(Religion and State in Israel is not affiliated with any organization or movement.)


Eli Abramzon said...

The separation of religion and state is critical, especially when it comes to enforcement of religious laws on secular people. Yet it's no simple thing when it comes to Judaism which is a "religious civilization" (in the words of M. Kaplan). Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people and as such it has to reflect the Jewish culture and ethos - otherwise it loses any justification for its existence.

The comparison you make with science is incorrect because of the mixing of fact with value. Modern science is about providing facts about nature, and religion as a system of values provides judgment of what to do in light of these facts.*
The army on the other hand, is an instrument for executing a policy and it certainly has to reflect a nation’s values. Judaism aspires to encompass the wholeness of life, and therefore everything in Israel or that which concerns the Jewish people has religious significance. It’s just that we lived in the galus for so long that we have forgotten how it’s supposed to be. The national-religious therefore cannot be indifferent to what goes on in the army. They serve because it’s a mitzvah, and they follow/refuse orders because it’s a mitzvah. The only relevant discussion is what values have precedence over others: the unity of the army or the settlement of the Land of Israel.

* A side note: had not Judaism contained a genuine tradition of rationally reconciling Torah and science, religious Jews would have had a problem becoming scientists.
The Haredim in Israel have in fact turned their backs towards those traditions and therefore you can hardly find any of them occupying an R&D post.

Frankie Fire said...

I am totally agree with you Nafka!

What about Eliyahu's comment... It is true that separation is not simple. And it is not only for Judaism. For example, take any Islamic country, where Quran is basically the main source of rules.
However, I am not agree with the statement about comparison...
This is the reason why separation will be impossible, because people think just like Eliyahu regarding fact and value, not realizing that fact is value! You can't say that something is fact, however something else is value.
It is incorrect to state that religion provides some system of values to facts that science show, because in most cases religious views contradict to what science say.
Separation of religion from the state is what we need. Religion is good for teaching what is right and wrong, however there is no place for religious views in the political issues.

Thanks for a great post!

Frankie Fire