FIVE hundred years after the expulsion from Spain, Jews in the
State of Israel are struggling to recreate their "golden age," this
time in their own homeland.
But their efforts to build a modern state while remaining loyal
to their religious traditions have sparked conflicts that some
philosophers fear could threaten the future of Judaism.
"Either there will be a powerful renaissance, or enormous
assimilation," predicts David Hartman, an orthodox rabbi and
leading Jewish thinker. "It is not going to be neutral."
And in a manner unique to Israel, the competing claims of
religion and secular statehood are not only debated among
philosophers of religion, but fought over daily on the political
"Everyone wants to find a balance between tradition and
modernity," says David Rosen, a former chief rabbi of Ireland. "All
the drama of life in Israel is in finding that balance."
Although no exact figures are available, about 20 percent of the
Israeli population observes Jewish religious laws, an equal
proportion define themselves as secular, and a large group in the
middle reflect a wide range of levels of attachment to Judaism.
They live in a secular state, but one in which Judaism plays the
role of an institutionalized religion, bestowed at the foundation
of the country in 1948.
That confusing and often confused circumstance is reflected in
the fact that in this modern state, there is no such thing as a
civil marriage. A rabbinate representing social attitudes that the
majority of Israelis regard as deeply outmoded, if not medieval,
enjoys the exclusive power to marry Jews and to grant them divorces.
At the same time, religious academies known as yeshivas enjoy
generous state funding, the Knesset (parliament) has passed laws
seeking to enforce religious observance, and yeshiva students are
excused from the one central duty of all other Israelis: military
Such issues have staked out the battleground in Israel between
the authorities of orthodox Judaism and those citizens who resent
such intrusions into their private lives.
The result, respected philosopher of religion Yeshayahu
Leibowitz worries, is that "here, Judaism is despised, because it
is a department of a secular power. And as an office of state,
Judaism is doomed."
Ruth Weissert, a pediatrician, reflects the views of most
Israelis when she complains that the rabbinate "intrudes very
deeply into very private parts of people's lives, and does not
realize that it is not bearable." But Dr. Weissert also speaks for
the broad majority of Jews here when she says that although she
herself feels no moral obligation to abide by Jewish law, "Israel
would almost not be rightfully existent if religion played no role
The Zionists who dreamed and then created the State of Israel
often saw Judaism as an obstacle and were widely viewed as hostile
to religion, says Mr. Hartman. The fact that they chose the land of
Israel in which to found their state itself had deep religious
significance, he adds.
"Zionism on one level was a secular revolution," he says. "But
it happened in a place that returns people to religion." The land
of Israel, rich in Biblical place names and allusions, "forces you
into remembering the past," he points out, and the Jews' past is
inextricably linked with their religion.
Among orthodox Jews to whom the past is centrally important, the
creation of the State of Israel is viewed in many different ways. …