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Religious Legislation in Israel

June 29, 2016 | By: Naomi G. Cohen

In this meditation on religion and state in Israel, Naomi G. Cohen analyzes the proper role for religious law in the policies, procedures, and rulings of the Jewish State. One might think that government implementation of Jewish law would encourage a broadly Jewish culture that Religious Zionists would favor. Instead, Cohen argues that a minimalist approach on the part of the government does more to encourage the observance of Jewish law. She is concerned that if religious legislation is too restrictive,  a secular backlash might provoke social tension and raise new obstacles for the religious community. Legislation does not ensure observance, and mixing the secular powers of the state with the commandments that structure religious life might even cause Israelis to turn away from Judaism.

It is becoming more and more evident that the strength of religion must no longer be equated with the coercive power of the religious “establishment.” . . . Religious legislation remains vital, but today its reason d’etre is not concern for the souls of our neighbors, but the provision of what is required for religious Jews to participate fully and without hindrance in the workplace and in society at large, as well as to fulfill all the obligations and enjoy all the privileges of being an Israeli.

This minimalistic program is not our ideal, but is necessitated by darkei shalom, ways of peace, the realization that unless something drastic is done to clear the atmosphere, there is every reason to fear that in the not so distant future, when the political constellation changes, a religious Jew will no longer be able to work in many jobs because of the removal of the relevant Shabbat laws from the books. . . .

As for ourselves, the religiously committed, while some of us may continue to consider theocracy the perfect form of government, I might point out that this can be so only if and when the governed and, particularly, the human governors themselves, are perfect. . . . The realization of the theocratic ideal must be deferred to the time when the beginning of the flowering of the Redemption will have reached full bloom.

Read the whole essay in Tradition.

More about: Religion and State in Israel  • Religious Liberty and the Jews