Religion Without State

Yeshayahu Leibowitz believed traditional Judaism has no precedent for a modern Jewish state like Israel.


Religion, Leibowitz argues, must conceive of itself as an end in itself; it must reject any view which makes its existence a means to other ends such as the morality of society or the authority of the state. It must rather be “totalitarian in the realm of values,” regarding all else in life as a means to its one end: knowing and cleaving to God. 

Given this irrefragable [indisputable] as­sumption, can the State of Israel have any religious significance? Jewish tradi­tion, Leibowitz suggests, offers two answers. The first, represented by Bahya ibn Pakuda (11th century) and Moses Chaim Luzzatto (1707-1746), holds that religiosity is not dependent upon or influenced by any social situation. Even the people of Israel qua national-political entity is not needed for the Jew’s religious life, let alone the apparatus of a modern state. A second stream of thought, however, believes that perfection of the social and political or­ders is a divine demand, and so an essential part of Jewish religious life. Certainly the biblical prophets held this view, and so did Maimonides.

Nothing in the Sources

The problem, Leibowitz continues, is that no specific political program for a con­temporary state can be derived from such traditional sources. In fact, they presume precisely opposite conditions to those which apply in a sovereign Jewish state in the Land of Israel. His argument is twofold. Neither Scripture nor Mishnah nor Talmud nor Maimonides knew of any Jewish state in the historical present. There was the state of the distant past, ruled by David and Solomon, and there would be the state of “King Messiah,” in some far-distant future.

The Conundrum of Religious Jews in Israel

A state created without direct divine intervention, in the space of time between Destruction [of the Temple] and Messiah, was simply not conceived. Such a state thus rep­resents a daring attempt to draw legitimacy from a tradition which never even considers the possibility of its existence. Moreover, the halakhah [Jewish law] re­flects that lack of consideration utterly and completely, presuming on every page of text either life among the nations in exile or submission to a Gentile authority in power within Eretz Yisrael [the Land of Israel].

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Arnold M. Eisen, Ph.D. is Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary. Prior to this appointment, he served as the Koshland Professor of Jewish Culture and Religion and Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Stanford University. Prior to joining the Stanford faculty in 1986, he taught at Tel Aviv University and Columbia University.

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