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].

The Jew is commanded to say the Shema [prayer of monotheistic belief] when he gets up in the morning, told what words to say and when to say them. However, the conditions necessary if he is to wake up in the first place–police, fire department, an army, etc.– are passed over in silence. Previous generations of Jews could trust in Gentile rulers to provide them; contemporary Orthodox Israelis relied on other Jews. Thus, at the very same moment that such Jews demanded that the state be governed according to the letter of halakhah, they acquiesced in an arrangement whereby Ortho­doxy remained a sect within a larger secular state–and then depended on that state for the preconditions of its own religious observance.

This, Leibowitz charges, is hypocritical, and damages both religion and the state. Jews should rather face the challenge posed to their faith by the state which they have created and confront the following choice. Either the Torah’s legislation was intended lekhatchila, a priori, and so contained a model to which any Jewish state at any time must conform, or it represented a code enacted bedi’avad, ex post facto, in accord with particular circumstances prevailing at one time but no longer.

If the former, Neturei Karta [anti-Zionist ultra-Orthodox Jews] in Israel and non-Zionists abroad such as the Satmar Hasidim are correct: Zionism is illegitimate; the Jewish state can have no religious meaning, and in fact violates God’s laws. (In our terms: politicization and resymbolization are incompatible with Jewish tradition.) If the latter, a revision of halakhah is needed, commensurate with the revision of Jewish history accomplished by Zionism. This the Orthodox community in Israel and its supporters abroad have so far refused to undertake.

Leibowitz can neither approve of their “hypocrisy,” nor endorse the non-Zionists’ position, nor embrace Rav Abraham Isaac Kook’s messianism. He has, moreover, repeatedly opposed the political po­sitions taken by those who have invoked messianism as their justification. Leibowitz thus remains a critic rather than the leader of a movement, caught in the rifts that have opened up in the modern period between the recon­ceptions of Eretz Yisrael that we have examined.

Reprinted with permission from The Land of Israel: Jewish Perspectives, edited by Lawrence A. Hoffman (University of Notre Dame Press).

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