Donniel Hartman: When the State of Israel closed the gates of Judaism


By: Donniel Hartman

הרב דניאל הרטמן

Jewish i d e n t i t y was first forged from the tension between an identity rooted in ethnic origin and an identity rooted in destiny or mission. The origin of the ethnic identity lies in the Book of Genesis, in the story of Abraham and Sarah. This identity is based on birth, on common seed; it predates Mount Sinai and its covenant. In this respect, Jewish identity is the product of experience and not achievement. It is not contingent on the quality of the person, his habits or his faith; it is inherited and not acquired.

Jewish identity rooted in destiny is presented in the Book of Exodus (19:6): “and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” With the covenant on Mount Sinai, the idea takes root that Judaism is an identity realized in actions and faith. If ethnic Jewishness is embodied in birth and legacy, then the Jewishness of destiny is embodied in the idea of commandment.

The Book of Exodus follows the Book of Genesis, but does not replace it. Thus, the ethnic and destined origins set off on a complex dance, jockeying for position in determining Jewish identity, for the most part complementing one another. The ethnic identity anchored a tolerant foundation in the mission-oriented dialogue and undermined a culture of exclusionism in the name of fulfilling the mission. It kept various interpretations of destiny involved in the dialogue. The destined identity prevented the ethnic Jewish identity from deteriorating into racism. Because of it, Jewish identity was not merely an inherited asset tied solely to our forefathers, but a challenge for each generation to achieve. It also opened Judaism to the outside community, a process that can only be understood in the framework of identity as destiny.

The 20th century saw Israel split by its Judaism, not united because of it. We have no common alliance of destiny on which to base a common identity for all citizens of our nationality. The very definition of Israel as the national home of the Jewish people, which belongs to all Jews, grants privilege to ethnic origin. Israel can be a common home for all Jews rather than a synagogue for believers only if it does not prioritize the sole perception of Jewish-by-destiny over any other perception. If you are Jewish by ethnic origin, then you are part of the Jewish people, a membership that is not contingent on any tests of lifestyle or faith.

This insight is evident in the Law of Return, which grants the right to immigration and immediate citizenship, reflecting an ethnic identity, but infusing it with new meaning. It replaced the biblical and rabbinical ethnicity with ethnicity based on Nazi Germany’s Nuremberg Laws: one Jewish parent, conversion, marriage to a Jew or even a Jewish grandparent. From the State of Israel’s perspective, anyone whose blood could be shed because someone else defined them as Jewish, would be considered our blood brother.

At the same time, instead of formulating the Jewish destiny dialogue on a broad base characterized by the ideological diversity of the Jewish people, Israel chose to empower one Jewish mission over the others. Israel allowed and even nurtured a class of “professional” Jews – those who express the Orthodox interpretation of the Jewish mission – granting them responsibility to supervise the implementation of various aspects of Jewish law that touch upon everyday life such as marriage, conversion and kashrut, which are governed by the rabbinate in both the civilian and military arenas.

Instead of integrating ethnicity and mission internally, the State of Israel separated them and gave each its own responsibility: ethnicity as a base for citizenship and Orthodox destiny to shape the everyday Jewish life of the citizens. Israel thus adopted a shallow and binary perception of “religious” and “secular” as the two types of Jews. Both are partners in ethnic Jewishness but only the former has any part in the Jewish mission.

Unfortunately, in doing so, Israel undermines its own perception as a home for the Jews, functioning as a monopoly synagogue. Its citizens are given the choice between belonging to this synagogue or remaining on the outside: marry via the rabbinate or travel to Cyprus. The gates of citizenship are open to the ethnic Jew, but the gates of Jewishness are locked before anyone who is not at home in the Orthodox mission.

The State of Israel must return to the roots of the tension in Jewish identity. Jewishness based on ethnicity or mission offers everyone a seat at the table. If Israel hopes to be a national home and not a private synagogue, it must recognize that each of its ethnic members has a unique perception of the mission and the significance of citizenship is not expressed solely in the right to live here, but in how one should live here. This tension is the positive root of Jewish identity that must form the basis of our Jewish and democratic state.

Rabbi Donniel Hartman is the president of the Shalom Hartman Institute