Friday, February 24, 2006

Aviezer Ravitsky in Melbourne

Over the past week, I have had the pleasure of hearing Professor Aviezer Ravitsky speak in Melbourne on a number of occasions. He was the winner of the 2001 Israel Prize, and I found many of his statements on matters religious and political to be similar to my thinking. I believe Ravitsky is unique in that he is able to transverse the worlds of academia and halacha so seamlessly, in a matter that belittles neither. He is also a religious Zionist that doesn’t wear orange.

One the issues he spoke about was his recent paper “Is a Halakhic State Possible? The paradox of Jewish Theocracy” (Published by the Israel Democracy Institute).

To many Religious Zionists (henceforth RZ’s) namely of those from the Mercaz Harav-Kook Yeshiva, their justification for supporting the Zionist enterprise rests solely on the idea that Israel is the birth pang of mashiach – reshit tzemichat geulatenu. RZ ideal Israel is one run by halacha, were Jewish law governs the social, religious and political spheres.

Avi sees things differently. I quote from Haaretz Temple and Knesset
Ravitsky believes (to a great extent following in the footsteps of Rabbi Yitzhak Abarbanel, 1437-1508) that Judaism contains no absolute religious commandment that determines the nature of the regime required by the Jewish state. The state's authority is needed to protect citizens' lives and to maintain the social order, and precisely in order to serve those goals, there must be broad social agreement - the essential idea being that the preservation of human life takes precedence over nearly all the Torah's commandments.

Ravitzky quotes the late Rabbi Shlomo Goren: "Human society, including the Jewish people, requires a political regime representing and applying relative justice, namely, temporary political justice, which enables the regime to maintain public order and security among mortals. One cannot rely only on the Torah's law of punishment, which represent the absolute justice, not influenced by the constraints of time, place and the level of human society.

Some examples Ravitsky gave regarding the quirks of halacha were fascinating. What would you do if you saw a man chase a woman into a cave with a sword, and then heard screaming, only to find the woman killed. Well, in a halachic state, the man could not be charged, for unless two shabbat and kashrut keeping witnesses saw the murder take place, and forewarned the culprit, he escapes punishment.

Also, the laws regarding theft are not nearly serious enough to deter the crime in today's world whilst the halachic tax system of the Government returning double of it receives would lead to a tax free world for 1 in 3 people. (I can see Kerry Packer, our most renowned tax dodger, lamenting his lack of support for a halachic state now.)

In regards to the possibility of harmony between Religious and Secular Israelis, Ravitsky spoke at length about the contention between these groups at a public lecture sponsored by the Australian Centre for the Study of Jewish Civilisation at Monash University.

He spoke about the infamous “Status quo” which was written in a letter from David Ben Gurion, in his capacity as Chairman of the Jewish Agency Executive, to Rabbi J. L. Maimon, leader of the Agudat Israel in 1947. The letter stated
· Shabbat: It is clear that the official day of rest of the Jewish State will be on Shabbat; naturally the Christians and other religions will be granted the Shabbat on their days.
· Kashrut: All necessary steps will be taken to guarantee that any State kitchen for Jews will be kosher.
· Personal Status Law: The members of the Executive understand the importance of the question and the problems involved. All the bodies which are represented on the Executive will do all to satisfy the religious needs of the Orthodox, to prevent the division of the people.
· Education: The autonomy to the different educational systems (as now exists) will be guaranteed. No coercion from the authorities in matters of religion, and religious conscience will be applied. Naturally, the State will determine minimum studies in Hebrew, mathematics, history, etc., and will supervise them, but they will have the freedom to run the educational system according to their belief.

Ravistky discussed why both the Haredim and Socialist Zionists agreered to this document. In 1947, the Secular Zionists didn’t think there would be Haredim in 50 years, let alone ones who would want to study in yeshiva. Therefore, it was of little concern to Ben Gurion that a few hundred Haredim didn’t serve in the Army. The Haredim on the other hand, didn’t mind a few cars driving on Shabbat, as long as no public transport was running(still the case now in Israel except Haifa). What the Haredim didn’t anticipate, was that one-day cars would become very popular.

Both assumed the other would disappear, and both made their assumptions on false premises. So what hope is there for future harmony between these groups. Well, having already, argued that a halachic state is not feasible, one could say, what about a secular state? Ravitsky also rejects this idea arguing

Not only it is impossible, from the standpoint of Judaism, to contemplate a modern Jewish life unconnected with tradition, from the standpoint of the State of Israel itself, the desire to return to the Jewish-national past - at all strata and levels - can have no validity if this return is characterized by severing ties with the religious infrastructure, which is the basis of all the national and historical aspects of Jewish existence.

So perhaps our future is to continue on the path we are on. Namely, where the Godfearing and Godless stay at each others throats. This “tension” afterall is what keeps Ravitsky in his job. He loves it. The “tension” is also what keeps this blog going. Forever searching for answers to seemingly unsolvable questions.


Ittay said...

To read a summary of “Is a Halakhic State Possible? The paradox of Jewish Theocracy” (Published by the Israel Democracy Institute) in hebrew go to

Greg said...

interesting article! I find this subject fascinating as a non-religious hard-core rightwinger living in Israel. I guess I've got the exact opposite position in those catagories from yours but, nontheless, I found this article eye-opening, though I was familiar with most of the issues you talked about.

Personally, even though I'm not religious, I'd prefer living in a chalacha-run Jewish State then a democratically-run curent day Israel but that's just me. Hope you have a good night,


Ittay said...

Why would you prefer a halachic run state if you are not religious? Do you realise the punishments you would be liable for if you broke shabbat.

I agree with you that the current Israeli "democracy" is very tenuous, and faces issues regarding corruption and integrity, but this does not mean the whole idea of a secular democracy should be abandoned.

Greg said...

Ittay: I'd prefer a chalachic state because even though I'm secular, I desire and wish to return to tshuva. I've told Tovya on a personal level and I will disclose the followng to you, too: my wife married me on the premise that I was to remain secular. She has no desire whatsoever to become religious though I've often insisted that we both take that step forward. It's been difficult for both of us and in the end I've succumbed to her line of thinking.

Nevertheless, I remain passionate with regards to the Zionist cause and the Zionist cause is intrinsically tied to the Jewish faith as you'll probably agree.

I suspect that a chalachic-run Israel would be a lot stronger and more united. We'd get rid of the foreign workers and the non-Jews who've been allowed to stay here. Though I have friends, even close ones among local non-Jews I'd rather live in a trully Jewish state rather than a trully democratic one. For now, we have neither.

Be'tikva, Eitan.

Ittay said...

Shalom Eitan
I agree with you that Judaism and Zionism are intrinsically linked. There are many positive changes that would happen if Israel were a halachic state including as you mentioned, the end of our reliance on foreign workers. Some other changes may include Israel stopping its sale of nuclear weapons to countries like china, and “remembering the stranger in our midst for we were strangers in the land of Egypt.” In regards to giving land for peace, Ravitsky says that this is not a halachic issue but a security one. If giving land to Palestinians saves lives, we are obligated to do it, Pikuch nefesh. If giving back land makes us less safe, than we must hold on to every inch.

Greg said...

Ahalan Ittay,
I'm completely sure that giving further negotiations and giving "back" more land(as if it was ever the "palestinians'" land) would lead to a further escalation of the crisis, hence, it's an insanity to continue harboring false hopes.

As for the distinction between political vs. religious matters I agree with you on that one, though I sometimes make the mistake of putting both into one.

Be'tikva, Eitan.

FrumGirl said...

I really appreciate your post. It is very informative.

I wouldn't categorize myself as a true religious zionist as I am not sure I believe that the establishment of the state of Israel is Reshut Tsmichat Geulateniu.

I do know one thing, though. The secular zionists that overruled the charedim and established the state did so in a very dirty way. How can a state that was built on jewish blood ever be blessed? The 'tension' should give way to the motto - live and let live -until moshiach comes. Yeah, I know, I am dreaming.

Ittay said...

Shalom Frum Girl,
It’s interesting that you don’t clarify yourself as true religious Zionist because you don’t believe that the establishment of the state of Israel is Reshut Tsmichat Geulateniu. Being a religious Zionist doesn’t necessarily mean believing that Zionism heralds and is part of the coming of the Messiah. The figure of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935) has towered over all of religious Zionist politics and thought. But Rav Kook's voice was not the only one in religious Zionist circles. Look at the ideas of Rabbi Isaac Jacob Reines (founder of Mizrachi), Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, and Rabbi David Hartman for some other approaches.

Keep smiling


Steve said...

Ittay, I am posting this in case you didn't see it:

Prof. Ravitsky was seriously injured on Monday after being struck by a bus in Jerusalem.


Please pray for the speedy and full recovery of Aviezer ben Rut.