Israel and halachah

The ongoing debate over the role of Jewish law in a Jewish state.

By Uri Pilichowski | | Topics: Jewish State, Jewish Law
Young Jews seek God's forgiveness for Israel's sins during the period leading up to Rosh Hashanah. Photo by David Cohen/Flash90
Young Jews seek God's forgiveness for Israel's sins during the period leading up to Rosh Hashanah. Photo by David Cohen/Flash90

The role of halachah (Jewish religious law) in the State of Israel was a point of contention even before the state was founded. In his landmark book The Jewish State, modern Zionism’s founder Theodor Herzl wrote, “Shall we end by having a theocracy? No, indeed. Faith unites us, knowledge gives us freedom. We shall therefore prevent any theocratic tendencies from coming to the fore on the part of our priesthood.”

“We shall keep our priests within the confines of their temples in the same way as we shall keep our professional army within the confines of their barracks,” he went on. “Army and priesthood shall receive honors high as their valuable functions deserve. But they must not interfere in the administration of the state which confers distinction upon them, else they will conjure up difficulties without and within.”

“Every man will be as free and undisturbed in his faith or his disbelief as he is in his nationality,” Herzl pledged. “And if it should occur that men of other creeds and different nationalities come to live amongst us, we should accord them honorable protection and equality before the law.”

In contrast, the late Rabbi Haim Drukman, a major figure in the Religious Zionist movement, held that “There is no problem with a halachic state. We are not talking about individual rights. How will this harm people’s rights? I don’t understand what the problem is. We are talking about a Jewish state. I’m talking about a halachic state and the way that the state is managed. What you do in the confines of your own home is your business, but outside it is a Jewish state.”

Thus, the Zionist community is divided on the issue. The division composes three camps:

  1. Those who maintain that Israel should be a theocracy;
  2. those that feel Israel should separate “synagogue and state”; and
  3. those who seek a balance between halachah and the state.

Certainly, a state run by halachah or even strongly influenced by halachah would greatly curtail the personal freedoms Israelis enjoy today; and as a democracy, one of Israel’s most important values is individual liberty. It is usually held that government should not interfere in the personal lives of its citizens when the survival of the state isn’t affected. In addition, many Israelis object to the idea that adherence to halachah is the metric by which Judaism is measured. To them, culture and custom are just as, if not more important.

Not all Torah-observant Jews want a larger role for halachah in Israeli society. Those who do, however,  often maintain that Israel’s survival and success is dependent on God. To gain God’s favor, the Jewish people must observe the Torah and the mitzvot.

They point to the Shema prayer:

“If you will diligently obey My commandments which I enjoin upon you this day, to love the Lord your God and to serve Him with all your heart and with all your soul, I will give rain for your land at the proper time, the early rain and the late rain, and you will gather in your grain, your wine and your oil. I will give grass in your fields for your cattle, and you will eat and be sated.” (Deuteronomy 11:13-15)

In addition, many Torah-observant Jews do define Judaism as the observance of halachah. Thus, they believe, halachah must play a significant role in a Jewish state.

Former Israeli Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar once argued that a Jewish state isn’t just a state founded for Jews or populated by Jews. It must be a state run according to Jewish traditions, values and law. Sa’ar is secular and does not advocate a halachic state, but he believes that a Jewish state must acknowledge and incorporate halachah to some extent; for example, on such issues as kashrut, Shabbat and education. As education minister, Sa’ar adhered to this principle by including more traditional Jewish texts in the general curriculum.

While the role of Jewish law in the State of Israel will always be a point of contention, there are flashpoints. For example, Tel Aviv just inaugurated its light rail and a debate arose over whether it should run on Shabbat. The current policy is that, just as Jerusalem’s light rail doesn’t run on Shabbat, Tel Aviv’s light rail will not do so either. This has upset many Israelis, especially in a secular city like Tel Aviv.

Without a constitution or detailed legislative code that outlines the role of halachah in Israeli law, there will be no permanent solution to the problem. As each flashpoint comes up, the debate will flare up all over again. In the meantime, all Israelis should ensure that the debate is carried out with respect and civility. All can agree that this is the Jewish way.


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