Can a nation be both democratic and religious? Not religious in the sense that most of its population believes in a higher power, but in the sense that its laws are based on religious edicts. To most Westerners, the very notion is today anathema to modern democracy. They view countries like the Islamic Republic of Iran as entirely backwards for enforcing as a matter of civil law the doctrines and values espoused by Islam’s holy book.
On the one hand you have the Muslim world, where Sharia Law dominates and the nations were it is practiced remain definitively Muslim in character. But true democracy and personal freedom are elusive.
On the other hand you have the Christian world, where democracy and personal freedom have today become even more hallowed than the Word of God. These nations are readily described as “free,” but their character can no longer be defined as “Christian,” nor would the majority of their populations wish to do so.
Israel is situated somewhere in the middle, and this is the source of great internal tension.
Does Israel need to remain unique as a “Jewish” state, and what does that even mean?
What’s more important in the operation and running of the state, democracy or Judaism?
What’s more sacred to the character of the nation?
What’s more biblical?
Most Israeli Jews, including a great many “secular” among them, would agree that maintaining 3,000 years of Bible-based traditions and values, and having those reflected in national life, is an important endeavor. But is that possible in a state that’s first and foremost democratic?
This is the test for Israel. Will it remain, as a nation, a standard-bearer of biblical faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob? Can it do so while giving such prominence to liberalism and democracy? Or does this put Israel on a path to becoming a nation like any other, a purely democratic affair that’s no longer a “Jewish state” but rather a state where Jews find asylum?
And what of the Bible? When we look to Scripture, the leaders deemed most worthy of esteem are not those who gave the people freedom to do as they pleased. No, we admire the kings who without remorse tore down the pagan altars and punished those who violated the nation’s divinely-given laws.
Going back even earlier than the biblical kings, we find that the longest stint for the people of Israel in the Land of Israel was when they had no government at all, the era of the judges. Perhaps Israel’s divine mandate isn’t compatible with man-made forms of governance.
And what of prophecy? When Messiah comes, he’s not coming as a candidate in the next national election. He’s coming to rule, with an iron fist. And not a one of us is going to have any say as whether or not we consent to him taking up the throne in Jerusalem. Democracy will be over and done.
To what extent should the State of Israel already foreshadow that Messianic kingdom? Is it merely a placeholder in the Land, or is it a forerunner of what’s to come, tasked with paving the way? And which stream of Judaism is best suited to managing that task, who has the “monopoly on God”?
These questions and more can’t possibly be answered in the articles to come. Scholars and sages have been pondering them for millennia. But we do hope to introduce to our readers the fascinating and unique complexity that is Israel, and to get you thinking more deeply about how God is working through His Chosen People.
To that end we will be publishing over the next month or so a series of feature articles for our Israel Today Members dealing with the issue of religion and state in the Jewish State. The first of those articles is available now and addresses the Messianic Jewish view on this topic. Go check it out: Judaism vs. Secularism: Is There a Place for Both in a Jewish State?
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