Jewish and Democratic – Insights from Israel… and Ya’akov (Ideas #117)

When the architects of the Jewish State emphasized Israel’s dual identity as a Jewish and democratic state, they may not have fully realized the problem they unleashed. Indeed, almost ever since the creation of the State, there has been debate on how it is that Israel can be both Jewish and democratic (really a common misnomer for classical liberalism). This often comes to the fore concerning issues of government enforcement of Jewish law, such as not allowing stores to sell chametz on Pesach: a Jewish state cannot allow such a thing, but a democratic state cannot interfere with the foods that people choose to sell – unless it constitutes a universally accepted danger.  On the ideological extremes, it has been claimed that the very formulation is untenable – that it is like being black and white at the same time. And perhaps there is much truth to this. People can compromise but ideologies cannot – at least not without forfeiting their integrity. So what is to be done?

The truth is that this is not only Israel’s problem. After all, revealed religion was never meant to be an exclusively personal matter. Most religions speak of universal ideals that need to be taught and spread to others. And while some Christian thought shows ambivalence about recruiting the state for these ends, through most of history, it, too, has followed the example of classical Judaism and Islam, which almost never saw this as a difficulty.

As a result, the attempts to artificially privatize religion that date back to the American and French revolutions appear to be failing before our eyes. More and more religious people are demanding the right to influence public policy in line with their religious convictions. In the eloquent words of Yale law professor Stephen Carter, we have every right to “ask why the will of any of the brilliant philosophers of the liberal tradition, or, for that matter, the will of the Supreme Court... is more relevant to [public] moral decisions than the will of G-d. So far, liberal theory has not presented an adequate answer.” (The Culture of Disbelief, p. 226) At the same time, the classic liberal would respond that bringing religious positions into the public square prevents the citizenry from engaging in a shared language of dialogue, which would, in turn, prevent it from being able to function in a coherent fashion.  

As is the case in the Israeli microcosm, then, much of the world also finds itself at an impasse, in which it appears that the success of one approach depends on the obliteration of the other. But although some might think otherwise, such obliteration appears neither likely nor desirable. At the very least, it should be clear that classical liberalism and traditional religion are both going to be around for some time to come.

I don’t pretend to know the answer to this impasse. Since this a relatively old problem and one that has not escaped the attention of some of the world’s greatest minds, it is obviously not something with an easy solution. But it would seem to me that a key would be to try to think in completely new ways. Entrenched ways of thinking often prevent us from seeing solutions that will only seem obvious in retrospect.

Until recently, it was conventional thinking that prevented me from arriving at a possibly illuminating new understanding of our forefather, Ya’akov.

One of the most puzzling aspects of his life is the change of his name – unlike Avraham, Sarah and others, when Ya’akov has his name changed to Yisrael, he doesn’t lose his old name. Instead, the Torah continues to go back and forth using one name and then the other, defying us to find some sort of hidden pattern.

One thing that does seem clear is that the passive, younger Ya’akov showed great resemblance to his father Yitzchak. As he developed into the more activist Yisrael, however, he became more similar to his grandfather, Avraham. Though we would have to work it out in all of the examples, it may be that his two names represent these two personalities. Accordingly, in Jewish tradition, he is seen as the one who brings together the traits of both of his predecessors. Often described as the tempering of Yitzchak’s intensity by Avraham’s kindness, most assume that Ya’akov represents some sort of synthesis of these traits. But from the way we see the names Ya’akov and Yisrael interchanged, the Biblical narrative may be hinting to a different way of looking at things – at how Ya’akov-Yisrael brought together the traits of his father and grandfather. Perhaps the continued use of both names is telling us that he did not become a new man that combined the best of the two previous approaches. Rather, he took on both – fully and simultaneously. In this way he was both Avraham and Yitzchak. That is to say that when Ya’akov received the name Yisrael he did not give up his previous personality but assumed a second one alongside it, even as these two personalities were in conflict with each other.

If correct, this insight could lead us to the conclusion that the Jewish view of legitimate, yet conflicting, ideas may be different than that to which we are accustomed. According to the Ya’akov-Yisrael paradigm, opposites need not blend into a better whole via a dialectical process. Nor is the only alternative the obliteration of one by the other. In the Jewish worldview, opposites can paradoxically and symbiotically coexist such as they are. To give a perhaps deceptively simple illustration, when a man and a woman marry they do not obliterate their identities to form some sort of neutral common existence. Rather, they learn to live together and complement each other, doing so precisely because they retain their differences.  In truth, many such paradoxes exist in Jewish thought.

As far as Israel is concerned, if we cannot authentically be a democratic Jewish state, perhaps we can learn how to be a democratic state and a Jewish state.  I don’t mean to create two different states, but rather to be both – fully and simultaneously. Practically, I am not sure how that would work – paradox is not the stuff of political theory. To be sure, this may even sound non-sensical. At the same time, forging a paradigm shift can only be done by thinking what seems unthinkable.

Whether this way of thinking is the key or not, it appears to be an avenue that deserves further exploration. And even if these explorations don’t lead us to where we need to go, it will, at least, accustom us to think in new directions. And that would not be a bad thing.