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The Question of the Synagogue and the State


First some commercial: If you’re on Facebook and you’re interested in interfaith discussions between Jews and Muslims, which are conducted with a good and respectful attitude, then I encourage you to visit the group “Jihadi Jew.” I can’t emphasize enough how important it is with a respectful dialogue between Jews and Muslims, and how rare it is to find a place offering it. Jihadi Jew does just that. It is created by a Jew, Lee Weissman, and moderated by two Muslims, Heshke (who occasionally comments here, even though I’m not so good at responding lately, sorry Heshke), and Marc.

Please check out the group (You can find it here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/jihadijew/)

I’m not making commercial for it without reason though. There is an ongoing discussion in there on the question of state and “church” (church more being synagogue or mosque in this discussion), and one of the participants asked me for my opinion. I promised an answer earlier, but I have to admit that I’ve simply been pondering on it for some days now, not feeling that I could formulate an answer clearly, which would express my thoughts, without it getting way too long for the thread in there.

So I’ll try to formulate an answer here, BE”H, since it might also interest some of you out there.

First off, my premise for dealing with the world and other human beings is based on two ethical teachings, both being expressed by the Jewish rabbi, Hillel, Z”L, though at least one of them (known in differing forms, by the name of “the Golden Rule”) has been expressed by other spiritual teachers as well.

The first is found in the Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a, being presented as an answer to a man partly wanting to mock him by requesting him to recite the whole Torah while standing on one leg: “What is hateful to you, don’t do to others!” The whole sentence includes “this is the Torah, the rest is commentary, now go and study!”

My approach in context of my expectation to others and my behavior in the meeting with my fellow being is based on this, not to act in a way or demand things, which I in return wouldn’t appreciate from the other person. And this is indeed Torah, as Hillel states, but it is also a very basic wisdom of life, which I believe that all should accept and strive for. True, I’m not perfect and I at times act in a way, which I wouldn’t appreciate very much myself, but not being perfect doesn’t mean that one shouldn’t strive to get better.

The second sentence is found in Pirqei Avot (1:14): “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” He teaches us to take responsibility for ourselves, for if we don’t do it ourselves, then who will? We need to be focused on our own needs, to attempt to improve our lives and our manners. But if we only focus on ourselves, then what are we? We can’t stop with the self, we also have a responsibility to relate to our fellow human beings (don’t do to others what is hateful to you, don’t ignore the needs of others, when you yourselves would hate to have your needs ignored. We are not alone in this world, human is a social being). And we need to act now, in this moment. We don’t know what the next moment will bring.

These are the basic teachings in my relation to the world. I keep them as guiding principles, attempting to follow them in each choice I take. Another teaching of his I also attempt to follow, but which isn’t so crucial for the understanding of my approach to the question of synagogue and state, is “Be among the disciples of Aharon, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving people and drawing them close to Torah!” (Pirqei Avot 1:12).

When I consider the question of synagogue and state, then a number of opportunities come to mind. By now I have lived in two countries who both have official religions, Denmark and Israel, the one Christian (Lutheran) and the other Jewish. The extent of the religious influence is way bigger in Israel than in Denmark, where religion at times are shunned by the population, and where the population are deciding for the religion, more than the religion is deciding for the population, whereas it is the opposite in Israel.

I wonder how it is to live in a country, where the church and the state is totally separated? I don’t know. In Denmark it seems like the religious are beginning to ask for this, at least some of them (when I say “religious,” I’m thinking about the practicing Christian part of the population), though that definitely isn’t consensus yet. The motive behind this wish for separation is a wish to keep the state out of church matters, something that I fully understand, since the state is basically trying to define theological questions. And it isn’t without a sense of irony that it has to be pointed out that the minister for the ministry of the church is a Hindu, who is trying to force the church to accept homosexual marriages. Whether I’m for or against this is not the issue here, personally I don’t care much for church matters, but the motive behind this attempt is clear. The church is a popular church, a church for the people, and since the people isn’t only consisting of practicing Christian heterosexuals, then it should not only be for them. That is the motive, it is not necessarily my thought.

In Israel it’s the opposite. Since Israel is a Jewish state (whatever that means) then it is in the belief of the ministers of religious affairs, that Judaism (rabbinical Judaism) should be the defining norm, relating a range of questions to the matter of Jewish religious law (Halachah). And since the Jews in Israel are citizens in a Jewish state, then they are also (more or less) forced to accept this law. Whereas the church of the people in Denmark is defined (to a certain extent) by the people, then the synagogue of the people in Israel is defining the people.

It has to be said here that non-Jewish citizens are under the authority of whoever is accepted/elected as their representatives. In that matter Muslims are not married according to Jewish religious law, but rather according to Islamic law and practices. The same goes for Christians and so on.

But this mean that if a Jew and a Muslim is falling in love (a Jewish man and a Muslim woman) and want to get married, then they have no opportunity to get married in Israel, unless he converts to Islam or she converts to Judaism, no matter how secular and irreligious they might be. Whether they are spending their Shabbats in front of the television, the nights getting drunk, and they are eating pig for dinner, then they still have to be married either as Muslims or Jews. Of course, they can go to Cyprus and get married there, a marriage which then is accepted by the Jewish state (though not by the religious authorities). And you can forget being a homosexual wanting to be married here.

Let me point it out very clear for everyone: I am a practicing Jew who believes in the Torah. I accept the Oral Tradition and believe that it goes back to Moshe Rabenu, A”S, as well as I believe that we should follow Halachah (we being the Jews). But I also believe in the ethical teachings of R. Hillel, Z”L, and therefore I don’t want to do to others what is hateful for me. I don’t want to force rules or laws on people, which isn’t decided by the general population (there will always be those who disagree no matter the law or decision). Therefore I don’t believe that Halachah should be forced on people who don’t believe in its higher level of spirituality, compared to secular law and our own faulty decisions. Yes, I do believe Halachah to be Divine, and I do believe that the perfect society would be following Halachah, but it would do it from an understanding of the necessity of the Halachah, not because they are forced. And – to be honest – by establishing a Halachic society with Torah as the foundation, we would need a true righteous leader, one who would be the example for the others to follow. And he simply doesn’t exist, his time hasn’t come. And since that is the case, then I can’t support any state as being lead by Halachah, but rather want to encourage each Jew to accept it in his or her life for themselves. Only by acknowledging and accepting it themselves, would it be able to fulfill its Divine purpose in our lives.

That said then I do believe it needed for the societies to offer the opportunity for people of any faith, to live according to that faith, as far as they participate and accept the laws of the country. We have an expression in the Talmud, Dina Malchuta Dina, the law of the land is the law (Bava Kama 113a, Bava Batra 54b-55a et.al. The extent of the principle is discussed among the Rishonim (the medieval rabbis), some stating that it is only related to financial matters, where others state that it is in general where the law doesn’t go against the Torah), at least so far as it doesn’t force people to go against the Torah. For example, should ritual slaughter be prohibited in Denmark, it wouldn’t mean that the Jews in Denmark would have to eat unkosher meat, though it would make it hard for them to find and achieve kosher meat.

So, to conclude, I’m not for a state synagogue. I am for a secular society where there is room for the believers of each faith (or lack) to live and fulfill their religious beliefs.


  1. hamoo911 says:

    wonderful Post, Peter 🙂

  2. qolyehudi says:

    Shukran habibi:o)

    Apparently it just posted it as one long text, sorry. Now it should be in order.

  3. Eli Maimon says:

    Israel received its Law and Constitution at Sinai, where it became a nation. For us, there is no separation between “state” and “synagogue” because although they are different domains, they are both legislated in this Constitution. So Jews do not have such questions as yours.

    In your conclusion, you have a freudian slip: you wrote “leave” instead of (I presume) live!


  4. qolyehudi says:

    Elisheva, Shalom u’Vrachah

    Thanks for your comment:o)

    I was talking about the state of Israel, not the People of Israel.

    It is true that according to Torah Synagogue and State is one, but that furthermore demands the existence of a Sanhedrin to be fulfilled (see various commentaries to TB Sanhedrin and RaMBaM, Z”L, Mishneh Torah). I’m focused on the establishing of a modern state, when we don’t have the needed base for a state based on Torah.

    And yes, I do believe that Jews have such questions as those I pose here. This is actually a rather debated issue here in Israel. And I am a Jew myself, so obvious at least some Jews ponder on this;o).

    And thanks for the correction though it wasn’t a Freudian slip but rather an error of spelling (I’m not a native English speaker, so I do make mistakes occasionally). It is corrected now.

    All the best


  5. Eli Maimon says:

    The questions you pose here, qolyehudi, are not questions Jews pose themselves. We do not need the Sanhedrin to have a Jewish state – all we need are Jews (Haredi as well as secular) who adopt Torah laws in matters of public as well private life.

    Once upon a time, we had to engage in “Bliblical Polemics”. Today we engage in “Interfaith Discussions”. But something important happened that caused this change: we are no longer submitted to foreign rule since we DO have our own independent state. This spares us the need to defend and justify our faith.

    My (solitary but founded) opinion is that we should engage in interfaith discussions for the very reason that Judaism is NOT on a par with any other religion!

  6. Eli Maimon says:

    Last line, please read: “We should NOT engage ininterfaith discussions…”

  7. qolyehudi says:

    Dear Elisheva

    Maybe I don’t get you right. What exactly do you mean when you state that the “questions you pose here, qolyehudi, are not questions Jews pose themselves”? Would you disagree with my claim that there indeed are issues related to this question being discussed in Israel? What about buses on Shabbat? Gay-marriage? Mixed marriage? Gender separation? Kosher restaurants?

    And what do you mean when you write “Jewish state”? Forgive me for seeming focused on details, but there is a difference on the way, e.g., Lieberman, Netanyahu, Perez, and Eli Ishai understands the term, so I need you to define your understanding, so I know whether I agree or disagree with you.

    I do disagree in your last part though. Not that I feel that it is a matter of “defending” our faith, so far as you believe in and accept the Torah as being given by HQB”H, there is no need for defending that. My focus on interfaith dialogue (more than discussion) is not based on polemics though it is one of the subjects I’m studying (but that is purely academic), but rather in order to attempt to fulfill the Mitzwah of being “a Light unto the Nations.”

    And please call me Shmuel:o). Qol Yehudi is merely a name I had to make for my original blog.

    All the best

  8. Elon says:

    I think either an entirely secular state or an entirely religious state runs into problems. THe entirely religious one for the reasons you mentioned.

    But the entirely secular ones have their own failings. Look at France. The leadership there has no conception of religion or loyalty to anything besides France whatsoever. I was talking to a French person, and she was amazed that in the US, assuming both parties agree, you can take a contract or arbitration dispute to your rabbi, imam, or friend Fred down at the Tavern, and that his ruling would have legal standing in American court. A French law system would never agree to that as that would mean that the dispute parties have loyalties to a separate Non-French system. Even if all parties agree to it, they have no right to have ties to anything but France. I think the leadership view headscarves in the same way. To wear one is to show that you have ties to a philosophy outside French secularism, and that is almost high treason. The fact that there are a growing number of French “Citizens” openly practicing Islam is seen as a threat to the order. The problem is that you have people who lived in France for three or four generations, who are not French, because they have steadfastly refused to assimilate. The French government has no way of coping with them, as the elected leaders cannot fathom why someone would not want to be French.

    The US system is a good balance, I think. We do not have any state religion, but we do recognize that individuals might have ties to a faith or belief system, and we try to accommodate them without granting that philosophy legitimacy. You can be American and still have a primary loyalty outside the US. People talk about the American Melting Pot and how it is a threat to culture, but so far as I can tell, the threat is that people willingly give up their culture. We do not force or encourage it.

  9. Peter,
    Two thought- what do you think the torah says about an obligation in the here and now to establish a halachic state in Irael?

    Second – a more personal question: how can we intellectually define our innate desire for Israel to be Jewish if it based on halacha?

  10. Michael Kay says:

    Hey, thanks for this very interesting post! I have to say I have been discussing this question with a couple of friends recently (it is the kind of thing Jews ask themselves, at least those who are attempting to engage in honest open debate about an important subject which they care about), and we came to very similar conclusions. The marriage issue you highlight is a particular problem for me as well.

    I do not think that trying to run a state on purely halakhic lines would be a particularly good thing right now, as you say we have no Sanhedrin. What we are looking at is not the Biblical Land of Israel which can be run as a theocracy, but a modern political entity, regarding which we need to make decisions. It seems to me that in the absence of a Sanhedrin those decisions should be secular.

    However, the problem I still have with separation idea is essentially that which David has raised above, ie: what about Israel makes it a Jewish state rather than a state with a high proportion of Jews (if not some halakhic input)? David’s first question is also interesting, but I can’t imagine it would be easy to draw out any sources which relate specifically to the establishing of a Jewish political entitiy nowadays? Happy to be corrected of course.

    Thanks again!

  11. qolyehudi says:

    Hi everybody:o)

    I deeply appreciate your comments, and I do want to respond to them. I began a longer answer, which will be presented in a new post, but I’m not sure that I can make it before Shabbat. I will try though:o)

    Shabbat Shalom uM’vorach l’chulam

  12. […] post, “The Question of the Synagogue and the State,” lead to an interesting discussion, with some interesting thoughts, thank you all for […]

  13. […] noget tid siden skrev jeg et indlæg på min engelske blog, A Jewish Voice, omkring stat og “synagoge,” hvor jeg argumenterede for hvorfor jeg mener at stat og religion skal være adskilt, uanset […]

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