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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.

Comparative study on the law schools and overall structure of Islam and Judaism – Defining the Schisms



Considering finding the comparison of the evolution of the Jewish maḍhab, I think there are some things that need to be in place, before we can begin the comparison. First off, one of the reasons the various maḍâhib appeared was the internal split as well as the geographical distance between the centers. People became more focused on their local center than on the overall center. When do we see the same in Judaism? Another thing which needs to be in place, is the acknowledgment of the same basic sources. When talking about Islam the split in the legal sources is the Sunnah and the Imams, where the Shi’as don’t acknowledge the Sunni compilations of Hadith, so the Sunnis don’t acknowledge the Shi’a ditto as well as the status of the Imams. Within the Sunni maḍâhib the basic sources where agreed upon, as they were, I believe, in the case of the Shi’a maḍâhib.

So we have two levels of comparison here. One is in the schism of disagreement on basic sources, that is, the sources considered holy and thus basic for further understanding of Allah’s will, the other the schisms within the major movements, where it is a question more about different principles in the interpretation of these sources, than the sources themselves.

When I think of examples on the first schism in Judaism, I find many and from various periods of time. During the Biblical times the obvious example is that of the Samarians and the Judeans. During the time of the Second Temple there are the schisms between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, the Essenes and the other Jewish groups (in regards to the status of the Temple as well as the priesthood of the Essenes), and later on between the Rabbinic Jews and the Karaites. Today we might even talk about the schism between the Orthodox on the one hand and the Reform on the other (with the Conservative movement somewhere in between). What is worthwhile to notice here is that we are talking about schisms, which emphasis the struggle on who are the right ones to define what “true Judaism” is, that is, where do we put the limits. That is also the case in the Islamic schism between the Sunnis and the Shi’as. Of course, which I dare say is obvious, it doesn’t mean that the two parts in each schism, whether Jewish or Muslim, denies the other side’s right to leave an imprint on the religion, as well as the case can be that sometimes the one part denies the other side’s right, while the other side acknowledge the right of the first side.

The schisms which I believe cannot be placed within this category of schisms, let’s call it the Schism of Who is Right, are those of the Ashkenazim and Sfaradim, and that of the Talmuds Yerushalmi and Bavli, simply because we have two sides, in both cases, agreeing on the basic sources.

This leaves me though with maybe even more work. First off, which groups should I focus on? It is clear that I need to decide on whether I focus on the Rabbinical Jews, the Sadducees, the Reform, the Sunni, or the Shi’as, for the sake of focus. Second off, I also need to establish whether we can find examples on the maḍâhib in all cases. Maybe I find it among the, let’s say, Karaites, but it doesn’t mean that it exists in the case of the Sadducees. I need to define my approach, my focus, and be able to explain why I chose that focus.


Some recommended reading:


“Studies in Usul al-Fiqh,” Iyad Hilal, can be found at www.islamic-truth.fsnet.co.uk

“Principles of Islamic Jurisprudence,” M. H. Kamali, can easily be found by search on Google.

“Hadith : Muhammad’s Legacy in the Medieval and Modern World,” Jonathan A. C. Brown. Oneworld Publication, 2009.

“The Most Learned of the Shi’a: The Institution of the Marja’ Taqlid,” edited by Linda S. Walbridge. Oxford University Press, 2001.

“Introduction to Islamic Theology and Law,” Ignaz Goldziher (translated by Andras and Ruth Hamori). Princeton University Press, 1981.

“Halakha in the Making: The Development of Jewish Law from Qumran to the Rabbis,” Aharon Shemesh. University of California Press, 2009.

“The Talmud: A Selection,” Edited by Norman Solomon. Penguin Books Ltd, 2009.

“Who Owns Judaism? Public Religion and Private Faith in America and Israel,” edited by Eli Lederhendler. Oxford University Press, 2001.

“For the Love of God and People: A Philosophy on Jewish Law,” Elliot N. Dorff. The Jewish Publication Society, 2007.

“An Introduction to the History and Sources of Jewish Law,” edited by N. S. Hecht, B. S. Jackson, S. M. Passamaneck, D. Piatelli, and A. M. Rabello. Oxford University Press, 1996.

“The Sages,” R. Ephraim Urbach. The Magnes Press, 1987.

“The Halakhah: Its Sources and Development,” R. Ephraim Urbach. Modan Ltd, 1996.

Pirqei Avot 1:4 – “This is my inspiration!”


Yose ben Yo’ezer of Zereda and Yose ben Yohanan of Jerusalem received from them. Yose ben Yo’ezer of Zereda used to say: “Let your house be a meeting place for Sages; sit in the dust at their feet, and with thirst, drink in their words.”

 Some thoughts:

Yose ben Yo’ezer’s, Z”L, advice seems to be a very relevant advice for our days. Today it is not the wise, those we can learn valuable lessons from, people who know what they are talking about, people who have deep insights in life, we invite in, or even relate to. Today it is X-Factor, Paradise Hotel, people who are famous just for being famous, people who get known from getting drunk, Jersey Shore, more or less opportunistic (and sometimes even corrupt) politicians, and other people the like, who are getting our attention.

I often wonder what can be learned from a pop-actress, who are promoting herself as being drunk all the time or suffering from hangovers after being drunk. Or from two girls travelling around the country, getting by more on looking good than knowing what to do in life.

When these examples are what makes people known and attracted, and this is what people – especially the young among us – want to make the example for their lives, then I believe that we are far from an ethical society, where the knowledge and insights in law and the reasons behind laws, is a guiding principle. As Yose ben Yo’ezer says it, we should focus on the Sages of our times, not on the drunkards.

Who are introduced here?

Yose ben Yo’ezer  from Zereda was the one half of the first Zug (pair), having the title of “Nasi.” He lived in the period of the Hasmonean revolt against the Seleucid ruler[1] and was a staunch opponent against Hellenism, so much that he declared all other lands for being unclean, in order for Jews not to settle outside Eretz Yisrael[2], as well as being a member of the Hasidean party. He was a Kohen, and known as “The Hasid of the Kohanim.”

He is mentioned various places, both as taking part in halachic discussions[3], as part of a controversy with his nephew, Alchimus[4], and in an account telling about him that he gave all his property to the Temple, since he believed that his son wasn’t worthy of inheriting him[5]

Yose ben Yohanan of Jerusalem was the other half of the first Zug, taking the position as the Av Beyt Din. As well as was the case with Yose ben Yo’ezer, Yose ben Yohanan was also a member of the Hasidean party, but still had disagreements with Yose ben Yo’ezer, who was considered more liberal, on some questions, which in the end created two different schools of opinions.

New Terms:

Av Beyt Din: The vice leader of the Sanhedrin, the highest religious court, was called Av Beyt Din (אב בית דין), “Father of the religious court,” and constituted the one half of the sitting “zug,” during the period of Zugot.

Eretz Yisrael (E”Y): The Land of Israel is in Hebrew called Eretz Yisrael (ארץ ישראל), and constitutes more of a religious definition than a political definition, since certain specific rules apply to E”Y, even in our days. It is not to be confused with the modern state of Israel, which in Hebrew is called Medinat Yisrael, the State of Israel.

Halachah: Jewish Jurisprudence is in Hebrew called Halachah (הלכה), from the root heh, lamed, khaf, halach – “to walk” – which means to hint that “this is the path in which the Jew should walk.”

Hasidean: From the root “hesed,” the Hasidean (or in Hebrew, Hassidim) formed a religious party, who took part in the revolt against the Seleucid ruler in the second century BCE. They are believed to have been very strict in their religious observance, and were strongly opposed to Hellenism.

Hasmonean: The Hasmoneans were the rulers of Judea, from the liberation from the Seleucid to the Romans conquest of Judea. It succeeded to keep independence in 103 years, from ca. 140 BCE until ca. 37 BCE, where the rule were taken from them by Herod the great, who founded the Herodian dynasty.

Hellenism: Hellenism was the dominant cultural system in the classical periods Middle East, being a mix of Greek and Oriental culture. It was the result of Alexander the Great’s dream of a united (known) world.

Nasi: The leader of the Sanhedrin was called Nasi (נשיא), “Prince.” Together with the Av Beyt Din, he constituted the highest Halachic authority in Israel. Later on the term has been used about the leader of the Jews, when there was one who was deemed significant and influential enough to be called leader. Today the term is used for the president of Israel.

Zug: The Hebrew term for “pair,” zug (זוג), was used for the sitting “pair,” who governed the Sanhedrin, in the period of “Zugot” (זוגות), which is a term used in describing a period in the history of Halachah, which covers the time of the Second Temple, from ca. 515 BCE until ca. 70 CE.

[1] As described in the two books of Maccabean.

[2] Talmud Bavli, Shabbat 46a.

[3] With his colleague, in the Mishnah, Eduyot 8:4, and Talmud Bavli, Pessahim 15a.

[4] Bereshit Rabba 1:65.

[5] Talmud Bavli, Bava Batra 133b.