At the Religion and State seminar held in Jerusalem on November 18, Career Israel participants were met with a series of stimulating and thought-provoking speakers which left everyone pondering questions of Jewish identity and what it means to have a Jewish state. The day was set up in a way that made sure all sides were represented, but also so that no viewpoint on the spectrum of religion and state went unchallenged. Based on the heartfelt and thoughtful discussions that ended the program and continued on into the evening thereafter, it was clear that the seminar was successful both in providing answers and raising new questions in the minds of all who were present.
The seminar began with an introduction by Josh Weinberg, a reserve officer in the IDF spokesperson’s unit and educator and guide for the Reform movement in Israel. This introductory lecture, though intended to be an impartial representation of the issues at hand, already brought up the first stirrings of debate and revealed the complexities behind the question of whether Israel can simultaneously exist as both a Jewish state and as a secular democratic institution.
The day progressed with a lecture by Dr. Dov Maimon, a professor of public policy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv University, and a member of Israel’s Haredi, or ultra-orthodox community. Dr. Maimon gave a passionate representation of one far end of the spectrum of the religion-and-state debate; the Haredi perspective that religion, specifically traditional Judaism, should play a central role in the governance of daily life in Israel. Dr. Maimon was met with question after question, both in agreement and dissent, regarding this stance and created quite a stir that left everyone questioning if the existence of such a religious and democratic state was possible.
The final speaker of the day, Anat Hoffman, brought the seminar back to the opposite end of the spectrum with an equally engaging and controversial stance. Hoffman is a founding member of Women of the Wall, an activist group which fights for equal religious rights for women, and is the Executive Director of the Israel Religious Action Center, an organization which promotes Jewish pluralism, tolerance, and equality. Hoffman argued not that religion does not have a place in state affairs, but that it should not influence them in such a way that it causes unequal policy towards any particular group. Her passionate mission was reflected in her repeated entreaty to the audience to “raise hell” and fight for women to be able to practice Judaism freely and publicly at the Western Wall the way men are permitted.
After a day of such fervent debate and the raising of such a complex web of questions, it’s a wonder that no one’s head was spinning upon leaving the seminar. However, no matter the perspectives taken up during the day or what previous conclusions were dismantled, all participants were engaged and benefitted from an important debate regarding Israel and Jewish identity. After all, this is a central question which affects us all and for many was the reason for coming to Israel in the first place. It is rare that we are presented point-blank with an opportunity to spend the day wrestling with our identities together, and this, if nothing else, was the uniting factor of the day.