National Union Chairman Bezalel Smotrich is a hard-right ideologue who advocates West Bank annexation, and views Jewish particularism in its most narrow, segregationist, and exclusionary manner.
His outlook was considered toxic enough for Hadassah Frohman — who together with her late husband Menachem, lived in Tekoa in the West Bank, and worked toward bringing Jews and Palestinians together — to describe him as pulling “the ground out from under our very existence in this land” adding that “your words lead our entire national religious community to the brink of a chasm that undermines and threatens our very existence.”
A liberal, egalitarian, and Western-oriented progressive politician, Smotrich is clearly not. But while arousing ire (and anachronistically referring to the time of King David), his desire for the Justice portfolio “because we want to restore the Torah justice system” actually echoes debates on parts of the liberal side of the Orthodox world, who believe that many areas of the public sphere shouldn’t be the realm of the secular and political, but rather the religious and the Jewish.
Ever-eager to score points against Netanyahu — who aimed to co-opt Smotrich into his governing coalition, and who was rumored to have made significant compromises to ultra-Orthodox parties — the secular parties jumped on the ill-judged comments by Smotrich. Meretz leader Tamar Zandberg said his remarks had “removed the mask” and uncovered his “insane vision,” which she compared to a theocracy in the vein of the The Handmaid’s Tale. And indeed, for many secular Israelis, a so-called “Halachic state” conjures up the worst pre-modern elements of life as seen in Saudi Arabia or Iran.
But this is not the only way to understand the concept.
Before the State of Israel was established, one of the great Jewish theologians of the 20th century, Eliezer Berkovits, argued that the return of sovereignty would allow the Torah to “move from the private congregational domain to which Galut [exile] had limited it, into the public domain of a nation,” adding that “Halacha should concern itself with questions of social justice, of economic honesty and fairness, with problems of labor relations and of the work ethos, with the social gap, with ethics and morality in public life, even with such matters as traffic laws in cities and on the highways.”
Writing in 1952 in a similar vein, Hebrew University professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz described how Jewish law in exile had developed in a greenhouse — untethered to reality — and that, “Religious thinking must make the transition from the fantasy of a hypothetical ideal state to the realities of the state of Israel.”
More recently, David Hartman wrote that “Jews are given the opportunity to bring economic, social and political issues into the centre of religious consciousness. The moral quality of the army, social and economic disparities and deprivations, the exercise of power moderation by moral sensibilities, attitudes towards minorities and the stranger, tolerance and freedom of conscience … all these are realms that may engage halachic responsibility.”
I’m unsure whom of Smotrich or Leibowitz — who was an early advocate of Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank — would be more distraught at being connected with one another. And the liberal Hartman would likely turn over in his grave to be identified with the National Union. Yet in some way, the response to Smotrich’s comments across the political spectrum reflects a pact between many in the Israeli secular and religious fundamentalist publics.
A state in which Jewish law and values play a larger role doesn’t need to be a hybrid between the Taliban and the totalitarian world of dystopian dramas. As per the Genesis creation story, such a state could prioritize human dignity and treat every individual as created in the Divine image; basing itself on (literally) dozens of verses in the Torah, it would embrace the stranger and weaker members of society, and protect them from discrimination. And it could legislate fairer conditions and pay for workers.
After all, it’s not as if the current approach to the economic, social, and political issues plaguing the State of Israel has resolved all our issues.