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Israel Studies 4.2 (1999) 64-89

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Judaism in Israel: Ben-Gurion's Private Beliefs and Public Policy

Zvi Zameret



Today, more than ever, the "religious" tend to relegate Judaism to observing dietary laws and preserving the Sabbath. This is considered religious reform. I prefer the Fifteenth Psalm, lovely are the psalms of Israel.

The Shulchan Aruch1 is a product of our nation's life in the Exile. It was produced in the Exile, in conditions of Exile. A nation in the process of fulfilling its every task, physically and spiritually . . . must compose a "New Shulchan"--and our nation's intellectuals are required, in my opinion, to fulfill their responsibility in this.

--(David Ben-Gurion, letter to the writer Eliezer Steinman, 12 June 1962)

Despite the determined effort of numerous scholars to understand Ben-Gurion through research into his thinking and achievements, an enigma still clouds his personality and views on a number of issues. Many questions that continue to perplex scholars pertain to his decisions on religion and state in Israel and the nature of the relations he hoped to establish between secular and religious Jewry. Surprisingly, although these issues still rank among the most burning and divisive subjects in our lives, only a handful of studies have been published on them. 2 I intend to place these questions in a new light by underlining the roots of the tension between Ben-Gurion and the Orthodox-religious and radical-secular communities.

I will try to show that an enormous gap existed between Ben-Gurion the political leader, the initiator of cohabitation with the religious parties, and Ben-Gurion the man, who held radically anti-Halakha (Jewish Religious Law) views. The first Ben-Gurion is the more familiar one who insisted on yielding to the religious parties' ideological positions on numerous issues. Thus, it was the first Ben-Gurion who decided that a secular [End Page 64] constitution would not be brought to a vote, and, more than anyone else, it was this Ben-Gurion who influenced the passage of laws favorable to the Orthodox-religious community. The rabbinical courts were granted authority in marriage and divorce laws (only weddings performed through the rabbinate were to be recognized); labor laws (Sabbath and holidays were to be official days of rest); education laws (whereby the state acknowledged separate "trends" in religious education); laws forbidding public transportation on Sabbath, etc. A second Ben-Gurion, more reclusive, can be discerned, however, in recently opened archives and oral accounts. I will attempt to convey the second Ben-Gurion's private views on religion and religiosity, illustrate his personal behavior in these areas, and outline his overall goals.

The main purpose of my study, though, is to uncover the conflicting tensions exerted on Ben-Gurion, the utopian visionary, and on Ben-Gurion the pragmatic political leader who was growing aware of the impossibility of realizing many of his dreams in his lifetime. The first Ben-Gurion believed that modernity had sealed the fate of religion and religiosity, that both were on the decline and disappearing from the world. The second Ben-Gurion was aware that nothing would be more dangerous and self-destructive to the Jewish people than the outbreak of a full-scale cultural war between secular and religious segments of the population.

Ben-Gurion, the dry-eyed, no-nonsense national leader was absolutely convinced that, if the goal of absorbing multifarious strands of a globally dispersed nation were to succeed, then arguments over religious questions and disputes with the religious Orthodoxy should be postponed for future generations.

Supremacy Of The Traditional Commandments

Ben-Gurion refused to define himself as "secular," and he regarded himself a believer in God. During an interview with the Leftist weekly Hotam two years before his death, he revealed, "I too have a deep faith in the Almighty. I believe in one God, the omnipotent Creator. My consciousness is aware of the existence of material and spirit . . . [But] I cannot understand how order reigns in nature, in the world and universe--unless...