The Barrier of Faith

Educated at Baylor University, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Princeton Theological Seminary, DWIGHT L. BAKER has been in charge of the Baptist activities in Nazareth for more than a decade, serving as principal of the Baptist schools, as pastor of the Baptist Church, and for the past six years as executive secretary of the Baptist Convention in Israel.

LIKE the ancient Athenians, Israelis are usually ready to hear a fresh point of view on religion from any source. They may show little sympathy, but every comer has his chance to be heard, and be taken apart. Their willingness to hear all sides was demonstrated during the visit of evangelist Billy Graham. Large audiences, with a liberal representation of Jewish listeners, filled the churches as the famous preacher spoke in each of Israel’s principal cities. They had come to hear a man who, they knew, would invite his audience to a personal acquaintance with a faith held by less than one twentieth of Israel’s population.

But being interested in religion in Israel is a far cry from being religious. Just the opposite is true. Because of the obscurantism of the religious leaders and their preoccupation with politics on the local and national scene, religion has lost the respect of large numbers of Israelis. Very often a certain belligerence is exhibited in order to express dissatisfaction with that which passes for religion in Israel today.

Much of the trouble stems from the lack of civil courts to deal with matters of personal status, such as marriage, divorce, burial, and certain inheritance problems. In the absence of such courts, each recognized community (millet) has established its own system of religious courts. There are the rabbinical courts to deal with the massive demands of an immigrant population. Muslim courts apply the Sharia law, under whose jurisdiction the only legal mixed marriage in the state can be sanctioned. Sharia law allows a Muslim to marry either a Jewish or Christian wife, and the wife may retain her former religion. Muslim women do not enjoy similar privileges. In addition to these courts, the various recognized Christian communities have their separate ecclesiastical courts and follow their own prescribed set of laws, with little thought being given to intercommunity uniformity.

The system has an even greater weakness. It makes no provisions for the personal-status affairs of the freethinkers, agnostics, or even members of the unrecognized denominations, including Israel’s Protestants. In order to get married, an unbelieving individual of Jewish, Muslim, or Christian background, as well as a member of the unrecognized faiths, must of necessity violate his conscience and say his vows before a rabbi, priest, or cadi in whose religion he does not believe. While a Protestant couple may be married in their church by their pastor, the marriage has no legal status and may be invalidated if contested. It is absolutely impossible for Protestants to get a divorce in Israel.

The existence of religious courts and the absence of civil courts are in themselves a violation of the principle of equal rights and personal freedom. When there exists such a situation, the late Haim Greenberg maintained, “the State assumes the character of a ‘tripartite theocracy.'”

The seriousness of the problems arising from the use of coercive legislation in the area of faith and conscience cannot be overestimated, and it is in this area that many are expressing resentment. I conducted a survey in the course of which religious leaders of the major faiths were polled. The majority registered their belief that serious harm was inflicted on any individual who was coerced in matters of faith and conscience. Any spiritual benefit derived was considered as nil; on the other hand, such coercion made him no more than a part of a machine or a cell of the social organism and robbed him of a wholeness or an entity which was his rightful small universe.

A man may leave his church, his mosque, his synagogue; he may forsake his community or renounce his nationality and become the citizen of another state and still retain his selfhood. In so doing he may either ruin his life or redeem it, depending on the circumstances, but in a bona fide democratic society, he must be free to take the plunge. If a citizen eats pork or travels to the beach on the Sabbath, or if he chooses to observe all the dietary laws and relaxes at home on the Sabbath, the state is invading the sacred domain of conscience in enacting legislation, except to protect him in the free exercise of these rights.

Because of the growing estrangement between the rabbis and the people, the professional religionist is turning more and more to the political arena, where he seeks to legislate coercive religious measures in order to retain a rapidly waning influence within the community. His religious activities in the congregation are confined to matters of ritual. Thus, the Israeli is confronted with religious leadership concerned largely with ritual and the struggle for political power within the framework of the nation’s four religious parties. The result has produced not only spiritual malnutrition but a religious leadership that is out of contact with present-day realities.

The same criticism may be applied just as appropriately to Christian and Muslim religious leadership. Centuries of cultural and spiritual drought have reduced the Arab villagers to such insensitivity that they are scarcely aware of their great needs. Muslim religious leadership in this area is almost nonexistent, while Christian efforts of a permanent nature are pitifully inadequate.

Much of the dilemma can be explained from history. The prophet Mohammed, desiring to provide a tolerant way of life for his non-Muslim subjects, Jews and Christians, conferred upon them the status of dhimmi, or protected peoples. These subjugated minorities plowed his fields and paid enormous taxes into the treasury, but remained segregated from the mainstream of life.

The system was too successful to be discarded; consequently, the Ottoman Turks adapted the prevailing administrative machinery to their needs and further perfected the Prophet’s system. As it developed, Muslim Sharia law applied only to the Muslims, and the Christians and Jews were allowed to arrange their own internal affairs. The religious courts of the various communities had jurisdiction over all matters pertaining to personal status. Unwilling to alter existing practices, the British adopted the system, allowing only minor changes during the period of their mandate.

At a cursory view, it may seem incredible that the new Jewish state would also elect to conform to medieval Middle Eastern norms, but this it did, and for the following reasons.

One explanation, oversimplified and difficult to substantiate, is that the community system in Israel today is the natural result of the meeting and merger of the ghetto with the millet. In both, high communal walls exist that cannot easily be scaled in either direction.

Others maintain that the adoption of the millet system was the result of political expediency during the first few months of statehood. The founding fathers were in desperate need of a majority to form the first coalition, and rather than risk a compromise with Mapam, also socialist, they invited the religious bloc to join them, and the close tie that resulted has been maintained.

The real reason for the tenacious grip of the millet system upon Israel is the powerful support it receives from the religious leaders of all faiths - Jewish, Muslim, and Christian. They are convinced that only within the high protective walls of such a system is their existence secure. The preservation of the communal wall is life itself, and they interpret their mission largely in terms of patching and mending its cracks, to the exclusion of a pastoral concern for the individual and his spiritual welfare within the walls.

In the attempt to accomplish the almost impossible with an immigrant population, the planners of the state have concentrated their efforts on creating national unity. When it is considered that nearly every nation of the world is represented, with a Babel of languages and a nightmare of cultures, the effort has been heroic. Yet, while the existence of the minority communities, with their distinct religio-ethnic emphasis, is encouraged, it will be virtually impossible to weld the state into the national unity that is so desirable. Instead of a united people emerging within the framework of democratic statehood, the result will continue to be an unwieldy collection of “states” within a state.

Sentiment favorable to the dissolution of the millet system may be expected to come not from religious or political echelons of leadership but from the young intelligentsia who favor the secular interpretation of government. They understand the secular state ideal in terms expressed by Muhammed Assed Bey, former Minister of Justice in Turkey: “A secular state means neither irreligiousness or religiousness. It means that religion has nothing to do with the affairs of the state. Religion becomes a matter of personal conscience.”

Theodor Herzl, the father of modern Zionism, chose to state it in other terms, but with equal force: “We shall let every man find salvation . . . in his own particular way. Above and before all we shall make room for the immortal band of our freethinkers, who are constantly making new conquests for humanity. No more force will be exercised on anyone than is necessary for the preservation of the state and order. . . .” After singularly honoring religious leaders for their “valuable function,” Herzl cautions, “but they must not interfere in the administration of the state which confers distinction upon them, else they will conjure up difficulties within and without.” Prophetic words such as these need a rehearing today.

Few national problems facing this young state have their first steps toward solution so clearly defined as has the religious problem. Immediate attention needs to be given to the establishment of a dual system of courts, civil and religious, to serve those of the secular as well as the religious approach. The majority of citizens would no doubt continue to apply to the religious courts on matters pertaining to personal status. Others, including those of the nonrecognized communities, the nonreligious, and those of mixed religions or nationalities, would have the option of applying to civil courts for marriage certificates, burial permits, divorces, and for the settlement of certain inheritance problems. In the survey mentioned earlier, the majority of those polled indicated a decided preference for the dual system of courts, and asserted that such an approach would be an important first step toward granting full civil rights to the state’s minority citizens as well as to its own nonconformists.

The reformation will come most successfully through a rededication to the principles of Herzl and a determined resolve to ensure the nation against further theocratic encroachments. It will come through a mandate from the citizens of the state, who are committed to the democratic ideal of statehood in which there is a free synagogue, free church, and free mosque within a free state.

The religious leaders of all faiths would be freed to return to their pulpits and to their congregations to perform the spiritual ministry which is so desperately needed. From renewed spiritual responsibility would emerge religious respectability. A rabbinate, clergy, and Muslim leadership engaged in lifting the moral and spiritual life of their people would soon become recognized as a band of indispensable and highly revered servants of God and man.


In the preparation of this issue, we were fortunate to have the editorial advice of James S. Plaut, who has been a consultant on industrial design to the state of Israel for the past five years.

We are grateful for the on-the-spot assistance of Daniel M. Krauskopf, Executive Secretary of the U.S. Educational Foundation in Israel; T. Carmi; and Aharon Megged, who helped us in our literary selections.

Thanks are extended to the following for their help: Theodore Kollek, Director General of the Prime Minister’s Office; Ehud Avriel, Ministry of Foreign Affairs; Yakov Aviad, Director of Press Relations, Consulate General of Israel in New York; Mrs. Anne Anshin, Executive Director of Zionist House in Boston, Massachusetts; Sam E. Bloch, Director of Publications for the American Section of the Jewish Agency in New York; and the Israel Government Tourist Corporation for permission to reproduce Jean David’s painting on page 83.

We should like to credit David Rubinger for his photographs for plates 4, 5, 6, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 16, 17, 19, 20, 21; Jack Lessinger for his photograph for plate 15; Mandello for plate 22; Soichi Sunami for plate 7; and I. Zafrir for plates 8 and 18.