Scholars, Jurists Probe Relations Between the State and Religion
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Scholars, Jurists Probe Relations Between the State and Religion

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The delicate issue of relations between the State and religion and the balance between individual rights and the public’s right to an orderly society were probed by scholars and jurists at the 13th annual American-Israel Dialogue at the Jerusalem-Hilton Hotel last week. The dialogue, conducted by the Van Leer Institute, brought together about 35 academicians, rabbis, lawyers, judges and communal leaders from the U.S. and Israel.

Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, president of the American Jewish Congress, introduced the theme of the 1977 dialogue–the rights of the individual under American, Israeli and halachic law. He said that “While complete separation of State and synagogue would deny the very basis of the Jewish State, it is equally true that any fusion of religious and civil authority would mutilate Israel’s modern character.”

Hertzberg, a Conservative rabbi of Englewood, N.J., said “There are no more absolutes whether in the relationship between the government and the rabbinate, the competition between economic lassez faire and the welfare state or the tension between liberty and license.” He said that “In Israel, what the low must seek is a balance between the obligatory character of halacha and the libertarian nature of the modern state.”

An Orthodox rabbi and Talmudic scholar, Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, objected that “The very formulation of the dialogue is non-halachic, perhaps even anti-halachic in character.” He claimed that “rights, natural or other, are the legacy of Locke, John Stuart Mill and Martin Luther King, Jr. They are not the “lingua franca’ of the Torah, the Talmud.”


Justice Haim Cohn of Israel’s Supreme Court said at another session that “Israeli law has failed to achieve on equitable balance” between individual rights and public order. He referred specifically to the area of labor law where, he claimed “the right of the individual has become and remained well high absolute. “He said that “The right to strike, traditionally regarded here by many as the most fundamental human right, has been allowed time and again to paralyze public services, jeopardize vital state interests and oust any conflicting rights of the community at large or of the individuals effected.”

According to Cohn, none of the remedies provided under Israeli law has proved effective enough to compete with the “inviolable, immaculate, primordial right to strike”. He suggested that perhaps “we were all too optimistic when we assumed that promoting and safeguarding individual rights was a ‘sine quo non’ in upholding the State”.

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