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Ben Gurion Gives His Own Definition of Who is a Jew; Draws on Psalms

July 3, 1958
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Prime Minister David Ben Gurion drew on Jewish Scripture today to give his definition of a Jew in the current Cabinet crisis over official state identification of Jewish status for citizenship.

The Prime Minister’s definition, citing the fifteenth Psalm, was given in a letter to Rabbi Judah L. Maimon, first Minister of Religions in Israel, who had sent a communication to the Prime Minister in behalf of the decision of the United Religious party to quit the coalition on the issue.

(Psalm 15 defines as he “who shall sojourn” in the Tabernacle of the Lord, the individual who is righteous, speaks the truth, does not slander or do other evil to his fellow, does not reproach his neighbor, despises a vile person, fears the Lord, testifies truthfully even if it hurts him to do so, does not loan money for interest or take a bribe against the innocent.)

Asserting that Psalm 15 “is the essence of Jewishness, “the Prime Minister asked: “Why should he that observe the Sabbath and Kashruth be considered a Jew but he who lives according to the Psalmist definition not be considered a Jew?” The Prime Minister added in his letter that Israel’s Declaration of Independence defined Israel as a country ruled by law and not by the laws of Halacha, the Jewish legal tradition.

Extracts from Mr. Ben Gurion’s lengthy letter to Rabbi Maimon, released late this afternoon, revealed that the government does not intend to legislate on religious matters. “The government decision,” the Premier wrote, “is not binding on rabbis in matters of marriage and divorce.”

While the proclamation of Israel’s independence declared freedom of religion and conscience to be among the basic principles of the State of Israel, Mr. Ben Gurion continued, it did not say that the Jewish State should be governed by religious law, but on the contrary that the state should not be theocratic in nature.


“It is a fact,” Mr. Ben Gurion wrote, “perhaps a bitter fact that in matters of religion and religious law there is no unity among the Jewish people and in America there are Orthodox, Conservative, Liberal and Reform rabbis. There are many Jews who belong to neither one or the other, but are in my opinion Jews as long as they do not become converted to another religion.”

The letter concluded by stating that many persons believe that they belong to the Jewish people although they do not observe Jewish law. As long as he remains in the government, Mr. Ben Gurion pledged, he would endeavor to prevent strife over religion. “I see danger in a war against religion and in a war for religion,” he warned.

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