Tu BiShvat and Status Quo in Israel

31 January 2018
By: Noah Westreich

The first issue we learned about as part of the Froman Fellowship was religious freedom in Israel. The basis for this discussion was the Status Quo Letter, a letter written by David Ben-Gurion addressed to the World Agudat Israel Federation. In the letter, Ben-Gurion outlines the four key religious issues that would remain unchanged to this very day. The four issues make up the acrostic אשכח – I will forget. Alef is for ishiut – personal status issues. Shin stands for Shabbat. Chaf is for kashrut, the Jewish dietary laws, and chet is for chinuch, education.

NIF Froman Fellow Noah Westreich. Reprinted with the permission of Washington Jewish Week.

While analyzing these four categories I became fascinated by the content and how it remains central to any understanding of the religious nature of the State of Israel. The Status Quo letter was written before the UN vote that recognized Israel as a state. Seventy years and many eras after the writing of the letter, religious freedom in Israel is at the behest of the state’s most fervently religious. New legislation and cultural change have befallen the State of Israel since the time of the status quo letter, but it’s apparent to me that Ben-Gurion, himself secular, illustrated parameters for the religious character of the state. That letter appears untouched, a sign of dusty antiquity. Why are personal status issues like marriage and conversion still regulated by ultra-Orthodox Jewish authorities that play no part in the daily lives of most citizens of Israel? Why don’t secular or progressive Jews have a voice?

On Tu Bishvat Jews around the world celebrate the life of trees. Children will plant saplings in terra cotta pots, and people will sing songs and blessings about the beauty and importance of trees to our ecosystem. The Status Quo letter must be cared for as if it were a tree. It’s not enough to plant the seeds of a religious state and walk away for seventy years hoping that it will somehow flower, providing shade and resources for all who sit under it.

The religious character of the State of Israel has been operating as if it were 1947, which is to say, the dynamism of the law has been untouched and neglected, leaving the religious character of Israel beefed up with artificial growth hormones instead of letting the tree spread its branches and expand its roots. This Tu Bishvat, may we recommit ourselves to treating the State of Israel like a tree, strong, tall, and sturdy, but ever in need of care and attention. With such attention, there is enough room for all kinds of Jews to sit under its branches and delight in its fruit.

Eshkach – I will forget. Let’s bring the quest for religious pluralism in the State of Israel to the front of our work so that we will not forget the promise of Israel – what Ben-Gurion wrote as “freedom of conscience for all its citizens. . . we have no intention of establishing a theocratic state.”