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'Religion Is Not Just One Choice Among Many'

8:52 AM, Jul 8, 2013 • By DANIEL HALPER
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Yuval Levin, writing for Mosaic

Moshe Koppel has written a brilliant critique of Israel’s approach to the relationship between religious communities and the government, and in the process has offered a profound meditation on the meaning of community in modern life. In a concise and learned way, he has opened up a crucial question to which many Israelis assume the wrong answer is the only answer. At the same time, he has shown an admirable appreciation for the limits of the Israeli polity. In short, he has accomplished the rare feat of writing an essay that is simultaneously practical and deep, ambitious and modest.

I worry, however, that his framing of the argument risks undermining its goal. Simply put, Koppel advocates the empowerment and independence of religious communities on the basis of their being communities, rather than on the basis of their being religious. In so doing, he puts himself at odds both with the Anglo-American tradition of religious toleration and with the Israeli tradition of social-democratic statism. By drawing upon a libertarian strain in Anglo-American political thought that emphasizes too simple a notion of choice, he denies himself recourse to arguments that might better appeal to his fellow Israelis.

Koppel begins by describing as “outlandish” the common view that the Jewish state should be deeply involved in the institutions and practices of its people’s Judaism. This view, he says, grounded as it is in the statism that has always defined Israel’s self-understanding, commits the fundamental error of “conflating peoplehood with statehood and community with state, and ignoring the fact that membership in each is determined in completely different ways.” 

On this distinction between the state and the community hangs a great deal of Koppel’s argument. Thus, he defines a community as “composed of members who choose to submit to its authority because they identify themselves with its ethos,” while a state “imposes obligations (approximately) equally on all within its geographic scope.” It follows that communities, being voluntary, should avoid imposing their moral views on the larger society through legislation or through connecting their institutions with those of the state.

Whole thing here.

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