Maccabi and Religion

In 1959, a decade after the establishment of the State of Israel, Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz wrote a seminal article about the need for separation of religion and state in Israel (English, Hebrew). More than half a century later, it’s still worth reading.

He approached the subject from the perspective of a religious Jew, arguing that this separation is essential for the continuation of the Jewish religion as a vital and relevant religion. By subordinating faith to the secular organs of the state, faith is weakened and corrupted: “Religion as an adjunct of a secular authority is the antithesis of true religion.”

Why was I reminded of Leibowitz today?


Maccabi Tel Aviv, the leading basketball team in Israel, is playing in the Euroleague finals today. The game will start a few hours earlier to avoid it taking place during the Israeli Day of Remembrance (“Memorial Day”), which starts at 8pm this evening. The decision of the Euroleague about this request to start the game earlier was followed closely by the Israeli media. When the request was granted, one could hear a nationwide collective sigh of relief. Even today, hours before the game, the media is abuzz with speculation about what will happen if the game goes into overtime. There are online polls being taken to ask viewers if they are for or against stopping the game if the “sacred” hour of 8pm approaches. Even some Knesset Members had something to say on the subject.

All of this debate is taking place two days after Maccabi played in the semifinals of the Euroleague, last Friday evening. Needless to say, not a word was uttered anywhere in the media (or the public, or by politicians), about the fact that the game took place during the Jewish Shabbat.

I’m ignoring for a moment the pathological aspects of a nation “going patriotic” about a privately-held basketball team whose players are mostly – and at crucial points in the game, solely – composed of non-Israelis. Let’s assume, for the sake of the discussion, that the game has some significance on a national level. Could it be more obvious what most Israelis care about: Remembrance Day or Shabbat? Does one need further proof that the Jewish religion is irrelevant to most Israelis?

On the eve of the 63rd Independence Day of Israel, it is time for the Jewish religion to take a bold step and sever its ties with the secular state. By subjugating itself to the state, it is ensuring its own death by irrelevance. Separation would, in Leibowitz’s words, “signify the beginning of the great confrontation between Judaism and secularism within Jewry and the Jewish state and initiate a genuine struggle between them over the hearts and minds of the citizens.” It is not too late to implement this long overdue separation.

Oh, and good luck to Maccabi!


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