Prof. Yedidia Stern: Building Jewish and Israeli Identity

Israel defines itself as both Jewish and democratic. But while the definition of democracy is generally agreed upon, Judaism is variously seen as a religion, as a nation, and as a culture. Researchers at Bar-Ilan University are deeply involved in bridging the gap between Western democratic values and Judaism – in all its forms. And as Prof. Yedidia Stern explains, such ideological bridge-building is vital not only for ensuring Israel’s physical survival, but also for strengthening Jewish identity, national resilience, and support for the Jewish State around the world.


“Every year I visit Brandeis University, where I teach a seminar to a group of professors – including participants from America, India and even Egypt – who then go back to their home institutions to launch Israel studies programs,” says Stern, an expert on issues of religion and state who is a former Dean of the Law Faculty and currently serves as Vice President  for Research at the Israel Democracy Institute. “Seminar participants gain a deeper understanding of how Israel is striving to harmonize liberal Western values and Judaism – a process that is continuously shaping public consciousness, and – if ultimately successful – will create a new, global model for the revitalization of Jewish identity, pride and commitment.”


According to Stern, BIU’s leadership in this area of research stems from a strategic decision related to recruitment. “In the Law School, it was decided that at least one third of the faculty should be working on questions related to the Jewish character of the State,” he says, adding that such academic activities draw upon Jewish law and philosophy to provide guidance on “hot button” issues in Israeli society such as minority and women’s rights, and also to elucidate basic legal issues such as contracts, torts and property law from the Jewish perspective.


At the same time, BIU legal experts foster dialogue that plays an important role in formulating much-needed constitutional norms. “For thousands of years, Judaism had no national component – something radically different from today’s experience of Jewish sovereignty,” Stern explains. “Through our research, the University is helping to give voice to Jewish tradition within our modern, democratic world.”


Stern stresses that the University’s contribution is not limited to the realm of law. “Academics from the BIU Jewish Studies and Humanities Faculties are involved in the preservation and advancement of Jewish language, literature and the creative arts. The Faculty of Social Sciences is helping to understand human behavior, and define policies for a just society rooted in Jewish ethical values,” he says. “The main job of the Israeli university – and Bar-Ilan in particular – is to sift these influences together in order to create a coherent Israeli identity. This is the key to building a society that will not only survive, but will have a sense of meaning and purpose.”


In one of his current projects, he is examining how Judaism’s foundational legal texts might be “advanced” to reflect on the changing circumstances brought about by Zionism’s success.

“Jewish law pre-dates the emergence of the democratic process, and this is one of the reasons that it is difficult to apply halakhic concepts to the modern state of Israel,” Stern states. “But the State is the most important Jewish phenomenon to occur in a thousand years. In my upcoming book, I ask: is there such a thing as Zionist halakha? Can a legal code that is rooted in the Jewish past – and is geared toward defining proper behavior for individuals – help the Jewish nation grapple with present-day challenges in the public sphere? If we can answer these questions, we’ll be one step closer to calming the ideological competition, and freeing up the energies needed to create a vital, unified Jewish society in Israel and abroad.


For more on Prof. Stern's research click here.