Symposium // Can Religious Pluralism and an Official Rabbinate Coexist in Israel?
Symposium Editor George Johnson
Interviews by Dina Gold, Rachel E. Gross, George Johnson & Sala Levin
In 1947, future Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, hoping to shore up support for the State of Israel, wrote a letter to the head of the Orthodox Agudat Yisrael party promising that in the future Jewish state, Saturday would be a day of rest, kashrut would be maintained in all government kitchens, a religious group could oversee their own education and family law issues—divorce, marriage and burial would stay in the hands of the religious courts. This became known as the “status quo agreement” and has guided the relationship between religion and state in Israel ever since. And thus, Israel’s official chief rabbinate was born. Over the years the institution has grown increasingly ultra-Orthodox, sparking frustration and calls for reform among non-haredi Israelis as well as Jews in the diaspora. Moment asks a wide range of scholars, activists and religious leaders to suggest if and how religious pluralism and the chief rabbinate can coexist.
There is an official rabbinate, and there is religious pluralism in Israel. The question is how do we make all the ways of Jewish living flourish without hurting or stopping any one of them and still have the official rabbinate? Now there are two rabbis and each of them speaks for only one kind of community. It just is not working. Most of the Jews in the world and in Israel don’t have a voice.
I don’t want a culture war between the pluralistic and the Orthodox. Orthodoxy adds a lot to our cultural scene. I wouldn’t like to live in an Israel that didn’t have haredi Jews. But just as much as their Jewish needs deserve to be met, so do mine. In Israel you have many secular or unaffiliated Jews who still are connected and for whom Judaism is a very big part of their lives, but the North American denominations don’t fit them. The Jewish world is moving toward a post-denominational era, and I think that is a good thing. Let each community choose the right way for them to be Jewish, give them as many services as possible without giving names and labels. Let communities choose their own rabbis—build the rabbinate from the bottom up.
It’s not about the organizations or the streams or the denominations; it’s about the Jews. I would give Jewish Israeli citizens a voucher to choose what kind of Jewish institution and what kinds of Jewish services they need today. The organizations that get more vouchers would receive more funding. And then there might be an Orthodox rabbinate, but next to it there would be rabbis who are progressive in different ways.
Ruth Calderon is a Member of Knesset from the Yesh Atid Party and is the founder of two secular yeshivas.
An official rabbinate cannot itself be pluralistic, for the very simple reason that the differences among the so-called streams of Judaism are so wide that they can’t be encompassed in one body. It’s like saying, can the Pope also be the head of the various Protestant congregations around the world?
From its conception, it was never thought that the Israeli chief rabbinate would be anything other than an Orthodox body. The impetus for a chief rabbinate doesn’t come primarily from the so-called haredi community, which I consider myself a member of, but from the national religious Zionist community. Ben-Gurion himself saw Jewish identity as the glue that would hold together people coming from countries around the world. If Judaism is a binding glue, there have to be some minimal basic standards for who is a Jew. The chief rabbinate provides a common denominator, certain acknowledged rules so that Jews can marry one another, confident in the Jewish identity of their spouse, functioning as that type of societal glue. Once you open marriage—and certainly conversion—processes to multiple interpretations, then Judaism ceases to be a binding glue for the larger Israeli society.
Once the state went to such efforts to bring in everyone, including close to 500,000 former residents of the old Soviet Union who had a drop of Jewish blood but who were not halachically Jewish, it became inevitable that we would have civil marriage in Israel. Obviously, a modern democratic state cannot be in a situation where a number of people are incapable of marrying in any fashion. But at the same time, there’s no sense in pretending and distorting what it means to be Jewish. It is in some sense a miracle any time a person takes on the full burdens, responsibilities and joy of being Jewish. But the truth is that most Russian immigrants have found that they have no real need to convert to feel integrated into Israeli society.
There are worse things than a separation of state and religion. Rather than religion becoming falsified by its conjunction with the state and serving the state’s needs, it would be better to separate the two. In other words, if the chief rabbinate were to become an instrument of falsification of Judaism—for example through state pressure to approve conversions— it would be better to sever the relationship.
Jonathan Rosenblum’s columns appear in the magazine Mishpacha and numerous other haredi publications as well as in the mainstream Israeli press.
“Our grandparents had pulled off the miracle with their own coarse and stubborn hands. But we, too, require no miracles and no rabbinates. Our sort of Israel is human-made, and it ought to keep reinventing itself. ”
I think we need to just get rid of the rabbinate. We don’t need it. What does it do? It’s out there screaming and yelling about things like who can put up a kosher sign in their restaurant and what shape potato or cheese burekas have to be. It’s completely irrelevant. We have 50,000 refugees in Israel whom we’re treating badly. There are hundreds of thousands of orphans at risk in the world, and this is what our rabbinate is yelling about? It’s absurd.
The rabbinate is like putting a roof over our heads instead of the sky. We can all deal directly with God within our Jewish communities. Trying to encapsulate Judaism into a single form is idolatrous, because the assumption is that there are people who know what God wants of us without a shadow of a doubt. If you can know what God wants without a shadow of a doubt, then God is small enough to fit in your mind, and that’s no different from holding God in your hand. There’s no purpose for the rabbinate; in fact it’s detrimental. Anyone who wants to take political power as a spiritual religious guide is inherently problematic in my mind. They want to use religion as their power. It’s counter-productive and counterintuitive.
Susan Silverman is a rabbi, an activist and a member of Women of the Wall.
Religious pluralism and an official rabbinate can coexist as long as there isn’t one rabbinate. Since the Jewish people don’t agree about Judaism, the notion of one rabbinate for all Jews ranges between insane and nonsensical and consequently counter to religious pluralism. Five or six chief rabbinates sounds just about right.
The biggest hindrance to moving toward pluralism is secular Israelis, not the ultra-Orthodox. The ultra-Orthodox don’t want it, I understand. The fact that secular Israelis have been willing to be complicit with an institution that is irrelevant and doesn’t speak to them is the profound shortcoming of religious life in Israel. As long as secular Israelis, who make up about 45 to 50 percent of Israeli society, allow this to be perpetuated, it will be perpetuated. There isn’t a large enough Conservative, Reform, or Liberal Judaism to serve as a counterbalance to the close to 50 percent who are either ultra-Orthodox, Orthodox or Masorti [Traditional]. You don’t need a majority, but you need a group of people who get up and say, “I’ve had enough. I’m not taking it anymore. I want a Jewish wedding.”
Secular Israelis have changed over the past 15 years. Jews do a lot of stuff Jewishly in Israel. But in the public sphere, they’re very, very passive. Until secular Israelis feel empowered or committed enough to shape Judaism in the public sphere, we’re going to continue to have one rabbinate.
One potential game-changer is the 5 percent of “Jewish non-Jews” of Israel, the people who came to Israel under the Law of Return from the former Soviet Union. They are about 350,000 people, not an insignificant number, who are integrating into Israeli society but can’t get married or converted under the rabbinate. If you add maybe another 5 or 10 percent committed liberal Jews in Israel, there might be a 10 to 15 percent coalition to change this reality.
The ultra-Orthodox should be the first to allow for other approaches, because ultra-Orthodoxy, in its rejection of Zionism, should allow Israelis to do whatever they want to do, as long as they are free to have their own institutions. But the ultra-Orthodox started to realize that thousands of jobs are being distributed. They also want to protect their hegemony as the authentic Jew. So, both ideologically and economically, they’re very, very invested. On the Modern Orthodox side, the religious Zionist side, what happened over the past 30, 40 years is that most of their creative energy has been to develop a new Torah that connects to the centrality and holiness of the land of Israel. They have not focused on religious pluralism or the relationship between religious and secular. A whole slew of us religious Zionists are trying to develop a modern Orthodoxy for Israel, but it hasn’t emerged in sufficient enough numbers yet.
Donniel Hartman is president of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and a rabbi ordained by the same institute.
An official rabbinate, at least in its present form, cannot exist alongside genuine religious pluralism in Israel, nor can it live peacefully and respectfully alongside a thriving secular Jewish culture. Our mainstream culture, based on the spectacular Zionist accomplishment of a modern Hebrew language, literature and public sphere, was almost wholly the work of pioneers who shed off the orthodoxy of their parents without abandoning the great chain of textuality that kept Jews afloat and creative during the past two and a half millennia.
The early Zionists did not wholly abandon religion. They kept what I propose to term a residual religiosity, which had three major facets. First, it propelled them to re-inhabit the biblical homeland. Second, it brought them closer to the Bible and to every other Hebrew-language text that Jews have ever produced, in the ancient homeland and in all of their diasporas. Thirdly and fascinatingly, these pioneers maintained a quasi-religious, even messianic, astonishment with the return of modern Jews to the land of Israel.
Modern Israel was not erected by God but by men and women. But Jewish identity, Hebrew creativity and the marvel of newly secular Torah students still burned like torches in their bodies and soul.
Of course, there is a great gap between the ultra-Orthodox leaders and the national-religious faithful, which include West Bank settlers. Most of the former resent Zionism and dislike the State of Israel but easily allow the army and treasury of the apostates to defend and subsidize them. The national-religious, by contrast, proudly claim they are the true heirs of early Zionism.
Both of these orthodoxies want me and the likes of me to repent. To be kosher again. To leave off the sins of Tel Aviv and the laxity of the kibbutzim and the cosmopolitanism of a Modern Hebrew culture that was able to mix Agnon with Dostoevsky, Isaiah with Socrates. To become inward looking, meta-historical, aloofly oblivious (or openly hostile) of all goyim and goyim culture. To admit that God, not women and men, is responsible for Jewish history in all of its twists and turns.
But the Israel I inhabit, and the Israelis who are trying to continue the sword, the tractor and the book of our pioneer forebears into the technological and textual creativity of the 21st century, cannot allow either orthodoxy to undo the Jewish secularity of the 20th century. We need it for an ongoing conversation with the rest of the world, Jewish and non-Jewish. It is the stalwart of our collective identity and of our concept of justice.
“No miracle happened to us,” we sang in my kibbutz on Hanukkah. Our grandparents had pulled off the miracle with their own coarse and stubborn hands. But we, too, require no miracles and no rabbinates. Our sort of Israel is human-made, and it ought to keep reinventing itself.
Fania Oz-Salzberger is a professor of history at the University of Haifa. Her most recent book, co-authored with Amos Oz, is Jews and Words.
“There are worse things than a separation of state and religion. Rather than religion becoming falsified by its conjunction with the state and serving the state’s needs, it would be better to separate the two.”
The role of the chief rabbinate should ultimately be ceremonial in nature. In a Jewish state, it’s nice to have a chief rabbi, someone who inspires the people and perhaps travels the world and brings inspiration as well, based on Jewish values. But the concept of there being one set of rules—and I’m speaking as an Orthodox rabbi—creates religious coercion, both within Orthodoxy and among those who are not religiously observant. It actually does damage to Judaism and the Jewish state. When people feel coerced, their nature is to move away from whatever is being offered. When I travel around Israel I meet young secular Israelis who say to me, “We hate Judaism,” and then they continue and say, “And we hate that we hate Judaism.” Meaning they’re not looking to rebel against Judaism or God but the Judaism being offered to them is not what they want.
We have worked very hard, religious and secular together, on a civil union bill that creates two tracks: a marriage track, which will be religious, through a rabbinate that is much more moderate and embracing in nature, and also a civil union track, which is more like a civil contract, with full rights as a couple and the like, but not defined as marriage.
Change in the rabbinate itself takes time. But as the haredi community becomes part of the broader Israeli society through army or national service or, most importantly, the workforce, and as we instill far more general education and even higher education, that community will become more moderate. It will take time—a generation or two—before you see any real leaders in the community speaking openly on these issues.
Moderation on the secular side will occur through the same process. When secular Israelis see changes—as a result of the legislation we just passed on the draft, tens of thousands more haredim will enter the workforce—and as secular and higher education increases, religious people will be seen more as people with whom they can identify. Along with less coercion in terms of invasiveness of state religion in their own lives, I believe secular Israelis will reconnect and be more embracing of the idea of Judaism and be more accepting of religious people.
Dov Lipman, a member of the Yesh Atid party, is an Orthodox rabbi and the first U.S.-born Member of Knesset in the past 30 years.
What is important is that the government not subsidize and encourage only one denomination. Ensuring equality in the allocation of public resources is certainly within the purview of the Supreme Court, and it has followed this rule in every case that raised a claim of unequal treatment. The Court also has promoted equality when it comes to the rights of women for equal representation, including in religious bodies. But it’s not enough. It is difficult to change the current situation and allow for full recognition of other denominations by the state, alongside the Orthodox group, given the political situation in the country. Achieving a solution will require dialogue among the different groups in Israeli society and a social compromise that will allow for a more pluralistic approach by the state.
The Supreme Court can review the decisions of the rabbinical courts in its capacity as the High Court of Justice. Rabbinical courts are similar in this regard to any other government authority. In addition, the jurisdiction of the rabbinical court is limited only to personal status issues, primarily marriage and divorce. It is important to note that even when rabbinical courts decide cases within their jurisdiction, they must apply secular law if an issue arises that is not directly related to personal status. For instance, the division of property between spouses in divorce proceedings must be done according to secular law. The rabbinical court does not always comply with the Court’s decisions, but in that case the party that loses can come to the Supreme Court. If we have any way to give a remedy on a case-by-case basis, we do render those remedies. But the legal situation is complex, and the Supreme Court is limited in its ability to offer remedies where the law assigns exclusive jurisdiction to the rabbinical courts.
The lack of non-Orthodox marriage in Israel is certainly troubling. There are some religious leaders—I’m not talking about political leaders or the Orthodox political parties, but legal and “halachic” experts—who support the idea of civil marriage to solve part of the problem, especially problems of women who are agunot [“chained women”]. I think that there should be a way for everyone to be able to freely choose a partner and to conduct a ceremony that reflects their beliefs.
Dorit Beinisch served within the Israeli Ministry of Justice for 28 years before becoming the first female president of the Supreme Court of Israel from 2006 to 2012.
The only way to maintain a modern, tolerant, inclusive, democratic Israel is to separate religion and state. Currently hundreds of thousands of citizens, who are not recognized as Jewish by the rabbinate, are denied their legitimate rights. Because Israel has no constitution, every religion is acknowledged as part of the state apparatus—including ten different Christian denominations. This amalgam of state and religion has created a stunning array of problems touching on every aspect of family law. At present, whether you see yourself as a person of faith or not is immaterial. The state classifies you as a Jew, Muslim or whatever for the purposes of government records. Once designated, when it comes to family matters, every citizen is obliged to address the relevant religious institution.
I have no objection to the existence of the rabbinate, but I object to coercion. My proposal is to make religious affiliation wholly voluntary, with a civil alternative available. No one should be forced to submit to halachic law. All attempts so far to enact bills in the Knesset to reform the system have failed because of raw politics. The religious courts have huge political clout, and the political parties pander to them in order to gain power.
Unfortunately, civil rights are overshadowed in Israeli national elections by other issues such as defense and economics. When sufficient numbers of MKs get elected who support the move to create an alternative path and a civil option is passed in the Knesset, it will greatly improve the personal lives of Israelis.
Nitzan Horowitz, a member of the Meretz Party, is chair of the Knesset Caucus for Civil Equality and Pluralism and the first openly gay Member of Knesset.
Israel makes the claim to be the nation state of the Jewish people. Israel’s existence is predicated on Jewish peoplehood. And yet, we have a situation today in which the nation state of the Jewish people does not entirely recognize the validity of a significant section of the Jewish people, particularly those who belong to the Reform and Conservative movements. It’s not just not recognizing the Conservative and Reform movements. Orthodox rabbis also have problems securing recognition of their conversions in the United States from the State of Israel. The status quo is not sustainable. Israel has to move toward fulfilling its own self-stated role of being the nation state of the Jewish people.
We have to have a serious discussion about our relationship with diaspora Jewry, particularly diaspora Jews who practice their Judaism in different ways. We have to have a discussion about the Jewish people in the State of Israel, as well, about civil marriage and civil burial. We have a situation here where thousands of Israelis travel abroad, mostly to Cyprus, every year in order to get married. I’m speaking personally. My own son was married when I was in Washington by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan in my house and then got married again in Israel with the Reform rabbi who was the rabbi of both my son and his wife. This was because the State of Israel wouldn’t recognize their marriage. I was Ambassador of the State of Israel. By the way, Shimon Peres came to that wedding and made a very important statement there about pluralism. So it is clearly an issue on which we have to have a serious discussion in Israeli society—with input from Jewish leaders throughout the world.
Is discussion between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox possible? We’ve had discussions. For example, we were able to reach an accommodation on the Western Wall issue through discussion with haredi, Conservative and Reform leaders. It was a long and complicated process, but in the end, I think we reached a viable compromise. So I’ve seen firsthand how different streams of Judaism can reach accommodations. But it requires flexibility on all sides and the desire to preserve and strengthen Jewish unity.
Secular Israelis also can be brought in. If you look at all the surveys of Israel, the levels of Jewish tradition and respect for tradition are very high. There is, among a significant majority of Israelis, a respect for religion. The majority of Israelis observe some aspect of Jewish tradition. Totally, utterly secular people are actually a minority here. That’s the foundation for conducting this discussion successfully.
Michael Oren is the former ambassador from Israel to the United States. He is the author of Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East: 1776 to the Present.
“Since the Jewish people don’t agree about Judaism, the notion of one rabbinate for all Jews ranges between insane to nonsensical and consequently counter to religious pluralism. Five or six chief rabbinates sounds just about right. ”
Both Zionism and the State of Israel were founded by largely secular Ashkenazi Jews who to this day constitute a sizeable majority in Israel. A recent study found that only 20 percent of Israeli Jews, excluding the haredim, define themselves as Orthodox. However, according to another study, Mizrahi [North African and Middle Eastern] Jews not only have a stronger, though not necessarily Orthodox, Jewish identity than their Ashkenazi brethren, but fully 50 percent of these Mizrahi Jews define themselves as traditional, and only 9 percent as non-religious or anti-religious. For the Ashkenazim, the figures were 19 percent as traditional and 34 percent non-religious or anti-religious.
Mizrahi Jews, unlike other immigrants, not only have an ambivalent attitude toward Orthodox Judaism, but also have problems with religious pluralism as defined in Western countries. They would define themselves only as Jews or Israelis, and if pressed to define their religious observance, they would say they are traditional. Among these traditional Jews, one finds some haredi observance, but most observe in a manner similar to a Conservative or Reform Jew. However, they will never accept such labels. This is because, as a group, they recognize Judaism as having one halacha and one rabbinate, and they do not challenge its official representatives. But for many of them, their actual behavior is like those who advocate for religious pluralism.
Maurice Roumani was the founder and director of the Center for the Study of Sephardi Heritage at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel.
The notion of the chief rabbinate is antithetical to Israel’s essence as a Jewish and democratic state. The modern State of Israel has explicitly promised in our Declaration of Independence religious freedom and “social and political equality” regardless of religion. A coercive institution in the framework of a chief rabbinate is anathema and in direct contradiction to these necessary principles. The Israeli Jewish population is predominantly secular, and the chief rabbinate ironically is accepted as a religious authority neither by the secular majority nor by most of the Orthodox Jewish minority. At this point, the haredi community, whose leaders decide the identity of the chief rabbi, rejects the authority of those very chief rabbis because they are not deemed by that community to be of religious and halachic authority. Nor is the chief rabbinate accepted by many in the modern Zionist Orthodox community, who reject it because of its non-Zionist, non-modern character.
So why do we have the chief rabbinate? We have it solely because of political manipulation. The continued existence of the chief rabbinate, the monopolistic rabbinic Supreme Court and the religious council serve a political purpose as a trading item for the secular political powers to the haredi political parties in return for their support of the coalition government. All polls of the Jewish community in Israel point to the fact that the majority does not want to see it continue in its present monopolistic, coercive fashion.
One should not confuse the great importance of the institution and function of rabbis in the Jewish tradition and the institution of the chief rabbinate. Rabbis are of utmost importance to the perpetuation and growth of Jewish religious life. But a chief rabbinate is antithetical to the concept of “select unto yourself a rabbi,” which is based on voluntary association and not on coercive external appointment.
Uri Regev is an Israeli Reform rabbi and lawyer who heads the nonprofit Hiddush—For Religious Freedom and Equality.
In the current legal constellation, the answer is an emphatic “no.” However, I think that we have an opportunity now, more than ever before, to create an official rabbinate that would in fact promote religious pluralism, but this would depend upon how we define religious pluralism. My definition promotes a culture of tolerance, respect and accessibility, and my vision is of a rabbinate that could meet all these criteria.
When I speak of tolerance, I believe that religious coercion must cease. A rabbinate that would promote tolerance can promote Jewish values and even halacha, but it needs to set its sights on inclusivity. Respect is a really important piece. It means that even if people don’t do it the rabbinate’s way, and even if they choose to not be connected to it, that’s something the rabbinate can respect. Right now, there’s a lot of conceit. There is a sense that coerciveness about Jewish marriage has protected the Jewish people and the Jewish line for thousands of years. I think that kind of boastfulness and the pompous attitude that accompanies it is destructive. It demeans people who opt for an alternative. The premise of this attitude is simply not true, because it does not take into account the diversity of the Jewish world or the historical record that demonstrates that not everyone got married exactly the way the rabbinate is insisting on today. As for accessibility, my vision is of a rabbinate that is embracing. It would be confident enough in its values to enable people to access the system in the way that they want to access it.
As an Orthodox rabbi and someone who identifies strongly with the Orthodox community and a strong belief in halacha as an expression of the Divine, I believe that halacha has room for the kind of pluralism I am describing. Actually, it might be at its core value. There is a way to have a halachic rabbinate that can coexist with religious pluralism in Israel, and I don’t think that it demands that halacha be changed. I think what it demands is making a strategic decision to be as inclusive as possible. Religious pluralism isn’t a goal. It’s a tool toward a healthier and more dedicated Jewish people.
Seth Farber is a Modern Orthodox rabbi and founder and director of ITIM: The Jewish Advocacy Center.
“Rabbis are important to the perpetuation and growth of Jewish religious life. But a chief rabbinate is antithetical to the concept of “select unto yourself a rabbi,” which is based on voluntary association and not on coercive external appointment.”
Unfortunately, given the track record of the chief rabbinate of the State of Israel for the past 65 years, the chief rabbinate must be abolished as soon as possible in order to allow Judaism to flourish in Israel.
The two new chief rabbis were elected in July 2013 after a lengthy political campaign because they are the sons of previous chief rabbis and because they are beholden to haredi political parties, which do not recognize the chief rabbinate. Rabbi Yonah Metzger, Ashkenazic chief rabbi from 2003 to 2013 and a puppet of the Ashkenazi haredim, was arrested in June, and again in November, of 2013 on suspicion of taking bribes, fraud, money-laundering, obstructing justice and suborning witnesses.
The chief rabbinate holds a monopoly on conversions. For years it did not recognize Conservative and Reform conversions. In recent years, it likewise refused to recognize most Orthodox rabbis in the United States. In May 2008, the High Rabbinical Court of the Chief Rabbinate retroactively annulled the many thousands of conversions performed by Israel’s National Conversion Court from 1999 to 2008. Although this decision was repealed because of intervention by Israel’s Supreme Court and the Tel Aviv Rabbinical Court, it serves as a deterrent to thousands of Russian immigrants who are considering conversion. The chief rabbinate also holds a monopoly on kashrut. I recently asked the owner of a pizza shop why he did not have a kashrut certificate. He replied that the kashrut supervisor shows up once a month for five minutes and he has to pay him thousands of shekels. More and more Israelis who care about kashrut are looking for alternatives.
The sad fact of the matter is that the chief rabbinate of Israel is a coercive bureaucracy without a constituency. It is disliked by haredim, religious Zionists, Conservative and Reform Jews and secular Israelis alike, and many of its actions are a Hillul Hashem, or desecration of God’s name. It only exists at this point so that political parties can use it as a tool of influence and patronage.
What is the alternative? Here are a few general guidelines: Civil marriage and divorce must be legalized because a democracy must provide these options. There are a few areas where the State of Israel must provide religious services. For example, there must be kosher food in the IDF so that all soldiers can serve in the army.
It is not the State of Israel’s job to decide who is a “real” rabbi or which form of Judaism is more authentic. Let the public decide just as they do in the diaspora. Let every Israeli Jew choose his or her rabbi for kashrut, marriage, divorce and conversion. Let the rabbis compete in the free marketplace of ideas. The result will be that more and more Jews will love Judaism and respect rabbis.
David Golinkin is a professor at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem and the author or editor of 19 books on Conservative halacha.
The problem with the chief rabbinate is its legal authority. The chief rabbinate in principle could become like the Israeli presidency, which is basically an inspirational position. But the history has been different. Instead, as part of the bargain to obtain the support of the anti-Zionist ultra-Orthodox in the war against the Arabs, the chief rabbinate was given power over kashrut [what is fit] everywhere. In my opinion, making things kosher has been the great corruption of Orthodoxy in general. Even though creating professional oversight is a good thing, the problem is that it immediately becomes a bargaining chip if you’re in an adversarial relationship with other people. It also becomes a corrupt way to make a lot of money because basically, you can favor Orthodox people over non-Orthodox and non-Jewish people. You can declare things in need of kashrut that don’t need kashrut.
Now, the chief rabbinate in principle does not have to be that. You could make the rabbinical courts privatized and voluntary. In other words, you would have civic definitions of Judaism or Jewishness. You could say the following 5,000 or 10,000 rabbis are qualified to say that this person is Jewish, and you go to whichever courts you want to as an Orthodox Jew. If you are not an Orthodox Jew, you do not go to courts at all. You have a civil path. I am talking about the separation of religion and state, but not necessarily about dismantling the system of rabbinic inspiration.
Every place where religion starts to be freed up from the state, you get an explosion of spiritual interest because the search for higher meaning is innate to being human. What makes people actually hate this stuff is when it is controlled, especially by a corrupted patriarchy. In Israel today there is a lot of that hatred, but people in their 20s and 30s are moving ahead anyway with their own spiritual expression. It is the lack of resolution of Arab-Jewish co-existence that makes it impossible for Christians and Muslims to be a mutually reinforcing liberalizing force for pluralism in all sectors. The system of adversarialism and second-class citizenship is just making it impossible for all but the very, very forward thinking to try to escape the patriarchal tradition. Also, some of the younger Arab Muslims have a much more respectful approach to their elders, but they’re also trying to innovate. So, it is actually an interesting role model for Jews who are seeking some sort of middle way between their Jewishness and the old patriarchy. I see a lot of synergy in the future if we can move forward on Arab-Jewish coexistence and de-politicize religious power. Both of those seem to be crucial to the evolution of religious pluralism.
Marc Gopin directs the Center for World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University.
Amy Beth Oppenheimer
Religious pluralism in Israel exists, but not in a way Americans are used to. There was a time when there was a clear dichotomy in Israel between religious and secular, where religious meant Orthodox and secular just meant really not religious. Now there’s a lot more in between. So when we say religious pluralism, it’s important to check ourselves and ask: Are we actually looking at what is different in Israel, what are the trends, the desires, the manifestations of religious pluralism? Or are we really just operating from an American framework, and trying to do a cookie-cutter copy and paste?
For example, the Masorti [Conservative] movement launched a marriage campaign a number of years ago to encourage people to be married by a non-Orthodox rabbi. The chief rabbinate challenged this before the Supreme Court of Israel, arguing that the only way to marry in Israel is through an Orthodox rabbi. But the Supreme Court upheld the Masorti movement’s right to launch this campaign.
So a lot of baby steps are being made toward pluralism that in the eyes of American Jews would be very positive things. Does that mean we’re going to have a female chief rabbi in the next couple of decades? No. Does that mean there are going to be three parallel rabbinate structures: Orthodox, Reform, Conservative? No, because that really doesn’t reflect the makeup of Israeli society. However, have Israeli politicians and the Israeli public expressed a willingness to accommodate American flavors of Judaism, and, to a certain extent, if not embrace then at least tolerate different flavors of Judaism? Yes. And I think that’s a victory that should be celebrated by American Jews.
Theoretically, you could think of a model in which church and state recognize more than one religious strand. But I think it won’t happen for two main reasons. First the Orthodox will not give up their monopoly position. And second the Israeli public is not too committed to religious pluralism. Israelis can lead secular lives, but when they need a service, they’re mostly accepting of the Orthodox ones. They might complain about the service they get, they might complain about the inflexibility of Orthodoxy, but at the end of the day most Israelis accept the monopoly as legitimate.
So what we have is pluralism that is happening informally, outside politics, which on the one hand allows for some freedom, but on the other hand also allows for the monopoly to stay intact. For example, marriage. Israelis who don’t want to marry with the Orthodox rabbinate can fight for change, and they have had all kinds of campaigns to allow civil marriage. These campaigns have all failed.
But Israelis find ways to circumvent the system. If you’re concerned with marriage, if you belong to a Reform temple and you want to be married by your Reform rabbi, the state tells you that you can’t. You can try and organize a campaign and fight this thing, but there’s not enough energy, there’s not enough people to support your campaign. What you can do is fly to Cyprus to get married. So you solve your problem with about 1,000 dollars. And that’s what most people do. So you do have a kind of pluralism, but it’s not through the system. There is an underground plurality; this is how people live.
Professor Guy Ben-Porat studies public policy and multiculturalism at Ben-Gurion University. His latest book is Between State and Synagogue: the Secularization of Contemporary Israel.
Israel is a land of paradoxes. The rabbinate is recognized as an official institution of the state—with a monopoly on issues of personal status such as marriage and divorce. Nevertheless, in other aspects of life it has no status whatsoever. From the foundation of the state there were loopholes, and more continue to be created.
The “status quo ante bellum” is a crucial concept in Israeli law. Under the Ottoman Empire’s “millett” judicial system, minorities were categorized by religion and permitted separate legal courts dealing with “personal law” matters. Different communities operated their own legal systems—sharia for Muslims, canon law for Christians and halacha for Jews. During the British Mandate era, the millett system persisted and the British recognized the rabbinate as representing the Jewish community in Palestine – even though the newcomers in the 1920s and 30s were mostly non religious. Today’s chief rabbinate harks back to the British Mandate era.
One profound paradox is that, simply because the rabbinate is located in Israel, it has been far easier to enable “improvements” in the lives of ultra-Orthodox Jews living there than in the United States and other democratic states where state and religion are separate. Take the appalling problem of “chained” women who are denied a get by their intransigent husbands, rendering them unable to remarry. The Israeli rabbinate feels the heat of public opinion and press criticism and is duly influenced to force a man to grant his former wife a get. With no official rabbinate in the United States and elsewhere, no such pressure can be brought to bear.
Another practical solution by the Knesset has been to create the bizarre legal status of Yeduah Be Tzibur—“known in public,” or “common-law wife.” When a married man and wife split up but do not get a divorce and the man subsequently lives with another woman, on his death the common-law wife inherits his assets and his pension rights.
Marriages overseas are legal, so if one partner is not recognized by the Rabbinate as Jewish a potentially tragic hurdle is overcome.
Where issues considered vital to the national interest are concerned, and public opinion runs counter to the rabbinate, the Knesset steps in. Conversion is a case in point. Some half a million new immigrants, particularly from the former Soviet Union, many with children serving in the armed forces, were not recognized as Jews by the rabbinate. Some members of the Beit Din held fast to untenably strict demands on would-be converts. The government simply established a new Beit Din with more moderate members and solved the problem.
Religious pluralism can coexist alongside an official rabbinate so long as the ultra-Orthodox remain a minority and the government does not fall under its dictate. But their fertility rates suggest that within 20-30 years they could constitute a majority, although other problems, such as economics, would take precedence.
Menachem Friedman is emeritus professor of sociology at Bar Ilan University, Ramat Gan. He is an expert on the confrontations between religious and secular Judaism and the modern process of halachic decision-making.
Father Michael B. McGarry, CSP
The institutions that have a major influence on religious pluralism are the Ministry of Interior, the municipal zoning authorities, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the army.
Christian life in Israel is limited by the non-granting of building permits. Housing development in East Jerusalem is curtailed as the local municipality rejects applications. Another major problem has been the re-zoning of Christian properties, re-designating them from private to public ownership, after which no construction or any building alterations can be carried out. The army also plays a crucial role. Easter permits to visit Jerusalem and other places in Israel were granted to some 25,000 West Bank Christians to visit Jerusalem over the Holy Week. This looks good in the press, but on the ground the soldiers do not always honor these permits, sometimes dividing families from those who are allowed in from those who are not.
A profound internal struggle is underway now within Israeli society. Amongst the ultra-Orthodox community, there are extreme xenophobic and anti-Christian views and a desire to squeeze anything that appears foreign. This has a negative effect on Christians. However, other sectors of Israeli society are keen to expand religious freedoms and reflect on how Jews suffered discrimination in other countries over the ages, especially during the Holocaust, and say, “Shame on us.” We need to be better. We want to live up to our declaration of independence.
Despite all the difficulties, Christian Arabs are much better off in Israel (and to an extent Lebanon and Jordan) than in any of the surrounding Muslim states. Catholic schools in Israel are often superior to their religious Jewish or Muslim counterparts and, as a result, have significant numbers of Muslim pupils enrolled.
Father Michael B. McGarry, CSP, is president of the Paulist Fathers and served as rector of the Tantur Ecumenical Institute in Jerusalem 1999-2010.