The comment from yomichael51@aol.com on my last post drew my attention; I was glad to receive a dissenting response. Religion and state matters are a sensitive and personal subject for many who love Israel, and not everyone will agree with my stance on these issues, but I do hope to articulate them in an accessible way for others, and generate discussion.

Yomichael51’s response did not actually address the content of my post. He did not rebut the Chazon Ish, nor did he respond to Rav Soloveitchik. Instead he accused me of being the “same” as the people who withheld visas for religious people, murdered De Haan, and forcibly secularized Yemenite Jews. He probably also thinks I killed Jesus.

Admittedly, I never expected anybody to challenge the halakhic validity of my stance. It’s not simply that it’s a sound position, but rather that the disagreement is less a halakhic debate, and more a kulturkampf.

There are actually two related issues at play here.

The first is the matter of Jewish Peoplehood and halakhic status issues, which my Rabbi Daniel Landes recently challenged me on. “The argument for the current system,” he explained, “is the preservation of the unity of Am Yisrael (the Jewish People). What happens to Am Yisrael if Orthodox Jews cannot marry non-Orthodox Jews due to halakhic status issues? You make the case for only one side of this debate in your blog posts – are you willing to make the other?”

“Sure, Rav Landes, I’ll do it in my next post!”

One’s response to this challenge can only begin by pointing out that Jewish law is complicated, and its authorities may arrive at mutually exclusive rulings.

Some rabbis hold that civil marriage between Jews constitutes halakhic marriage. Some rabbis hold that cohabitation constitutes halakhic marriage. Some rabbis hold that neither do. The Jewish Virtual Library provides an overview of different halakhic approaches to civil marriage here. The potential consequences of one’s approach to this matter are very significant, particularly for the offspring. According to Jewish religious law, if a woman is considered halakhically married and divorces in a non-halakhic way, her children from any subsequent union will be in the Jewish religious category of mamzer’im (loosely translated as ‘bastards’), and will be halakhically prohibited from marrying non-mamzer’im. Again, the Jewish Virtual Library explains the mamzer status in detail here, and also goes into various rabbinic efforts to avoid declaring mamzer status.

None of this is to be taken lightly, nor do I.

Still, we would be remiss to not account for today’s reality, for according to the Central Bureau of Statistics, there were 65,000 cohabiting Jewish couples in Israel in 2012, and 20,000 couples marrying abroad annually. Consider the halakhic ramifications of this reality for those who consider all of these couples married according to Jewish law. What if these individuals divorce and re-partner outside of the halakhic framework?

Of course, for many people deeply concerned with Jewish status issues (like Mamzer’ut) there is a certain security in the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly on religious life in Israel because the Israeli Rabbinate is hoped to be a consistent, trustworthy halakhic authority. This leads to the second issue at play.

The second issue is whether the State of Israel should legislate halakha for all of its Jewish citizens, regardless of whether they accept traditional religious law as binding. This question has been the primary focus of my previous blog posts, and it’s different than the matter of Am Yisrael’s halakhic unity, but it often gets conflated with the former.

I’ve quoted Rav Eliezer Berkovits z”l, Rav Shlomo Riskin and Rav Soloveitchik z”l; and I’ve also quoted from an article by Rabbi Eugene Korn on this very matterHalakhic practice must not be coerced, lest it vulgarize the religious act; and without a Sanhedrin (wiki) the Israeli government has no Divine authority to legislate religious law upon a population that does not accept its religious authority. This would all be true regarding any theoretical modern Jewish State, until the arrival of the Messiah.

Now, I posit that aside from those who personally stand to gain by the existing religious power structure in Israel, the two competing camps in this kulturkampf represent the “liberal” and “conservative” approaches to religion and state issues in Israel.

In this 2008 TED talk, Dr. Jonathan Haidt explains that the character trait which most distinguishes liberals from conservatives is called ‘openness to experience’. I call its inverse trait ‘aversion to risk’.

We may be conservative on some issues and liberal on others. For example, my approach to potential Arab-Israeli peace talks is decidedly conservative because of my aversion to risk, but I view matters of religion and state in Israel through a liberal lens. While the implications of some rabbinic authorities declaring widespread mamzer’ut among Am Yisrael make me queasy, and while I am personally most comfortable in a Jewish society that upholds traditional Jewish religious observance, still I believe that only releasing Am Yisrael from the binds of the coercive Israeli Rabbinate will bring Jews closer to Torah.

Of course there is no absolute certainty that Jews today, both in Israel and the diaspora, will emerge from a politically free society to voluntarily return to mitsvot and religious values. This lack of a priori certainty is the price we must pay for treating each other as dignified human beings, as moral creatures who quest after spiritual achievement…

 

Religious Jews today believe in the God of Israel and the truth of His Torah. Are we to believe any less in the eternal spiritual capacity of Am Yisrael to accept, with full integrity and religious conviction, partnership with the Divine?

 

-Rabbi Eugene Korn

Like some who are dear to me, I too fear major changes in Israeli society… but my faith in the Jewish People weighs stronger.