“No one can claim ownership over the Jewish God”

Israeli Finance Minister Yair Lapid piously thundered thus, in a speech delivered to the 50th anniversary celebration of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism a few days before urging a halt of construction in the West Bank and threatening to bring down the government Perhaps mercifully, his address drew little attention in Israel.

Mr. Lapid was certainly right that none of us can claim ownership over God, but Mr. Lapid couldn’t have been more wrong about the conclusions he drew from that incontrovertible truth.

He also let loose with a few intemperate zingers.

“Judaism,” he opined, “is a balance between tradition and morality, between the past and renewal, between love of God and love of man.”

Who said that?

Moreover, it begs the obvious question of who shall determine the appropriate balance that Mr. Lapid advocates?

Shall he?

Mr. Lapid did not directly address the question. But as he continued, he did make insupportable accusations.

 “The struggle that we are leading for equality of Jewish denominations is an expression of this worldview [of the “balance” he advocates], and a recognition that it is not right that Israel be the one country in the Western world without religious freedom for Jews,”

Lapid continued.

Warming to his audience, Lapid then specifically criticized the settler movement, condemning “those who privilege the mitzvot not between man and God [la-Makom], but between man and places [mekomot] in Judea and Samaria, which is in my eyes clearly a distortion of the essence of Judaism and Jewish values.”

Strong words.

Also, his allegations are mostly poppycock or based on ignorance of Jewish history and law.

First off, Judaism is not a “religion,” as Mr. Lapid seems to think. Rather, it is an ancient peoplehood, whose norms are determined based on halacha, the ”way.”

Halacha, despite what some seem to think, was never fossilized and evolved, at its own pace, for more than two thousand years.

It evolves still.

But halacha is not, and never has never been, a free-for-all. Even during the anarchic rule of The Judges, where the Tanach (Bible) itself complains, in Sefer Shoftim , (about between the late 14th to the early 11th century BCE), that  “ish kol hayasar b’enav,”   or “whatever is right in a man’s [own] eyes” (Devarim 12:8) lawlessness did not prevail.

Mr. Lapid does not advocate lawlessness and anarchy in matters he considers “secular;” he apparently promotes anarchy in matters he deems religious.

The distinction has no basis in our tradition. Halacha, as our way of life is all-encompassing; nothing is outside or beyond the purview of halacha.

Moreover, there is plenty of room for flexibility and evolution and there has been for thousands of years. Plenty of things have evolved over time, too numerous to recount. Some are cogently discussed by Rabbi Mordechai I. Willig, of Yeshiva University.

Halacha was and is  “settled” in some matters and less so in many others.

Settled law is known in Latin as stare decisis. It is the legal principle of determining questions of law respecting [binding] precedent.

Where the halacha is settled, all follow the same rule; when not, local or regional custom (minhag) prevails, each scholar following what his own teacher had passed on to him.

It is true that, of necessity, many matters have become more settled over time, as persecution and famous Jewish wanderlust have over time made it more difficult to support wide variations in practice among the many Jewish communities.

It’s a fact the slow evolution of the halacha does not sit well with everyone. Many were – and are – impatient with the slow pace of the consensus-based evolution of halacha. They “know what’s best” and advocate for strong action.

Mr. Lapid, along with everyone else, is free to hold any beliefs he likes. Others have held them before.

They simply aren’t Jewish beliefs.

If you like, we can call Mr. Lapid’s collection of beliefs “Lapidism.”

Consider some other, similar belief systems. Reform Judaism, for example. It emerged at the time of the French Revolution, when European Jews were recognized for the first time as citizens of the countries in which they lived. Ghettos were being abolished; special badges were no longer required. People could settle where they pleased, dress as they liked and for the first time, follow the occupations that they wanted, at least legally.

To meet the formidable challenges of these new freedoms, and in reaction to the vast social changes that had taken place, Leopold Zunz proposed a new movement  based on reforms whose objective was  to make religious services better understood and more attractive to a wide audience, by incorporating music and the local language.

Rabbi Abraham Geiger, who was a little more moderate, also suggested that observance might be changed to appeal to modern people. Geiger, was a learned scholar in both Tanach and German studies. His views framed the American Reform movement which began as these German “reformers” immigrated in the mid-1800s. By 1873, sufficient Reform congregations had emerged to organize as the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC).

For the  most part, the Reformers did not claim to be following halacha, which they largely abandoned, but viewed their reforms as a necessary matter of survival.

Mostly, they threw out the baby with the water.

The result of their efforts was a huge decline in Jewish literacy, an enormous increase in intermarriage, and in the end, many, far too many, were simply lost to Judaism, within one or two generations.

The Conservative movement within Judaism is a little different. It has its roots in the school of thought known as Positive-Historical Judaism, developed in 1850s Germany as a reaction to the more liberal religious positions taken by Reform Judaism and put into practice from the 1840s on in Reform congregations in Frankfurt and Berlin. The term Conservative was chosen to signify that Jews should attempt to conserve Jewish tradition, rather than reform or abandon it. In Israel, this movement is known as Masorati (traditional). They  feel free to innovate, but also profess support for halacha, as they see it and it interpret it, with freedom to innovate, often in reliance on casuistry.

Their numbers have been steadily declining for decades.

Only halachic Judaism is growing, according to the recent Pew study.

Like socialism, Lapidism by every name has failed whenever it was tried.

Mr. Lapid advocates passionately for equal rights for these other two movements in Israel. Not surprisingly, the progressive audience that came to hear him speak roundly applauded him.

Mr. Lapid’s says there is no freedom of religion in Israel.  In my view, he is not historic and his views are utterly indefensible.

Israel has complete freedom of worship for all.

But that’s not the point.

In truth, the allegations leveled by Mr. Lapid and others are not at all about freedom of worship.  They all recognize that freedom of worship exists. Rather, the allegations are primarily an argument about money. The government  – meaning the taxpayer – supports Islam, Christianity and the Druze, as well as halachic Judaism, but gives little support to the much smaller  non-halachic groups.

Since the government’s support is derived from taxpayer shekels, Mr. Lapid’s argument for  [proportional] “equality,” at least financially, is, in my view, defensible, but it’s the wrong way to go.

Personally, I am in favor of lower taxes and no government support of worship and sectarian education. In a democracy, taxpayers can give as they think best to whatever houses of worship they favor. They ought also have the freedom to educate their children in their setting of choice.

I am well-aware that owing to current political reality, that’s not happening anytime soon.  But a less radical change – a voucher system – could be implemented. The fact is that a voucher system is already in place for the highly successful haredi schools. They receive government funding for an alternative education system, proportional to their numbers and supplement their government allocation from private sources.

But that’s not even the half of it. There is another problem. The elephant in the room is civil marriage and divorce. What Mr. Lapid wants to change goes well beyond the allocation of money; he wants to open a Pandora’s box.

Registry of Jewish marriages in Israel is done by the Orthodox Rabbinate in accordance with halacha.

Mr. Lapid would change that, muy pronto.

According to present Israeli law, marriages in Israel are performed by sanctioned religious authorities — Muslim, Jewish, Druze, or Christian. In 2010, Israel passed the Civil Union Law, allowing a couple (including same-gender couples) to marry civilly in Israel, but only if both partners are officially registered in the population registry as not belonging to any religion, something many Jews are unwilling to do in order to marry.  Their alternative is to marry outside of Israel. Marriages performed by non-Orthodox Rabbis outside of Israel are recognized under Israeli law as are civil marriages consummated abroad. Nearby Cyprus is a favorite location for such civil marriages for couples who can’t – or don’t want – to be married under Rabbinic auspices.

I am not claiming that this is a perfect situation and I recognize that the status quo is not entirely logical. But an unseemly rush to judgment is wrong and the law of unintended consequences applies in spades.

Issues of personal status, particularly of marriage and divorce, relate directly to the existential questions relating to maintaining Israel’s character as a Jewish state, about which there is appropriate debate and no unanimity.  Changes are not to be made hastily, and have profound implications.

Resolution may seem simple, but there is at least one major problem: According to Jewish law, a civil marriage, although not ideal, still counts as a valid marriage after the fact, as a marriage is valid by contract (the ketuba), exchange of a thing of value (kesef) and cohabitation. Standard Jewish marriage practice combines all three.  In sharp contrast to marriage, civil divorce, does not count as a valid divorce according to Jewish law. Therefore, if a couple marries, either in a religious or a civil ceremony, and then divorces civilly, without getting a religious divorce, and then armed with the civil divorce, if the woman were to remarry civilly, then any children born in her second marriage would have the status of mamzerim, the product of a forbidden marriage.  Without a Jewish divorce,  Jewish law considers her married to her first husband. Such children, under Jewish law, can only marry others of the same status. They cannot marry other Jews. It’s a serious issue, and no ideal solution has been or is likely soon to be found. For this reason, the present situation has prevailed since the founding of the Jewish state in 1948.

I think that Lapid’s proposal – to lead a “struggle” for equality of Jewish denominations – and in effect to enact more laws and more government, is intemperate, totally wrong-headed, against his other policies, and will only exacerbate conflict.

What’s driving him?

I think it’s a combination of an appeal to the Cafe crowd that shares his  views, and the oldest driver in the world.

Power.

I am reminded, in this connection,  of the famous warning by John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton, the first Baron Acton (1834–1902) who wrote in a letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton in 1887:

“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

As John Adams warned, “The jaws of power are always open to devour, and her arm is always stretched out, if possible, to destroy the freedom of thinking, speaking, and writing. (A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law).”

Adams also warned us:

“Power always thinks it has a great soul and vast views beyond the comprehension of the weak; and that it is doing God’s service when it is violating all his laws.”

I think that the most charitable thing that can be said of Mr. Lapid’s remarks is that he was pandering to his audience, while ignoring the failed history of his message.

George Santanyana famously said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. He also observed, “Fanaticism consists in redoubling your efforts when you have forgotten your aim.”

Mr. Lapid: For more that 16 years, you were a TV personality. Perhaps my message will be best understood if it is conveyed in the language of TV audience measurement: Simply said, your message does not resonate. Your ratings are plummeting. Your share, the percentage of “eyeballs,” – television sets tuned to your program- is steadily dropping.

You need to find a new message.

David E Y Sarna is a writer and former entrepreneur. He has eight published books including his latest, Evernote For Dummies, V2. He has nearly completed his first novel about the Mossad and the Jewish treasures in the Vatican’s secret archives. He is hard at work on a book about the Talmud for general readers.

© 2014 by David E Y Sarna