Imagine for a moment a Jewish State where Judaism thrives; a place where people explore the depths of our ancient tradition to understand core values that guide a better life, and apply our tradition’s wisdom to new challenges as they arise; a marketplace of ideas, of values, of practices; a place where the wise men and women of Israel help balance the pressures of the world with the obligation of the individual to tikkun olam, creativity and service. What would such a land look like?
If there is one thing almost all of the Israeli demographic groups and factions agree about, it’s that Israel, with its assortment of institutions and status-quo compromises governing the relationship between Judaism and the Jewish State, is currently unable to create a Jewish State with a thriving Judaism.
As President Shimon Peres relates in his biography of Israel’s first prime minister, the leader most responsible for the current arrangement, “Ben-Gurion didn’t want a priestly establishment; he didn’t want any religious establishment. But Ben-Gurion decided not to fight this ideological battle. His leadership was based on prioritization — both because he believed this was the way to lead, and because the objective circumstances of coalition life dictated that you couldn’t deal with even two things at once.” (Peres, Shimon; Landau, David (2011-10-25). Ben-Gurion: A Political Life (p. 149).
What Ben-Gurion did not prioritize then, we need to prioritize now — to ensure that the State of Israel supports Judaism and the Jewish People. The system Ben-Gurion set in motion with his status-quo compromise resulted in a central Chief Rabbinate that sets up appointment committees to select judges for courts across the country.
Shas isn’t for everyone
Every Jewish municipality and even neighborhood has its own rabbi, theoretically mutually appointed by the local municipality and the Rabbinate, but in reality determined through political arrangements that require the local municipality to pay 75% of that rabbi’s salaries and expenses. The result is that in non-haredi areas, such as downtown Tel Aviv or the few remaining secular neighborhoods in Jerusalem, fully salaried rabbi who align themselves with the ultra-Orthodox Shas party “represent” the community and are the government-appointed authority for all tradition-related issues — little things like marriage, divorce and burial.
Recent attempts have been made to free locals from this system, to enable them to shop around for the State-appointed rabbi they feel a stronger connection to. Known as the Tzohar Law, this initiative does not, however, provide any measure of choice as to the identity of the rabbi one’s personal taxes are supporting. Nor does it insure that the individual who represents you best — say, a Reform rabbi, an Ethiopian kess, or a secular humanist — has the right to help you through life’s most sensitive passages. In the case of the Ethiopian community, for example, the Tzohar law only sharpens the problem: because the Chief Rabbinate has decided to actively de-fund, and thereby stamp out, the two-thousand-year-old Jewish tradition of Ethiopia, there will soon be no kessoh (what the Ethiopians held instead of a rabbi) for members of that community to go to.
Instead of this halfway compromise, we need to transition from the current set of Rabbinical institutions — which sow the seeds of hatred and division — into a new set of institutions that strengthen the connection between the People of Israel and the Tradition of Israel.
Let’s learn from Germany
The most promising proposal I have heard focuses on the recognition of the local character of tradition that already exists, and strengthening that localization by devolving power to the municipalities and the people of Israel. This proposal starts with the assumption that the relationship between tradition and politics in Israel will never be like that in the United States, in that the Jews were always both a tradition and a people, maintaining both a religion and a polity. Instead, the State of Israel should learn from European states — and more particularly, and ironically, the current system in Germany, where each individual is empowered through their contributions to the State to determine who will oversee their traditional affairs.
Picture the following scenario: Once every seven years, as part of a resident’s arnona (municipal taxes) billing cycle, she will also be asked to declare the local communal leader that represents her and her approach to tradition. Whether it be in Bnei Barak, Beit Shemesh, Tel Aviv or Taibeh, this would mean that the individual within a community would be able to allocate a percentage of her taxes to appoint and support an individual that represents the tradition she personally adheres to. In the lead-up to that seventh year, the rabbis and communal servants of Israel will be encouraged to meet their local community members, to speak with them about their beliefs, and to connect with them over shared values and approaches to life. Congregations that would like to have a more permanent rabbi could appoint one by donating their money, tax exempt, to a local community institution that would provide ongoing salary and benefits. But for those communities where maintaining one rabbinic figure over the years is less important, communal servants will change as the community’s values change.
Such a system would create a marketplace for communal servants, one where individual citizens would be able to meet and learn from the many voices our tradition developed over thousands of years. Where the current system forces Jews to passively receive an appointed rabbi, this new system would make them active, partnering with their local leaders to help spread their approach; teaching others why they believe that their way of living can lead to a better life for all, but without providing any group with the coercive power that has caused such horrible friction in Israel. When conflicts arise — for example, when a member of one community wants to marry a member of another — the two parties will resolve the problem the same way the Jewish people have solved similar problems over two thousand years of rabbinic tradition: through discussion and dialogue. That is, after all, the way of halakha.
Democracy is the answer
This system would be good for the haredim, in that they will have direct authority over who represents their local community, as it would be for the non-religious, in that they will be able to vote for a secular humanist who can perform local weddings and funerals that affirm the character of their lives in Israel. It would also be good for the Druze, the Christians, the Muslims, and the many other sub-sectors of our society where the monopoly over tradition is no less problematic.
To transition to such a system, the state would determine that instead of the municipalities financing 75% of their local rabbis’ budgets, within two years they will be responsible for the entire budget. The state would develop a platform with online, mobile and offline characteristics to enable the local municipalities to communicate who the local candidates are, and let those individuals make their case directly to the residents. And the state would encourage each municipality to institute a system of individual choice, but enable the local bodies to come to their own democratic decisions.
The Jewish State can be an engine for the growth of Judaism, and a center for the development of Jewish ideas and values. It can fulfill the prophetic dream whereby the nations come to Zion to learn from the wisdom of Israel. But before we take our place among the nations as a leader in ideas and ideals we must first deal with the baseless hatred that comes when one tribe tries to rule over the way of life of the others.