There is a country in this world where a Jewish female soldier is barred from leading prayer in the local house of worship, where the family of a fallen soldier is forbidden to hold a Jewish funeral according to its custom, and where it is illegal for some Jews to be married. If this country were in Central Europe, Jews around the world would be thinking twice before going there; they would lobby their representatives in governments across the world to cut ties and levy sanctions. Petitions would be sent to the country’s leaders calling for religious freedom, and Abe Foxman would be rallying the might of the Anti-Defamation League to warn of a fresh resurgence of anti-Semitism. But as most readers already know, the country in which women cannot pray publicly during military service, where Jewish burial is restricted, and which Jews sometimes need to leave in order to marry is none other than the State of Israel.
Israel has always been a country full of contradictions, but none are as blatant as the current clash of new and old in this small Middle Eastern state. On one side of the country, literally the western half, Israel is heralded as the Start-Up Nation and Tel Aviv as the best gay city. On the other side of the country, in the capital city for which Jews have yearned for millennia, women are asked to sit at the back of the bus, neighborhood streets are segregated between the sexes, and poverty rates have reached record highs. The rift cleaving the country extends outside its borders, too, as the Jewish Diaspora grows more pluralistic and accustomed to a world of mixed-marriage couples raising their children Jewish while, in the homeland, the state-appointed Chief Rabbinate lays down ever-stricter rulings on whom Israel considers a Jew.
Power Corrupts, Even the Pious
Widening this rift is a wedge from Ottoman times, mistakenly kept in place by David Ben-Gurion during the days of the founding of the State. With the establishment of the State came the establishment of the Ministry for Religious Affairs, and with it the institutionalization of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. What was once a semiofficial body that enabled the Ottoman, and later the British, administration to coordinate with the religious communities of Israel became, with the establishment of the State, a government institution with a sizable budget, deep interests and a driving agenda to control the behavior of Israelis.
For those not intimately familiar with the Rabbinate, it is important to note that is not a ceremonial body; nor is it a voluntary one. The Rabbinate controls a sizable portion of the State’s employees and regulatory responsibilities. It is a body that directly impacts the lives of every citizen, Jewish or not, of the State of Israel. It determines how and whom Jewish citizens may marry, and how they divorce. It appoints municipal workers as rabbis in every Jewish city and neighborhood of the country, but none of them can be women, due to the rigid institutionalization of Orthodox Judaism.
It appoints judges to settle marital disputes, kashrut inspectors whom the restaurant sector relies upon, and burial societies that have a near-monopoly on the terms and payments associated with burial in the country. According to accounts, this amounts to billions of shekels presided over by a government body that bars women from significant representation and decision-making posts, and discriminates against the non-Orthodox majority of Israel’s Jewish citizens; billions of shekels that are not going to scholarships for universities, but rather to ultra-Orthodox yeshivot; billions of shekels that are not going to development projects to train the unemployed, but to neighborhood rabbis who have no congregations to serve.
Divorcing from the Establishment
If it were only the loss of money, dayenu. But the cost of the Rabbinate to Israel includes the social capital the Jewish State has been built upon: the allegiance of the Jewish People. Within Israel an increasing number of Jews, from Modern Orthodox to Reform, numbering in the thousands, are deciding to marry outside the law of the State, making great efforts to create a Jewish wedding that is divorced from the institutions of the State. Others, during the process of trying to marry through the State, are embarrassed and insulted that the country their family fought and died for is now rejecting them as Jews due to their non-Orthodox roots - a situation my family knows all too well. Hundreds of thousands of immigrants who survived Soviet Russia are barred from marrying their partners in Israel due to the Rabbinate’s rulings on their Jewishness, while tens of thousands of Ethiopians, guardians of the oldest traditions of Israel, are told that their Judaism has no place in the Jewish State.
Outside Israel, news is that the Rabbinate refuses to recognize the conversions of some American Orthodox rabbis and that the Rabbinate’s kashrut inspectors decided that the Orthodox Union’s supervision of Haagen Dazs ice cream isn’t good enough. Recent stories of the treatment of women in the public sphere, and incidents such as the president of Israel refusing to call a leader of the Reform movement a rabbi, demonstrate the obtuseness of the patriarchal Orthodoxy of the State toward the world population Israel needs most.
Instead of providing the Jewish People with services that strengthen their Jewish experience, the Rabbinate distances Judaism from Israel. It would be a mistake to blame the haredim for the situation, as many Israelis do. The problem isn’t the ultra-Orthodox, but rather the system that does not let the various tribes of Israel coexist according to each one’s own custom. Hatred is rising against the haredim due to the institutionalization of the Rabbinate and the fact that the Orthodox are installed in a position of power over others. Instead of Israel being the land in which all Jews, of all traditions and all backgrounds, can work together to rebuild a unified vision of the Jewish People, the Rabbinate has turned Israel into a gladiator pit for Judaisms, setting denominations at each other’s throats.
Yes to the Jewish State; no to the Rabbinate
This is why the continued existence of the Chief Rabbinate of the State of Israel is an existential threat to the unity of the Jewish People. Yes, work must be done in the Knesset to reform the system of government, but the connection between the Jewish State and the Jewish People is not up to the State alone. It is an issue for all Jews, around the world.
Those who believe the Diaspora’s sole right is to be seen supporting Israel while suppressing its yearning for a national home in Israel have forgotten that, as noted by interfaith activist Rabbi Richard Marker, “The 20th century taught us that ‘my country right or wrong’ is a disastrous value proposition.” The Diaspora has equal responsibility with the Israeli electorate for maintaining the connection between the Jewish State and the Jewish People, and must work with great haste and with all available resources to remove the rot corroding the connection between the two.
Our people had a dream, a Zionist dream. We dreamt that one day we would return to our land and rebuild ourselves as a nation, one where the Jewish People would reclaim its part in history as a collective actor. Our work is not done yet, and we’ll need Jews inside the State and outside of it to come together and affirm with one voice: yes to Judaism, and yes to the Jewish State; no to the Rabbinate. And we had better act swiftly. As of this year, 47 percent of Israeli first-graders are either haredi or Arab — none of them Zionist. What the Jewish People will do in the next two elections in Israel will determine not only the future of the State of Israel, but the future of the Jewish People and our third attempt at sovereignty.