The headline says it all.  One of my good friends, Mickey Gitzin, wrote a column for one of Israel’s top news sources with a headline proclaiming that an ultra-Orthodox political party “is turning off the light.”  On the most simple level, Mickey is referring to Shas’s insistence on making the country turn the clock back before Yom Kippur, an action which most of the country opposes.  However, there was a much deeper meaning behind those words.

Jewish tradition teaches that when God decided to destroy the Temple, the angels asked Him if they should go to Earth and put a mark on the head of the religious people to make sure they are spared since they had not sinned.  God responded, “No, I am punishing them first.”  The message behind God’s response and the intended lesson of this tradition are very clear.  If the nation feels disconnected from religion, the fault lies with the more religiously observant for failing to set the tone in making Judaism more appealing to the masses.  They are responsible for “turning off the spiritual light” of the people instead of igniting the nation’s spiritual flame.

How tragic that history is repeating itself.

Hiddush, a group which lobbies for religious freedom in Israel, just released the results of its fourth annual poll which was conducted by the Rafi Smith group.  The results showed that 67% of Israelis believe that the public feels more alienated from their Judaism as a result of the actions of the ultra-Orthodox political parties.  In other words, the ultra-Orthodox political leadership, whose sole purpose is to secure funding for ultra-Orthodox institutions while making unfair demands on the rest of the State, is turning most of the nation away from religion.  They are replicating the flaw which clearly existed at the time of the destruction of the Temple - focusing on their own piety at the expense of the rest of the nation.  According to our tradition, God was displeased with the more religious sector then, and I believe it is safe to say He is displeased with the leadership of that sector today.

Former Israeli Chief Rabbi Bakshi Doron addressed this issue in an interview with “Techumin” magazine in 2004 and said:

“The reality slaps us in the face.  I am not aware of any person who wants to marry a non-Jew who doesn’t do so because of the Marriage and Divorce law.   This law may have been symbolic for the Jewish state many years ago….however, as one who sits on the Jewish court and is very familiar with what transpires in Israeli society, I know how much damage comes from this law…Non-religious Jews know how to circumvent the law and don’t give the law any thought.  And, sadly, this law is one of the causes for the claim of religious coercion.  There is a large part of the population that simply wants to get married and they feel that this law intrudes and bothers them.  And they are correct.”

There is actually another negative dimension to this issue which a poll of this kind cannot reveal.  Aside from the fact that the broader population feels more distant from Judaism because of religious extremism, the coercion from the more religious side actually leads to direct violation of Torah law.  As Rabbi Doron explained:

“This law leads to the creation of ‘mamzeirut’ (children defined in Jewish law as bastards).  A Jewish woman who gets married without the Orthodox ritual and laws is still a Jewish woman and her children are Jewish and part of the nation on every level.  While, from the Orthodox perspective, of course, we would have preferred for them to marry in the traditional manner, it is actually worse to force her to become a married woman according to Jewish law who is then prohibited to have relationships with other men and all the problems which stem from that including her change in status.” 

In other words, forcing people to adhere to a level of observance which they don’t sincerely desire can actually cause them to violate Jewish law.  Holding people to a religious standard which they don’t want in the attempt to implement mass adherence to Jewish law has the opposite effect – damaging emotional connection to religion, causing disinterest in observing more rituals, and actually creating more religious violations!

From my perspective, one statistic revealed in the poll indicates how bad the situation has become.  Jews have always been known as the most compassionate, caring, and giving people on Earth.  And, yet, 78% of the population supports reducing state support for families with large numbers of children to encourage ultra-Orthodox men to join the work force.  This feeling does not stem from hate.  Its root is not anti-religious.  In fact, it is just the opposite.  It comes from an understanding that authentic Judaism actually demands sharing national responsibilities and working to earn a living.  Its source is also a recognition of the reality that once members of this community join the workforce, this will lead to a more moderate Judaism, and ,ultimately, a fulfillment of the deep desire within every  Jew for a Judaism which they can embrace.

As we prepare to turn back the clocks and bring physical darkness to our daily schedule while still in September, I hope that this new year will bring a united front against religious coercion and extremism.  Doing so will surely increase the spiritual light in Israel all year round.

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