My first reaction to the most recent episode of Religion and State in Israel was not anger but sadness. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that this latest round of fighting about religion and state in Israel began on Rosh Hodesh Tammuz, shortly before the 17th of Tammuz and the Three Weeks leading up to Tisha B’Av, since the Second Temple was destroyed because of Sinat Hinam — senseless hatred (Yoma 9b).
On June 26th, I heard Rabbi Moshe Gafni of the ultra-Orthodox Yahadut Hatorah party say on the radio with great arrogance that “they sit in the United States and interfere in what is happening here, even though they don’t have enough votes in Israel for even one member of Knesset. Neither they nor the Supreme Court will tell us what to do.” I also heard one of the radio interviewers say that those who don’t live in Israel and don’t pay taxes should not have a say about what goes on at the Kotel. On June 27th, I heard Rabbi Meir Porush of that same party, who is also the vice-minister of education, say that in March 2015 a new coalition government was created and the coalition has the right to decide whatever it wants about the status quo and religion and state in Israel.
My reaction to all of these statements is, to use the words of Rabbi Elazar Hakalir in his Kinah (elegy) for Tisha B’Av: Allilay lee — Woe is me! After 69 years of mixing religion and state in Israel, the “rabbis” of the Haredi parties are simply petty politicians who think that deciding what happens at the Kotel or “Who is a Jew?” is the same as deciding the income tax rate or the speed limit on Route 6. It is not. The Kotel belongs to the entire Jewish people; and “Who is a Jew?” is not an Israeli issue, but rather an issue facing Klal Yisrael, the collective Jewish people throughout the world.
These Haredi members of Knesset have long ago forgotten such basic mitzvot and concepts as:
“Do not hate your brother in your heart” (Leviticus 19:17);
“You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (ibid., v. 18);
“All Jews are responsible for one another” (Sanhedrin 27b = Shevuot 39a);
Klal Yisrael — the collective Jewish people;
“Jerusalem built up is like a city knit together” (Psalm 122:3)… a city that makes all Jews friends. (Yerushalmi Hagigah 2:6).
I frequently hear people say: It’s all because of Bibi Netanyahu; if Labor or Yesh Atid were in power, things would be different. Anyone who says this is simply not aware of how the Knesset has worked since 1948. Since no party is large enough to form a government by itself, it depends on 5 to 6 smaller parties. Since the two Haredi parties Yahadut Hatorah and Shas have a total of 13 members of Knesset out of 66 in the coalition government, this gives them the power to force the ruling party to do what they want. This has been the case since 1948 and it will continue to be the case unless the Knesset changes the rules of the game.
Reasons for optimism
Regarding the Kotel, I personally am quite optimistic. First of all, a survey done by Geocartografia for the Schechter Institute in May 2017 showed that 62 percent of Israelis are in favor of egalitarian prayer at the Kotel, while only 9.3% are opposed.
Second, thanks to the efforts of the Conservative/Masorti and Reform movements, there has been a mixed prayer area called Ezrat Yisrael near Robinson’s Arch in the Davidson Archaeological Park since the year 2000. I have prayed there on many occasions and I think that it is a much better place to pray than the “regular” Kotel. It is in the middle of the archaeological park, close to the Herodian road on which our ancestors walked 2,000 years ago when they went up to the Temple Mount, with a much better view of the Western Wall and the Temple Mount.
After the government put the Kotel agreement on hold on Sunday, it announced that it is budgeting NIS 20 million to build the large platform mandated by the Kotel agreement. Yes, it is true that there won’t yet be one entrance to the Kotel area with a choice of the separate or mixed seating areas, but I don’t think that is crucial. If we make our services there attractive, Israelis and tourists will vote with their feet and come to Ezrat Yisrael.
I say this because this is exactly what has happened with marriage in the State of Israel. 25% of Israeli couples are now being married outside of Israel. They don’t like the status quo monopoly of the Chief Rabbinate, so they have voted with their feet. They get a civil license in Cyprus or elsewhere and then many of them have a Jewish wedding ceremony with a Conservative or Reform rabbi in Israel. Therefore, the best reply to the Sinat Hinam of the Haredim is to have one million Jews pray at Ezrat Yisrael near Robinson’s Arch every year.
On the other hand, the Haredi parties also want to pass a new conversion law which will state that all matters of conversion are in the hands of the Chief Rabbinate. This is much more problematic than freezing the Kotel agreement and we should make every effort to scuttle this law. It would not only outlaw Conservative and Reform conversions, but also liberal Orthodox conversions currently being done by Rabbis Riskin, Stav, Farber (Giyur Kehalakhah) and others.
As I have explained elsewhere (Responsa in a Moment, Vol. II, Jerusalem, 2011, No. 24), the current Chief Rabbinate is actually Haredi and follows the strictest interpretation of the acceptance of the commandments and “Who is a Jew?”. The passage of a new conversion law would make this situation even worse. It would discourage many converts from making aliyah and make it harder for Russian and other immigrants to convert. In short, this new law is bad for the State of Israel and bad for the Jewish people.
As we approach the 17th of Tammuz and Tisha B’Av, let us not engage in Sinat Hinam towards the Haredim or towards the State of Israel. Let us rather redouble our efforts to get the Kotel agreement approved, to bring one million Jews to the Ezrat Yisrael section of the Kotel every year, and to scuttle the proposed conversion law. If we are patient and persevere, we will, in the end, prevail.
Rabbi Prof. David Golinkin is the President of The Schechter Institutes, Inc. in Jerusalem. The views expressed here are his own.