In all the frenzy of preparations, cleaning, and shopping for Passover, we tend to overlook the holiday’s focus on freedom – freedom from bondage – at least until we open the Haggada and remember, if we’re not too tired, why we are celebrating. In Israel, we have even more reason to rejoice because we are observing our deliverance from slavery in our own country, where we are, finally, after thousands of years of persecution and oppression, free to be Jewish.
The problem is that we aren’t. Because of politics and coalition considerations, a minority among world Jewry is defining what Jewish means in Israel. Liberal Judaism is not considered Jewish in Israel. Marriages and conversions performed by Reform and Conservative rabbis are not considered kosher. Thousands of people cannot marry in Israel because they are not considered Jewish, though they came here as Jews under the Law of Return. Thousands of women are chained (agunot) in marriages that are untenable. All because the government of Israel has relinquished its mandate over matters of marriage and divorce to the narrow interpretation of Orthodox and increasingly ultra-Orthodox religious authorities.
Yet Judaism has always had a spectrum of opinions and practices, customs and traditions. Just open the Talmud and you can see the arguments stretching back centuries. We have always been able to be flexible enough to accommodate change within the parameters of halakhah. In other words, we have always been encompassing, pluralistic. Unfortunately, the Orthodox establishment in Israel, which has been given the keys to matters of personal status, refuses to acknowledge this. Rather than attempting to meet the needs of the wide range of Jewish citizens it is meant to serve, it is becoming more and more stringent and, in some cases, more and more extreme. So what we have here is a dictatorship of a minority in areas that affect so many of us on a personal level, a democracy without freedom of religion.
If we are finally free to be Jewish in Israel, we cannot condone the minority definition of Judaism that is leaving so many people outside its narrow confines, or the bondage that forces so many people to marry abroad or remain chained to marriages they no longer want to be in. Without having to marry and divorce as Jews, most of us will do so anyway. There is no legislation forcing parents to circumcise their male children, yet the vast majority of Jewish parents in Israel do so. There is no legislation forcing Jews to sit shiva, yet the majority does so. There is no legislation forcing people to have a Seder, yet the vast majority of Israel’s Jews have Seders every year, on various levels of observance. (Today’s survey published in ynet proves this point)
Let us celebrate the differences and diversity of who we are. We are not uniform. We can remain bonded as a people, but not by legislation or coercion. As we celebrate our deliverance from bondage, let us strive to create a stronger bond among ourselves through greater freedom.