MK Gafni: ‘Judaism is not egalitarian’

The court will hear Nation-State Law appeals on December 22nd

On the day the “Equality Bill” passed an initial vote in the Knesset, I heard MK Moshe Gafni (A Haredi/ultra-Orthodox  party) say on the radio “Judaism is not egalitarian.”  I thought that this was outrageous and disturbing, although I understood where he was coming from.

While my understanding of Judaism is that there are many legitimate streams of Judaism, his understanding is that there is only one legitimate Judaism, with some relatively minor permissible variations.  MK Gafni gave the example that in (his) Judaism, men and women have different roles.   In the Haredi world, many fear that codifying equality could lead to the State impinging on their way of life. I am sure that, were this the only issue, the final version of the law could be written in a way that allows such forms of inequality for those who choose that way of life.  While he didn’t bring it up, I wonder what MK Gafni would say about equality between Jews and non-Jews He and his party supported the “Nation State Bill,” that makes de facto inequality between Jews and non-Jews In Israel de jure in a way that no similar bill in other countries does.  It also strengthens the role of Judaism as the official state religion. To MK Gafni’s credit, he has generally been an advocate for reducing inequality between the wealthy and those living in poverty, including a large percentage of his party’s constituents.

If MK Gafni had simply said, “My branch of Judaism doesn’t believe in equality,” my reaction would simply have been, “Well, mine does. Let’s talk about it.”  His statement outraged and saddened me because he spoke in my name as well. I respect MK Gafni’s right to understand Judaism differently than I do, and God has never spoken to me directly and told me that my understanding is the true understanding of God’s Will. However, MK Gafni’s claiming to speak for all of Judaism, delegitimized my Judaism. It also defamed and disparaged Judaism in the eyes of those who don’t know that he only speaks for one stream of Judaism.

One of the early members of my former organization, Rabbis For Human Rights, was Rabbi Max Warschawski z”l.  He was an Orthodox rabbi, former chief rabbi of Strasbourg, and a candidate to be the chief rabbi of France, as well as a partisan who fought against the Nazis. At a memorial event Rabbi David Rosen told the story I have repeated here in the past. They were visiting refusniks in the Former Soviet Union, and there was a debate among the Jewish refusniks whether or not to support the human rights struggle of Andrei Sakharov. Some argued that his cause was “not Jewish.” Rabbi Warschawski said, “Judaism is the oldest human rights organization in the world.”

“Human rights” and “equality” are not necessarily identical.  We can fight for equal opportunity, equal treatment, and society’s obligation towards those who have fallen behind, while acknowledging that people can have different abilities, interests and cultures.  As far as I know, Rabbi Warschawski didn’t advocate for counting women in a minyan (Jewish prayer quorum for which the Orthodox only count men.) However, what brought us together as Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist and humanist rabbis, was the belief in the intrinsic equality of every human being stemming from the belief that every human being is created in God’s Image.

In our Torah portion (Miketz), there is no discussion per se, of Judaism or of equality.  Egypt is a very stratified society, and we already saw last week the disparaging attitude towards non Egyptians that Potiphar’s wife exploits. Nevertheless, Joseph rises to power this week because his talents are recognized (And because God is with him.) We will see next week that the system Joseph devises this week to survive the coming years of famine will save many from starvation by unnecessarily creating inequality.  Rather than giving all those who contribute to the granaries during the seven years of plenty a share they can claim during the years of famine, he will force them to pay for grain. When they run out of money, they will need to give all of their lands to Pharaoh in order to buy grain.

This is precisely the point. There were many possible ways to prevent starvation, from repenting, as do the citizens of Nineveh in the Book of Jonah, to giving everybody credits for the grain they contribute, to disenfranchisement.  Each of us has our own understanding of Judaism today.  Each of us has our understanding of Zionism, equality and whether they are compatible in the State of Israel. When we claim that our truth is the only possible truth, and that there is only one possible solution to the challenges we face, we create a dark reality of inevitability.

This coming Tuesday, Israel’s High Court will hear 15 appeals challenging Israel’s discriminatory Nation-State Law. One of those appeals is an appeal by 45 Israel Prize winners (Israel’s highest civilian honor) organized by Torat Tzedek’s chairperson, Yoav Haas. That appeal focuses on the fact that the principles of “equality” and “democracy” do not appear in the law. Unlike every similar law around the world that we are aware of, Israel’s law does not even mention our minorities, let alone grant them equality.  Yoav organized a second appeal in which I am also an appellant. In addition to arguments about equality and Israel’s Declaration of Independence, the appeal argues that by strengthening the standing of (Orthodox) Judaism, there is a danger that this will lead to Jewish women who do not wish to do so being forced to adjudicate their personal status issues in (Orthodox) rabbinic courts. That appeal will unfortunately only be heard after the conclusion of the deliberations on the 15 to be heard on the 22nd.

We stand at yet another crossroads.  Along with all of Joseph’s traits worth of emulation, may we learn this Shabbat from his intentional or unintentional mistake of pursuing the crucial goal of saving human life by creating inequality. On the 22nd, and in their subsequent deliberations, may our judges have the wisdom to understand that we can pursue the worthy goal of Jewish physical, cultural and spiritual wellbeing in our homeland without succumbing to dark visions that this requires discrimination and inequality.  May we allow those who voluntarily choose to submit themselves to what we consider to be discrimination to make their own cultural and religious choices, while cultivating Judaisms, Zionisms and socioeconomic systems engendering equality.

Shabbat Shalom

About the Author
Rabbi Arik Ascherman is the founder and director of the Israeli human rights organization "Torat Tzedek-Torah of Justice." Previously, he led "Rabbis For Human Rights" for 21 years. Rabbi Ascherman is a sought after lecturer, has received numerous prizes for his human rights work and has been featured in several documentary films, including the 2010 "Israel vs Israel." He and "Torat Tzedek" received the Rabbi David J. Forman Memorial Fund's Human Rights Prize fore 5779. Rabbi Ascherman is recognized as a role model for faith based human rights activism.
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