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Pyrrhic victory for non-Orthodox Judaism

The outpouring of joy over the decision to fund Reform and Conservative communities is tragically misplaced

The Israeli and American non-Orthodox movements took a victory lap following the decision by Israel’s Attorney General requiring rural municipalities to fund the salaries of non-Orthodox rabbis of congregations with more than 50 member families. But though understandable, the joy is tragically misplaced. There are a number of reasons to be wary of the Attorney General’s decision.

First, the devil is in the details. The ruling does not apply to cities, where most non-Orthodox communities are found, and litigation regarding them is still ongoing. In addition, the relevant government ministries will have to develop standards for the appointment/recognition of rabbis who are not Orthodox. Since the fundamental concept of such a rabbi’s role is so different from its Orthodox counterpart, it is hard to see an Orthodox-dominated ministry developing fair and relevant criteria. Hard but not impossible, if there is good will. A big “if.”

Second, the way the decision was made lends it a certain fragility. It is not the product of an appropriate public debate about establishment, about recognition of “non-Orthodox established Jewish churches,” or even about who should make the decision. While certainly honorable, the decision is no more than a bureaucratic determination. It sets no official precedent, as it would if made by a court, nor does it create new law, as it would if enacted as legislation.

Third, religious establishments are inherently problematic. Non-Orthodox denominations have begun a transformation into what Israeli Orthodox Judaism has been for many years: established Jewish “churches:” the administrative/clerical structures of religious denominations. As we see around the world, wherever the state funds religion, religion is the loser. Over time, it becomes dependent, submissive and morally unattractive.

One of the puzzling anomalies in the relationship of American Reform Judaism with Israel is the fact that the American movement, so passionately dedicated to separation of church and state, never communicated this concern to its Israeli sister movement. Perhaps separation is a uniquely American institution. But, given the huge success of organized religion in the United States and its serious erosion in much of Europe, and given the politicization, corruption and radicalization that has infected Israeli Orthodoxy as a result of establishment, one is hard-pressed to explain the silence.

A Reform Wedding in Yafo (photo credit: Serge Attal/Flash90)
A Reform Wedding in Yafo (photo credit: Serge Attal/Flash90)

Tragically, Israeli non-Orthodoxy’s reluctance to stress this issue has ensured that no debate on establishment has ever taken place. In America, preventing an officially-recognized church protects churches, synagogues and mosques from the machinations of the politicians. It safeguards religion, which Americans have always viewed as a pillar of their democracy.

Israelis debate a very different subject – the “separation of religion and state,” an inherently anti-religious notion. It protects society from religion, not by eliminating it but by boxing the “church” into a corner where it is harmless. In France, for example, the public square is avowedly secular. Religion is confined to the private sphere even at the expense of curtailing freedom of expression. Through a system of governmental approval of religious and cultural organizations with various tax advantages, the religious institutions are implicitly limited in their practical ability to take independent stances without unsustainable financial losses. In other European countries the financial controls work somewhat differently, but the result is the same. By directly or indirectly funding religion, the secular state restrains a potential rival power center. It is easy to see why militantly secular people support this system.

It is much harder to understand why religious leaders would seek to join it. By becoming state-financed clerks of municipalities, non-Orthodox rabbis can now join the ranks of their Orthodox colleagues. But recall that establishment of the “Orthodox Jewish church” in Israel has reduced the standing of those Orthodox rabbis in the eyes of so many Israelis to something akin to, at best, the status of the manager of the local post office: just another director of a municipal service.

The Attorney General’s indirect recognition may work in the short run to ease the chronic financial predicaments of the non-Orthodox movements. Its long-term impact may well be as disastrous for Reform and Conservative Judaism in Israel as establishment has been for the Orthodox.

About the Author
Ed Rettig is the Chair of Shomrei Mispat, Rabbis for Human Rights.