The Jewish religion as a public utility

American Jews often find religious arrangements in Israel anomalous. Why does a large non-Orthodox population (around 80% of the population) put up with an Orthodox near- monopoly on life cycle events (burial, circumcision), personal status (marriage and divorce) and prayer and religious services including at the most national and public of holy places (i.e. the Kotel)? State religious education too, is also largely tilted towards Orthodoxy. The state Orthodox system is about 20% of the school system while the more pluralistic Tali network for the teaching of Judaism in the general state system comprises about 2.5%.

The answers to this are on several levels. In this blog we will deal with one of these levels which is, that in Israel, religion has been, and is, largely conceived of as a utility. That is, it resembles the postal service or even water and gas.

In order to explain this, one should go back to the basic modality of religious identity and religious life in Israel. Religious life in Israel is organized according to a European model. According to European sociologists of religion, such as Grace Davie, this model has two aspects to it: 1) Religious identity is a function of collective identity, 2) Religious life and activity is organized around a state religious organization (“church”) which provides religious services for the collectivity. Thus, for Englishmen, part of being English is belonging to the Church of England. For centuries, Swedish subjects or citizens were inscribed at birth as members in the Swedish Lutheran Church. Only in 1952 did the Swedish Parliament pass a law which permitted one to retain Swedish citizenship while withdrawing from membership in the Swedish Church. In such a setup, one does not have to do anything to be an Anglican or Swedish Lutheran. One’s mere membership in the English or Swedish community makes one automatically into an Anglican or Lutheran. In other words, in this model, religious identity is not really a matter of individual choice or conviction, rather, it goes along with one’s national, ethnic or political identity.

I have identified this model with Europe, but in truth it characterizes most of the societies in the world. Viewed in a global context, it is the American model which emphasizes religious identity based upon individual choice and conviction which is anomalous. The American model probably derives from Protestantism and especially from Dissenting Protestantism, which formulates religious truth based upon one’s own religious conscience and reading of the Bible. One should remember that America was founded by people fleeing from the English state and the Church of England embedded in it so that they could practice Christianity as they, but not the English state, understood it. Uniquely in America, connecting religion to the state and to the state’s power of enforcement came to be viewed as a religious and political evil.

According to the European model, the collectivity maintains an institution which insures its continued religious identity, a state church. The state church and its staff, the clergy, practices religion and even believes for all the members of the society. It also provides religious services when they are needed by the broader population – especially at life cycle events such births, marriages and deaths. In that sense it is a public utility. It is supported by taxes and it is available to the entire population, like the postal service. Given this role, there is an understandable preference that the state church should reflect, to the extent possible, tradition, history and religious “authenticity”.

The Israeli model is clearly within the European paradigm. Jewish Israelis are automatically registered within the population registry in the Ministry of the Interior as of the Jewish religion. When the late writer Yoram Kaniuk wished to be registered as “of no religion” he needed an injunction from the Supreme Court in order to force the Ministry of Interior to accede to his wishes. At the same time, the court denied the petition filed by Prof. Uzi Ornan to be registered as “Israeli” instead of Jewish. In sum, in Israel, religious identity comes together with national membership and identity.

Similarly, Israel maintains a state religious organization, the Chief Rabbinate, whose task it is to maintain the religious identity of the national collectivity. The staff and functionaries of the Chief Rabbinate, especially, the municipal and local rabbis whose salary is paid for by the state, conduct religious prayers in the central synagogues on behalf of the entire population. Like their counterparts in Europe they also, keep the individual religious prescriptions (kashrut, Shabbat) and even believe for them. The Chief Rabbinate also (theoretically) provides religious services for the entire population – such as marriage and burial. The phrase sherutei dat “religious services” is well established in Israeli Hebrew and in it the term “services” (sherutim) should be understood as in the sense of “cleaning services” or “office services”. For years, the Histadrut whose members were personally pious or religious to various degrees maintained a department of “religious services”.

Thus in Israel, too, religion is a public utility supported by taxes.  As a utility, it is not something that one really thinks about nor is it really an object of personal choice or self-expression. No matter how inefficient or bothersome utilities are we generally accept them as “the way things are”. And in most cases we don’t even think about abolishing them or even breaking their monopoly (witness the passive acceptance of a truly outrageous utility – the Israel Electric Co.)  It is also recognized that insofar as it serves the entire (Halachically Jewish) population it should be organized according to the lowest common denominator, that is, in Orthodox fashion, so that even the most strictly Orthodox can benefit from the service that it provides. There are, of course, also historical reasons why the Chief Rabbinate is Orthodox and in addition, as in Europe, religious institutions are conceived of as something that ought to be historical, traditional and “authentic”.

Jewish communities in Europe have a similar arrangement. In Great Britain and France, there are central Jewish religious organizations of an Orthodox-traditional character (The United Synagogue and the Consistoire Central). In both of these, the Chief Rabbi is always Orthodox and religious services are conducted in central synagogues in traditional-Orthodox fashion. It is always understood that the individuals who might be attending such services need not be Orthodox and in fact most of them are not. It is expected that these central Jewish religious organizations provide life cycle services to the entire Jewish population – including marriage (sometimes to non-Jews) and burial.

This pattern is in Israel now being challenged, from two related but distinct directions. One direction is that religion should become something more personal, meaningful and voluntary, that is, should take more of an American cast. One important variant of this direction is “Jewish Renewal”. This refers to the conglomerate of programs, activities and organizations, whether sponsored by the state or non-profit organizations, that involve individual Israelis with their “Jewish roots” and Jewish tradition. Such involvement is accomplished by Jewish text study or involvement in – to one degree or another – creative Jewish ritual (Rosh Chodesh celebrations, Shabbat programs and services etc. ) The idea behind these programs is that – people “take ownership” of their Jewishness and their connection to Jewish tradition, they should make it personally meaningful. As befits a personally oriented Judaism, Jewish Renewal is committed to Jewish pluralism and celebrate non-Orthodox forms of Jewish expression. Some of these programs are massively funded by American Jewish donors and while key figures maintain that the movement reflects indigenous Israeli concerns and interests, it also seems to reflect a certain degree of American Jewish cultural influence.

A related but distinct approach is the reform of state religious institutions. Increasingly, feminists, liberals and representatives of non-Orthodox Jewish religious steams are pointing out that traditional state religious institutions are not sufficiently humane or egalitarian. This is especially evident as regards women and divorce law, where the power differential that religious law establishes between men and women has resulted in almost 200 women being refused writs of divorce and thus unable to exit their untenable marriages. These and other issues have led about fifteen percent of the population to opt out of the state rabbinate system of marriage, divorce and conversion. Further problems extend to women’s lack of equality in regard to prayer and religious services, especially in public and national holy places such as the Kotel. Another set of issues relates to the almost total exclusion of non-Orthodox streams from state sponsored religious sites and state funding.

It would seem to me that the way to go here is not the massive reformatting of the entire Israeli cultural pattern in a more American direction (including separation of Church and State), but rather to do as the many Western European countries have done – maintain the connection of religion to state and persist in the public utility model of the state religious organization. Yet, at the same time, make this organization more inclusive, more humane and more egalitarian. It would seem to me that the reforms proposed at the Kotel are a constructive move in this direction – the creation of state sponsored Orthodox and Liberal/egalitarian spaces of public worship.

About the Author
Dr. Shlomo Fischer is a sociologist and a senior staff member of the Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI) in Jerusalem. He teaches in the Department of Education at Hebrew University. He is also a founder of Yesodot- Center for Torah and Democracy which works to advance education for democracy in the State-Religious school sector in Israel. His research interests include religious groups, class and politics in Israel and the sociology of the Jewish People in the Diaspora.
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