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The Rabbinate is not why we’re here

No, Israel won’t fall apart if we end ultra-Orthodox control over issues of personal status

Earlier this week in a post on The Forward’s Sisterhood blog, Noga Gur Arieh identified an issue at the forefront of Israeli society: that religion is superseding democracy in a country that tries to balance the two values. She always imagined a non-Orthodox wedding, but Israel’s restrictions on marriage left her without other options within the country. 

I join Gur Arieh in her discontent with the state of religion and state in Israel. But she reaches a surprising – and disappointing – statement after speaking with her boyfriend about their wedding. She said she was reminded by him that, “the Orthodox rabbinate, the power center of the ‘Jewish’ part of Israel, is our country’s source of legitimacy.”

I couldn’t disagree more. If the ultra-Orthodox rabbinate is the source of Israel’s legitimacy, then this country has a big problem.

Gur Arieh quotes her boyfriend saying that, “this Orthodox rule, which truly discriminates against women, is the reason we are still here.” But she is wrong.

Discrimination against women, which is intrinsic to this ultra-Orthodox control, is not why we’re still here. The misogyny found in our texts is not what has maintained Jewish continuity. In fact, we have brilliant Bible scholars who find heroines in our history and organizations devoted to grappling with feminist values and Jewish tradition alike.

The ultra-Orthodox Chief Rabbinate holds a monopoly on issues of personal status in Israel, which includes all Jewish marriages. There is no civil marriage, leaving Orthodoxy as the only option for heterosexual Jewish couples in Israel. It mandates strict gender roles including pre-marital classes for women and the necessity to arrange a wedding date that does not fall during a woman’s menstrual cycle, lest the couple not be able to consummate their marriage that night. To be married, couples must say that they have never had sex with one another (whether or not it is true).

Because of the Rabbinate’s policies, 20,000 Israeli couples choose to marry abroad each year – and I wouldn’t be surprised if the number is growing. Every time I sing “If I forget thee Jerusalem, let my right hand be forgotten” at a friend’s non-Orthodox wedding, I cringe at the irony that this wedding could not take place and be considered legal, in Jerusalem.

The lack of freedom from religion and of religion is not “Israel’s source of legitimacy.” It is a source of shame for Israel, and for the collective Jewish people.

I wish from the bottom of my heart that Israel could be, as Gur Arieh writes, “a place Jewish people from all around the world could call home.” In many ways, it is, but in so many ways, it still falls short.

Israel is not a home for all Jews so long as president-elect, Reuven Rivlin, does not think Reform and Conservative Rabbis have legitimate rabbinic authority, and so long as my dream of being married by my father and brother, both Conservative rabbis, is impossible in Israel. Israel is not a home for all Jews so long as publicly funded radio stations ban women’s voices from the airwaves and large modesty signs demanding how women are to dress remain hanging in popular cities.

Yes, part of why Judaism has lasted for centuries is tradition. But tradition needs to do more than restrict. Our collective tradition has been informed by time, enriched by culture, and maintained by communities. It is practiced through art and poetry, study and prayer alike. Our tradition needs to be lived, and our people need to be allowed the choice in how to live it.

I am disappointed the all this conversation led Gur Arieh do is stop and think. Stop and think about what? That if we lose ultra-Orthodox control over issues of personal status in Israel, the country will fall apart?

I fear the exact opposite; that if this monopoly over religion remains, not only will we lose religion, but it will lose us.

About the Author
Sara Miriam Liben holds a B.A in Sociology from Columbia University and a B.A in Women and Gender Studies in Judaism from The Jewish Theological Seminary. She is interested in nonprofit consulting and creating a pluralistic Jewish future in Israel and the Diaspora. An avid coffee drinker, she welcomes you to continue the conversation over a cup of joe in Jerusalem where she currently resides.