When Religion Is Used as a Cudgel

The one-two punch of Debra Nussbaum Cohen’s front-page article in The Jewish Week (RCA Seen Caving on Conversions, February 29) and Gershom Gorenberg’s piece in the Sunday Magazine of The New York Times (Proving You’re a Jew, March 2) serves as a painful reminder of one of Israel’s most vexing problems. Increasingly, the ultra-Orthodox rabbinical establishment that, ostensibly as an instrument of the State, controls matter of personal status there, is essentially “making Shabbos for itself.”

Answering to no one, including Israel’s secular Supreme Court, Israel’s rabbinical courts have become ever more strident and arbitrary in their demands of those seeking religious services recognized by the State. With no option for civil marriage within the country, getting married in Israel is often nothing short of a nightmare, especially for those who are asked to prove that they are Jewish and lack readily-available documentation.

Non-religious Israelis dread their encounters with the officially sanctioned rabbis and their bureaucracy, and now even Orthodox rabbis here in America are finding themselves victims of exactly the same kind of insulting distrust that non-Orthodox rabbis like myself have suffered for many years.

In the name of their own extraordinarily strict and regressive read of Jewish law, the ultra-Orthodox have decided that if you are not one of them, you are, in a religious sense, persona non grata in Israel, and in the Diaspora too. Political considerations make the government leadership disinclined to deal with them. Those in power tend to like to stay in power.

What remains? Citizens who are asked to sacrifice for their country, potentially with their lives, but who have to make a profoundly alienating jump through hoops to get a marriage license. And, an Israeli government that routinely looks to American Jews for support, but whose own religious establishment routinely disrespects those Jews in a breathtakingly cavalier manner. It’s not a pretty picture.

Over the almost three decades of my service as a Conservative rabbi, I have struggled to balance my unshakable and unequivocal support for Israel’s existence and security with an increasing sense of outrage over the state of religion and religious life there.

What has made my struggle even more complicated, of course, is that it becomes my congregation’s struggle as well.

I am intensely reluctant to focus my congregation’s attention in a disproportionate way on the religious pluralism issue, for fear of losing the necessary focus on core issues. Of course Israel’s existence and security are the most important issues. In times of crisis, neither I nor my colleagues would be foolish enough to lose that perspective, and cause our congregants to lose theirs.

The problem, though, is that there is rarely a “good time” to bring the issue to the fore. When we do point it out- as Ms. Nussbaum and Mr. Goremberg did this weekend- we non-Orthodox rabbis are often accused either of whining, Orthodox-bashing (Can’t we all just get along?), or of failing to see the forest for the trees. In a time of Ahmadinejad and Sderot, God knows Israel faces serious existential issues.

But here’s the thing (in my humble opinion, of course) — the nature of religious life is also a serious existential issue for Israel.

When its own citizens are becoming alienated from the country they are called on to risk their lives for because of out-of-control rabbis, that is an existential issue. And when the Diaspora Jews who are needed to support Israel both financially and politically are feeling ever more disenfranchised and devalued, that too is an existential issue. When is it OK to talk about this?

Perhaps now that my Orthodox colleagues are feeling the slings and arrows of Ultra-Orthodox disrespect, they will be increasingly willing to join the fight against religious extremism in Israel. Some are already speaking out.

It is an act of courage within Orthodoxy to admit that being ever more machmir (strict) in the application of Jewish law is not necessarily a good thing. But this is a time for courage. Israel needs that kind of courage as much as it needs it on the battlefield.

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.