Why Israelis do not really care about pluralism in the Rabbinate

Here is an apparent paradox: almost everybody in Israel dislikes the State Rabbinate. Seculars, traditionalists, even religious people. Haredim despise it and care only about the jobs it provides. In the same time, most Israelis would not lift a finger to try to change the situation and for example open it to non-Orthodox streams or at least force it to allow more leniency on weddings or conversions.

Full disclosure: I support the privatization of the State Rabbinate and think the State should not, in an ideal world, deal with personal status matters.

The State Rabbinate is indeed widely unpopular, seen as ineffective, corrupt, detached from people’s problems, unwelcoming to non-religious people, and sometimes even to them. But on the other hand, most Israelis also have a very limited contact with the Rabbinate during their life. It adds up to two main events in their whole existence: wedding and later, for a minority, divorce.

These events are among the most significant in anybody’s life and you do not want them to be spoiled by absurd bureaucracy and unnecessary headaches. But the truth is that, in most cases and for most Israeli Jews, things go relatively swiftly. Some parts can be a little unpleasant, but overall, the process is not very different from any bureaucratic process in Israel. You do it, you waste some time, you fill a few documents that makes no sense to you, it’s over and you can focus on your wedding ceremony and what really matters: the dress, the DJ or the band, the food and alcohol, and the most crucial — seating arrangements.

The issue that interests most American Jews, religious pluralism, is of no concern for the overwhelming majority of couples. They would in any case ask an “Orthodox” rabbi to perform at their wedding. There is no “Orthodox Judaism” in Israel and there are no streams. There is just “Judaism”, it is the traditional orthodox flavor, and that’s what people recognize as Judaism. Reform or Conservative Judaism are not unknown, they are present, spend a lot of money to expand, and still do not succeed because they are perceived as alien American religions. That’s the hard part maybe for most people to understand: if tomorrow full religious American style pluralism was adopted, Israelis, but a few minority, would still marry with an Orthodox rabbi.

Contrary to what is often said, you can get married with a Reform rabbi in today’s Israel. The wedding will not be recognized as legitimate by the State, but the ceremony itself is not illegal. You then need to get a civil wedding in a foreign country to receive the “married” status.

This is absurd, nobody will contest it. But it also does not bother most Jewish citizens. They are very few people who *can* get married with the State rabbinate and chose not to (probably under 2% of the couples). More people would like to marry with the rabbinate but can’t, and this needs solving. But as it concerns mostly non-halakhically Jewish new immigrants from the former USSR, don’t expect the majority of the population to take up the streets.

They will not because it is not important enough in their eyes when Israel is facing so much other life and death, or even just important, issues like Iran, Gaza, the economy, and so on.

They will not when the issue is framed as an Israel-Diaspora problem and they get the feeling that people living thousands of kilometers from here want to impose their opinions on them. You want to change Israel ? Make Aliyah, become a citizen, and vote. You want to stay in your country ? Fine but do not tell us how to live.

The truth is, most Israelis do not even understand why this issue is so important to American Jews. If Israelis who have to live with the Rabbinate do not think it is a serious enough cause to fight for, why are people who do not have to suffer it so inflamed about this subject ? Maybe they should concentrate on their own, huge, predicaments, like assimilation, intermarriage and the weakening of Jewish identity among the younger generation that threatens the very existence of the American Jewish community.

About the Author
Former Spokesman for MK Sharren Haskel, former Advisor to Mayor of Jerusalem, Binyamin is currently a consultant for public and private organisms. He made Aliyah from France in 1996.
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