I read with great interest Amanda Borschel-Dan’s in-depth look at the revolt by Orthodox Israelis against the Chief Rabbinate of the State of Israel. It surveys the abuses and incredibly strict interpretations of Jewish law exhibited in the Chief Rabbinate’s attitude towards marriage, conversion and kashrut. Indeed, there is nothing new about most of this criticism. I made many of the same points in my article “Abolish the Chief Rabbinate” (The Jerusalem Report, November 28, 2013). The big news is that many Orthodox Jews and rabbis in Israel have now realized what Conservative and Reform rabbis have been saying for years — the Chief Rabbinate is doing an excellent job of driving Jews away from Judaism. Thus, it is very important that the current revolt against the Chief Rabbinate is now being spearheaded by Orthodox rabbis and laypeople in Israel, including Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, the longtime Chief Rabbi of Efrat and Rabbi David Stav, the head of the Tzohar Rabbinical Organization, who also ran for the position of Chief Rabbi of Israel in 2013.
In a blog in The Times of Israel (July 5, 2015) I further showed through numerous sources that the Sages of the Talmud and Midrash believed in pluralism in the interpretation of the Torah, pluralism in human beings, and pluralism in halakhah. I explained how the Chief Rabbinate’s opposition to religious pluralism — and their belief that one type of Judaism fits all — is the antithesis of the rabbinic attitude towards pluralism.
Now, I would like to add two further points to this ongoing debate:
Religious coercion in the State of Israel is doomed to failure because religious coercion is always doomed to failure.
The Torah portion of Shemot, the beginning of the book of Exodus, offers an excellent example of the way in which coercion does not work. We read that the new king of Egypt forced the Children of Israel to build the garrison cities of Pithom and Raamses. “But the more they oppressed [the Children of Israel], so did they increase and spread out, so that [the Egyptians] came to dread the Children of Israel.” (Exodus 1:12). Resh Lakish noted in the Talmud (Sotah 11a) that the two verbs in this sentence “yirbeh” and “yifrotz” [increase and spread out] are written in the future tense. But they should have been written in the past tense. God is informing the Jewish people that they will increase and spread out in the future. In other words, oppression will ultimately lead to increase and spreading out.
Similarly, a modern commentator noticed that the word “y’anu” [oppressed] is in the future and not in the past tense: “Scripture promises us that always when they oppress the Children of Israel, in the final analysis the results of the oppression will be positive. Always after persecutions and difficult oppression, we emerge stronger and more fortified (Iturei Torah, Shemot, p. 11).
Needless to say, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel is not Pharaoh. But the general point about coercion is still clear. In the final analysis, coercion does not work. Those being coerced will find a way around the coercion, they will increase and spread out, and they will emerge stronger and more fortified.
A similar point was made by Solomon ibn Verga in his Shevet Yehudah, a historical account of the persecutions against the Jews, written in Italy in the 1520s. He had survived the expulsion from Spain in 1492, was forced to live as a converso in Portugal in 1497, and escaped to Italy in 1506. He describes a Persian king who persecuted the Jews followed by the Muslims who captured Persia. “And the Ishmaelite king was a merciful king…and he sent and called the Jews and said to them good things and promises that they should observe whatever religion they wanted, because a coerced religion is always useless” (Shohat edition, Jerusalem, 1947, p. 21). Solomon ibn Verga liked to use imaginary dialogues and discussions by historical figures in order to say what he wanted to say. It is doubtful that a Muslim ruler made this statement. Rather, I believe that ibn Verga was saying to the Catholic Church and to the Inquisition in his time: You may force us Jews to convert, but a coerced religion is always useless.
Finally, we can prove the futility of religious coercion by thousands of examples throughout history. Did the excommunication of Spinoza in 1656 prevent the spread of his ideas? Did the fact that Galileo spent the last eight years of his life under house arrest (1633-1642) disprove his proofs that the earth revolved around the sun?
To return to the State of Israel today, Rabbi David Stav himself pointed out during his campaign for the Chief Rabbinate in 2013, that 25% of young couples in Israel are now getting married abroad at civil ceremonies in Cyprus, Prague and Burgas. The same thing is now happening regarding conversion and kashrut. Eventually, most Israelis will get married, be converted and obtain kashrut certificates outside of the Rabbinate. It is only a matter of time. As it says in Exodus: the more people are coerced, the more they increase and spread out. Or, as ibn Verga wrote 500 years ago: “a coerced religion is always useless.”
Since the Enlightenment, all Jews are Jews by choice.
In rabbinic literature, there are two classic descriptions of the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people. The first, which is found in many places in rabbinic literature (Sifrei Deuteronomy, paragraph 343; Mekhilta Bahodesh, chapter 5; Avodah Zarah 2b), describes God offering the Torah to all of the nations before Israel. The children of Esau, Ammon and Moab, and Ishmael all turn down the Torah because they cannot accept one specific commandment. “After that, he came to [the people of] Israel. They said ‘na’aseh v’nishmah, We shall do and we shall listen'” (Exodus 24:7). In other words, the Jewish people accepted the Torah voluntarily and with complete autonomy.
The second passage is found in the Talmud (Shabbat 88a and Avodah Zarah 2b): “‘And they stood at the foot of [or: under] the mountain’ (Exodus 19:17) — said Rabbi Avdimei bar Hamma bar Hassa: This teaches us that God inverted [Mt. Sinai] over them like a huge basin and said to them: if you accept the Torah — good; and if not: here will be your grave.” In other words, God gave the Jewish people an ultimatum: accept the Torah or die.
As Prof. Ephraim Urbach pointed out in his classic work (Hazal, Jerusalem, 1969, p. 289), Rabbi Avdimei’s opinion is a da’at yahid, a lone opinion, which contradicts Exodus 24:7 and all the other Sages who discussed this topic. In other words, in rabbinic literature, the majority opinion is that we should accept the Torah and observe the mitzvot voluntarily and not out of coercion.
True, we can bring many examples from the talmudic and medieval periods of rabbis or rabbinic courts forcing Jews to do certain things, usually by threat of excommunication. But that method and approach has all but disappeared since the French Revolution, because Jews no longer live in ghettos; they are free to live where they want and do what they want. As a result, we can no longer force Jews to believe certain dogmas and observe the miztvot. Rather, we can teach Jews the Torah and show them how to observe the mitzvot by example. It could be that Rav Avdimei’s method of a mountain over the head worked in talmudic and medieval times. It simply does not work today. Today, all Jews — not just converts — are Jews by choice. We need to teach Torah and mitzvot in an open and loving fashion so that modern Jews will voluntarily and autonomously decide to say “we will do and we will listen.”
Unfortunately, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel is still living in the pre-modern era. It believes that you can coerce modern Jews into Jewish belief and practice. That is why it will eventually be abolished or become totally irrelevant to the State of Israel.