In a month or so, 150 rabbis and representatives of the public are set to vote on the future of Israel’s rabbinate—ostensibly choosing between maintaining the current status quo or opting for a more open-minded and publicly sensitive Orthodox leader.
More than any other institution in modern Israel, the Rabbinate is the product of a short-sighted and debased deal between the country’s Jewish religious and secular citizens to define the relationship between state and religion within Israeli society. When the State was founded, there were predominantly two Jewish denominations in Israel—religious and secular, with secular interchangeable with the category of non-religious. Since Judaism is a religion, the meaning of this duality was that Israeli society was divided between those who cared about Judaism and those who did not, those for whom being Jewish was a religious identity, and those for whom being Jewish, or in certain cases Israeli, was a national identity.
The deal negotiated between the parties was that the religious would be in charge of religion and the non-religious would receive basic freedom from religion, with the exception of a few instances, where this freedom would be limited (such as in the area of marriage) but would receive an adequate payoff for this in the form of coalition support.
Freedom of religion would basically be the inheritance of the non-Jewish population of Israel and Orthodox Jews alone, all of whom would receive support from the State for their religious ideologies and practices. The non-religious would have no freedom of religion, but since they were self-defined as non-religious, it was a freedom they felt they did not need and would not miss.
When compared to the United States’ model of the relationship between state and religion as outlined in the Bill of Rights, Israel’s democracy was profoundly flawed. The institution of the rabbinate violates both the Establishment and Free Exercise clauses which the First Amendment intuits as being so central to religious freedom and democratic civil society. These clauses do not insist upon a separation between state and religion, as the United States is a nation “under God,” but that government shall neither inhibit the inalienable right of every individual to follow one’s religious conscience, nor establish a preferred, particular religious denomination as the official religion of the country.
With the institution of the Rabbinate having been placed in the hands of the Orthodox, Israel both established Orthodoxy as the official Judaism of Israel, and gave it control over issues of marriage, divorce, and conversion, thereby limiting free exercise of religion from those areas which fall under the purview of its authority.
Regardless of who is elected as the next Chief Rabbi of Israel, the fundamental flaw embedded within the institution itself, and the damage it causes to Israel’s democratic and Jewish fiber, will remain. There is no doubt that Rabbi Stav of Tzohar would be a more friendly Orthodox rabbi who will ensure that the meting out of Orthodox law would be done in a more sensitive and user-friendly manner. He will combat the ever-increasing opting out of rabbinate-governed ceremonies by providing a more attractive Orthodox product. At the end of the day, however, it will remain solely an Orthodox product, and as such, regardless of his skill and good intentions, a flawed product.
Israeli society in its 65 years has undergone significant transformations. We are no longer a society bifurcated along religious and secular/non-religious lines. The vast majority of secular Israelis are no longer merely Jewish in its national sense but Jewish in its religious sense. While the synagogue remains an institution which does not serve the needs of most secular Jews, Jewish ritual, calendar, values, culture, and even some study have become integral parts of the lives of most Jews. Even the Orthodox in Israel are far from a monolithic group. Leaving aside the ultra-Orthodox, who by the way want to control the Rabbinate but do not use it or accept it as an authority in their own lives, and whose extra-rabbinic institutions receive unofficial sanction from the official Rabbinate, the rest of Orthodoxy in Israel is profound and diverse and filled with nuances and innovations far greater than their North American counterparts.
However, unlike their North American counterparts, Orthodox and liberal alike, Israelis have yet to parlay their individual commitments into a self-identified sense of religious rights, into a freedom of religion within their personal and public lives. And so, they too will vote to pick the next Orthodox Chief Rabbi of Israel, a vote which may enhance the stability of the coalition but which will continue to harm their religious freedom and religious expression.
The nature of Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people may rightly give preference to Judaism as part of the national heritage of the majority of its citizens, all the while protecting the freedom of religion of non-Jewish Israelis. The Jews of Israel may be one people “united under Judaism,” but precisely because of that we need a rigorous Establishment clause amending the Basic Law of Human Dignity and Freedom which ensures that no denomination or approach to Judaism is established as the preferred Jewish religion of the State.
Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people invites Judaism, its culture, language, calendar, values, and ideas to enter into the public sphere and to shape the nature of our public life. It does so, however, not because Jewish law is binding within the confines of a Jewish state, but because it reflects the values and heritage of the people who constitute the majority of this nation.
This people, however, do not live monolithic Jewish lives, nor do we agree either on the nature of Jewish law or its authority. The only Judaism that has any claim to a place within the homeland of the Jewish people is a Judaism which mirrors this diversity and disagreement. Israel as a Jewish and democratic state can have a state-sponsored Rabbinate, as well as state-sponsored Christian, Muslim, and Druze courts. It cannot, however, allow any one of these institutions to be defined and controlled solely by one denomination, nor grant them authority over those who choose to exercise their free exercise rights to opt out.
Next month we do not need to vote on the identity of the next Orthodox Chief Rabbi of Israel but on the identities of the next Chief Rabbis of Israel, rabbis who will ensure that the Jews of Israel have a right to freedom of religion, as well.
In the past, secular Jews were willing to relinquish their Jewish rights on the altar of a coalition which would serve Israel’s foreign policy and security needs. Our new coalition has ushered in a new era in modern Israeli life, an era in which a coalition is forged not around a consensus on foreign policy, but on a consensus that the future of Israel is dependent on the nature of our society, its values, and economic equality. It is now time for the new coalition and indeed the new Israel to step forward and lay new foundations and meaning for Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.
By Donniel Hartman Reprinted with permission from the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem