Beginning of the end of Orthodox hegemony
We are witnessing the beginning of the end of Orthodox hegemony - increasingly, it has been Orthodox tyranny - over Israel's Jewish populace. The forces of darkness are receding: slowly, perhaps, but surely.
Last week, in a landmark ruling, the High Court of Justice ruled that the principle of equality obligates the state to fund the services provided by non-Orthodox as well as Orthodox religious denominations. In response to a petition by the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism, a panel headed by Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch ruled that the state cannot discriminate against Reform conversion classes by providing funding only to Orthodox ones.
The implications of this for Israeli society, indeed for world Jewry, cannot be overestimated. We are witnessing the beginning of the end of Orthodox hegemony - increasingly, it has been Orthodox tyranny - over Israel's Jewish populace. The forces of darkness are receding: slowly, perhaps, but surely.
Since the state's creation, the Orthodox rabbinate has held uncontested sway over all personal-status issues - marriage, divorce, burial and, generally, the privilege of determining who is a Jew. This arrangement was tolerable for a while, but now is breaking down. The rabbis made the classic blunder of overreaching. The centrist Jewish Orthodoxy of the state's founding generation gave way to a stricter, narrower, hard-line ultra-Orthodoxy, with Jewish law being interpreted in an ever-more rigid and exclusionary fashion. The low point came last autumn, when a rabbinical court in Ashdod - in a shocking, unprecedented and halakhically questionable ruling - annulled a conversion retroactively, 13 years after it took place, because the woman was not living an Orthodox lifestyle.
The outcry in Israel was huge, and even the centrist Orthodox sector was outraged. But I will admit that I was pleased, feeling in my gut that the ruling was so bad, it was good. When even moderate modern Orthodox in places like Ra'anana and Modi'in feel alienated from the religious establishment, clearly the Rabbinate has gone too far. The backlash was inevitable, and Beinisch was only signaling its beginning.
For as the ultra-Orthodox men who took over the Rabbinate are steadily narrowing its approach, the Israeli public - according, for example, to a recent Market-Watch survey - is becoming more open, more diverse in its Judaism and more nuanced. The non-Orthodox movements are all growing, and spiritual teachings and pluralistic Jewish learning are on the rise. The Supreme Court justices live among us, after all, and are also witnesses to the intolerable conflict between the Judaism dictated by the Rabbinate and the Judaism of the people. The ultra-Orthodox segment of the population, while growing, still constitutes less than 15 percent of Israel's Jewish population. But in trying to impose its worldview on the rest of us, it has drawn fire, not just from the tiny non-Orthodox streams, but now, increasingly, from mainstream Orthodoxy as well. Already 20 percent of Israeli Jews opt out of getting married legally in Israel because the only way to do so is through the auspices of the state Rabbinate.
Israel's High Court has been, over the years, a bulwark against the worst Orthodox affronts to our civil liberties. But until now, the court's favorable progressive rulings did not challenge head-on the core issues of religious freedom, even as they were expanding the rights of non-Orthodox movements to receive public funding for non-religious programs, such as education and immigrant absorption. Coincidentally, the same day that the High Court issued its landmark decision last week, it also ordered the infamous Ashdod rabbinical court 90 days to justify its own draconian action. My own Reform community - Kehilat Yozma in Modi'in - was the beneficiary of an interim ruling in 2007 that led to the establishment of the first-ever government-funded non-Orthodox synagogue in the state's history.
So, we've been chipping away at the edges of Orthodox hegemony, but until now, not at its core. Last week's ruling, though, constituted a fundamental victory for religious pluralism. Progressive (Reform) Judaism is now a valid religious expression here. The ruling states that even though these conversions may not be recognized by the Rabbinate, the state sees them as a valid gateway for membership in the Jewish people, especially given the size and importance of Reform Jewry in the Diaspora.
The ultra-Orthodox political establishment is predictably fuming, and vows to override the ruling with legislation. But that's why democracies have courts, and I believe that inevitably, if fitfully, the state will cease to abridge the rights of Jews to practice their religion according to their beliefs.
Ultimately, this slowly unfolding pluralism will not only change Israeli society at its very core. It just may be the catalyst for a renewed interest in Israel among the increasingly disaffected legions of Reform and Conservative Jews abroad. Many of them have never been comfortable with the fact that their movements in Israel are still widely perceived as semi-underground insurgencies. Maybe now, as the non-Orthodox streams blossom, they'll give us a closer look.
Tonight, as thousands of Reform Jews all over Israel gather for late-night Shavuot learning, they will do so with a renewed sense of satisfaction and encouragement. They now know that with determination and investment, full acceptance of liberal Judaism throughout all sectors of society is just a matter of time.
Jay Shofet is a member of the Executive of the Israeli Movement for Progressive Judaism and the Chairperson of the Reform community Kehilat Yozma in Modi'in. He is on the staff of SHATIL, the New Israel Fund's Empowerment and Training Center for NGOs working for social change.