Diaspora Jewry Must Disregard the Israeli Orthodox Establishment's Thinking

U.S. Jews should realize that Judaism has become more creative and interesting in America than it is in Israel. They must take the lead in keeping Judaism vibrant and genuinely alive.

Carlo Strenger
Carlo Strenger
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Religious Services Minister David Azoulay.
Religious Services Minister David Azoulay.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Carlo Strenger
Carlo Strenger

The last weeks continued a political dynamic that would be funny if it weren’t so sad and destructive. The question of which rabbis can perform valid conversions and marriage ceremonies in Israel has continued as a battle within the Orthodox establishment. But the battle in Israel completely obscures the situation in Judaism as a whole.

The situation was exacerbated by Religious Services Minister David Azoulay’s statements this week. First, he declared that Reform Jews are not really Jews at all – a statement that caused outrage and led to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu calling the statement “hurtful.” Azoulay later toned down his statement and, gracefully, said that although Reform Jews are Jewish, they are still sinners. Unsurprisingly, Reform Jews – particularly in the United States, where they are by far the largest Jewish denomination – feel he spit in their face.

My suggestion is for Reform Jews around the world to avoid taking Mr. Azoulay’s statements in any way personally. His ignorance is too blatant for anything he says to be taken seriously. If anything, we should be embarrassed that a person like this serves in Israel’s government – and take what he says in proportion.

Azoulay, unfortunately, lacks the minimal historical knowledge to see that Jewish Orthodoxy simply doesn’t have the authority to prescribe to other Jewish denominations how to live, convert or marry.

The situation in Judaism today is quite similar to that of Christianity from the 18th century onward. Western Christianity had already accepted, several hundred years before, that Eastern Christianity had become a separate religion, with different authorities, organizations and rules. After the Reformation in the 16th century, the Catholic Church, of course, made every effort to deny legitimacy to the various new denominations (Lutheran, Calvinist, Methodist, Anglican, etc.), including spilling their blood. But the Catholic Church eventually realized that Christianity had come to include a number of denominations, which learned to live side by side, respect and accept each other.

This process started a lot later in Judaism. The variety of new denominations (Conservative, Liberal and Reform) only started in the 19th century. Jewish Orthodoxy never accepted the new denominations as legitimate expressions of Judaism, but it didn’t have the power to enforce its rejection. As a result, fortunately, Judaism never knew anything like the intra-Christian religious wars in Europe that cost millions their lives. As time went by, the situation among Diaspora Jewry evolved so that Jewish Orthodoxy in its various forms became a minority (now some 10 percent in the United States, the world’s largest Jewish community). While Orthodoxy continued to claim to be the only “true” form of Judaism, this no longer bothered anybody.

Enter the State of Israel – and with it, David Ben-Gurion’s catastrophic blunder in which, for reasons of coalition governance, he gave the Orthodox establishment the monopoly on Jewish affairs. Worse than that: in matters of conversions, marriage and divorce, the Orthodox establishment got powers that influenced all Israelis and all Jews who wanted to become Israelis.

As a result, in Israel we moved back to the state of affairs in Christendom before the 16th century – in which a single denomination claimed the monopoly on religious affairs – even though in the rest of the world, Judaism had become multidenominational.

To make things more complicated, “Jewish” does not only denote a religion, but also an ethnicity or nationality (the differences do not concern us here). Worldwide, about one-third of Jews are secular and do not consider themselves as belonging to any religion, including Judaism, even though their Jewish identity may be quite important to them. (This includes such varied individuals as Sigmund Freud, David Ben-Gurion, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, Hannah Arendt and Amos Oz.)

Outside Israel, some of these choose to have religious marriage ceremonies as a matter of tradition, because they have the choice to do so. In Israel, though, the trend is very different: Here, an ever-growing number of secular Jews choose to get married abroad, because they abhor religious coercion. This is the result of an anomaly whereby Israel has become the only liberal democracy in the world where people are forced to marry according to a creed that isn’t theirs.

How are we supposed to live with this? Realistically speaking, the Orthodox monopoly in Israel is here to stay. Nobody will be able to form governments without either the religious-Zionist or ultra-Orthodox parties – or, as in the present government, both. Their stranglehold on religious affairs involves too many jobs and too much power for them to give it up.

Here is my advice to U.S. Reform Jews: Do not give people like David Azoulay the power to offend you. Anyway, for most U.S. Reform Jews, the monopoly of Israel’s Jewish Orthodoxy will never have any practical meaning.

U.S. Jews should change their perspective and realize that Judaism has become more creative, interesting and lively in the United States than in Israel, where politics has strangled most forms of religious creativity. They should stop looking to Israel as an example, and instead take the lead in keeping Judaism vibrant and genuinely alive.

As for those who, like me, feel very Jewish but do not adhere to any belief, I can only suggest my own position. I don’t feel part of this whole imbroglio because I’m an atheist, and the statements of rabbis of any denomination are of no relevance to my personal life.

This doesn’t mean I don’t follow developments in various religions with great interest. I love Catholic art – from paintings and architecture to music – and I respect that Catholic priests are authorities for their congregation. But I do have positions on certain questions: For example, I strongly condemn the previous two popes’ forbidding the use of condoms, even in AIDS-stricken areas of Africa; and I feel respect for the current pope’s positions on child abuse in the Catholic Church.

The same goes for Judaism. I find certain aspects of Jewish culture (mysticism, music, Jewish literature – religious and nonreligious) interesting. I also respect the fact that, for the various forms of Orthodox Judaism, Orthodox rabbis are authorities, while for other Jewish denominations their rabbis are authorities.

Nevertheless, I have moral positions on certain issues: I find the ultra-Orthodox educational system – which prevents youngsters from acquiring secular knowledge and the tools to make up their minds on what to believe – morally faulty. In the same way, I am happy to see that the modern Orthodox establishment is making genuine efforts to move toward greater equality for women, even though I’m afraid they’ll never arrive at full equality as they adhere to tradition.

But this has nothing to do with my life. I have no more need for rabbis in my life than I need Catholic priests – because, like many other Jews, I am an avowed atheist.

In a civilized society, atheists and believers of various denominations can live in the same polity without stepping on each other’s toes, and respect each other’s way of life. Unfortunately, this will not be the case in Israel as long as the Orthodox stranglehold on the political system persists. It is a shame the Orthodox establishment does not realize that its monopoly creates tension, hatred and strife within Israeli society and an ever-deepening rift between Israel and Diaspora Jewry.

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