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It’s the End of the Road for 'Orthodox' Judaism

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'The term "Orthodox" Judaism – if it was ever useful – has outlived its usefulness, and should be discarded'
'The term "Orthodox" Judaism – if it was ever useful – has outlived its usefulness, and should be discarded'Credit: AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner
Judah Isseroff
Judah Isseroff

Israel’s Religious Affairs Minister Matan Kahana is on a mission.

A member of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s Yamina party, Kahana has set out to break the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly on conversion and kashrut. In both cases, Kahana’s strategy is the same: break the monopoly by introducing competition. But Kahana’s mission goes beyond the technocratic – and will have repercussions for the nature of Orthodox Judaism itself.

For many, Kahana’s attempt to weaken the grip of the Chief Rabbinate over these aspects of Israeli life is long overdue. Yet, according to Kahana’s proposed legislation, competition always seems to mean Orthodox competition. Specifically, the legislation is likely to bolster the authority and influence of rabbis from the modern Orthodox/national religious community – the community from which Kahana himself comes.

So, will Kahana’s reformist zeal ultimately have something to offer non-Orthodox Jews in Israel? What, if anything, do his reforms have to do with genuine religious pluralism? Are they just another salvo in an ongoing, and often vicious, intra-Orthodox squabble?

Alon Tal, an observant Conservative Jew and MK from Kahol Lavan, has complained that he and other Jews like him are being left out. The reforms, alleges Tal, will "not allow the majority of Jews in the world –who are Conservative and Reform – to develop their own systems of kashrut." His argument is that Kahana is securing religious pluralism for me, but not for thee.

Israel’s Religious Affairs Minister Matan Kahana: On a mission to break the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly on conversion and kashrut.Credit: Ilan Assayag

Indeed, from the perspective of non-Orthodox Jews in Israel and the diaspora, the outlook may seem bleak. After all, no non-Orthodox rabbis or types of Jewish practice will be empowered, let alone legitimized, by the proposed reforms. The power of the Rabbinate, though diminished, will remain very real. And the complicated, and often corrupt, marriage of synagogue and state will go on.

And yet, the apoplectic response of the ultra-Orthodox members of Knesset and now the heads of the state-funded religious establishment to Kahana suggests that something more is going on than a reshuffling of power amongst homogenously Orthodox rabbis.

United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni has gone so far as to declare that Kahana’s reforms will "erase any trace of Judaism [in Israel] and prevent Jewish citizens from eating kosher."

That follows Israel’s two Chief Rabbis calling the reforms an "attack on our holy Torah" whose final goal is the "abolition of Israel's Jewish identity," warning they would lead to "spiritual destruction" and an "uprooting of Judaism" from the state of Israel. Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef even declared they would lead to "sexual immorality" and "licentiousness" – because women would be able to be kashrut inspectors. 

MK Moshe Gafni from the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party at a faction meeting against the establishment of the Bennett-Lapid government earlier this year.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Notwithstanding the longstanding love of hyperbole among ultra-Orthodox politicians (Gafni responded to Bennett’s election as Prime Minister with a choice quote from Proverbs: "The name of the wicked shall rot"), the intensity of this backlash underscores a key dynamic about religious pluralism in Israel.

That is, the term "Orthodox" – if it was ever useful – has outlived its usefulness, and should be discarded. The term obscures the real debate about the meaning of religious law in all of Jewish life – whether it is "Orthodox" or "non-Orthodox." The increasing obsolescence of this archaic term is probably not the fondest wish of those who hate the rabbinate and want to see Israel adopt a total separation between church and state.

Nevertheless, for anyone interested in a healthy relationship between Jewish practice and Jewish law, no matter the denominational affiliation, the demise of the term "Orthodox" would be a significant victory. And the fight over Kahana’s reforms illustrates why.

Of course, Moshe Gafni and Matan Kahana both proudly refer to themselves as "Orthodox" Jews. But what does that really mean? Would Gafni eat something cooked in Kahana’s kitchen? Would he be thrilled if his son were to marry Kahana’s daughter? What would most of his constituents think if the answer to either of these questions was an enthusiastic "yes"?

The sign with blue letters on the picture's left is the sought-after certificate of kashrut.Credit: Eyal Toueg

Conversely, Kahana would almost certainly eat something served up by Mrs. Gafni. And, he would likely not object too much (though of course I can’t know for sure) if his daughter gravitated in a more Haredi direction and married Gafni’s son.

My point is not to attack the character of either man, nor to impugn how the Haredi world interacts with other types of Jews. The point is that "Orthodox," as it is conventionally used, is supposed to mean fealty to halakha (Jewish law).

But calling both Gafni and Kahana "Orthodox" doesn’t capture the fact that they disagree profoundly about the form and function of Jewish law. It more nearly means that Kahana would abide by Gafni’s stringencies, if he had to. While Gafni, on the other hand, would likely shun what he would call Kahana’s "leniencies."

The point is that "Orthodoxy" is not the relevant term for demarcating Gafni’s – or really anyone’s – view of which Jewish practices, though divergent from our own, remain legitimate. To make those decisions, most of us rely on more familiar and less abstract ideas: Are we comfortable? Do we know these people? What are the social costs of spurning our hosts?

It is this issue, the question of how much diversity there can be in our understanding of legitimate Jewish practice, that is the core of the controversy.

A conversion to Judaism class at the Beit Daniel Reform synagogue in Tel AvivCredit: Nir Keidar

Kahana’s proposed legislation will definitively expand the sphere of legitimacy. In the case of conversion, municipal rabbis will be to convene their own batei din (rabbinical courts) to perform conversions. Regarding kashrut, rabbis entirely outside the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate will be able to certify restaurants as kosher.

More rabbis, it is assumed by both the proposals’ proponents and opponents, is likely to correlate to a wider diversity of legal interpretation. And some of those interpretations will lead to rulings that are likely to be relatively more lenient. Leniency and stringency (and it will be much less binary than this) will then both be given official sanction – serving the needs of different communities with different established practices.

The debate between Kahana and Gafni is thus really a debate about the role of religious law in the lives of the broader population of Jewish Israelis. It is a debate that may have ramifications across the Jewish world.

A kashrut certification supervisor walking through Jerusalem. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

When Gafni says that Kahana’s kashrut reform, if passed, will "prevent Jewish citizens from eating kosher," he means it. For him, there can be food that is not in fact kosher, even as other "Orthodox" Jews accept it as kosher. (Among the many ironies in this debate is the fact that much of the Orthodox population in Israel already refuses to hold by the Rabbinate’s kosher certification.)

According to Gafni’s position, the sphere of legitimate interpretation of halakha is so narrow (and must be policed so aggressively) that an act of secular Israeli law is needed to prevent non-Haredi (but otherwise "Orthodox") Jews from even having access to food that they would otherwise consider kosher.

For Kahana, meanwhile, religious law derives its legitimacy at least in part from its being considered legitimate in the eyes of a certain community (specifically his own community). For him, the law is less of an unchanging Platonic form; sometimes it has to reflect how things are already being done.

This idea, that the already extant practices of a Jewish community have their own legitimacy in regards to what the halakha should be, has its roots in the Talmud: "If the Jewish people are not prophets, they are at least the descendants of prophets" (Pesachim 66a). In other words, established Jewish customs – with or without official approval – contain a spark of prophecy, so to speak.

Ultimately, the resilience of the term "Orthodoxy" requires the severing of Jewish law and Jewish practice. The term posits that there is some absolute unchanging standard of law, which covers the messiness but also the vitality of the ongoing negotiation between law and practice. This need not mean that Jewish law (Torah) is not eternal; only that the power of the human being is too limited to fathom it and put it into practice all at once.

Rabbi of the Ramot Zion Conservative community, Chaya Baker poses with members of the community in their synagogue in JerusalemCredit: AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner

Regardless, as the spat between Kahana and the Haredim shows, the consensus of Orthodoxy is as much a figment of the religious imagination as the ahistorical standard of practice that it claims for itself.

So where does this leave Alon Tal and other non-Orthodox Jews who feel left out of Kahana’s reforms?

Well, surely if there was no longer any "Orthodoxy," there would no longer be any "non-Orthodoxy" either. And yet, the question remains for many Jews inside Israel and out: When Jewish identity becomes a matter of culture or politics, or even about prayer and faith without grounding in law, why would the kosher supervision of restaurants even be necessary? Would a critical mass of Reform and Conservative Jews vote with their mouths? Would they ultimately be more likely to go to restaurants with Reform/Conservative hashgacha than to any old restaurant?

The term "Orthodox" papers over genuine disputes about the meaning of Jewish law. But the power of the term is upheld by the "non-Orthodox," no less than the "Orthodox," when they flee the field of religious law altogether.

Kahana’s reforms honor already existing social realities of divergent religious practice. If other communities – whether Conservative or more open streams of Orthodoxy – want in on the act, they must realize that the authority of Jewish law is a two-way street: it goes from the ground up, no less than from the top down.

Judah Isseroff is a PhD candidate in Religion, Ethics, and Politics at Princeton University. His dissertation is entitled "Beyond Political Theology: Hannah Arendt’s Jewish Theology of Givenness"

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