Goodbye to the Reign of the Rabbinate, Hello to a New Era of Judaism

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An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man attends the funeral of Rabbi Yochanan Sofer, the spiritual leader of the Erlau dynasty in Jerusalem, February 22, 2016.
An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man attends the funeral of Rabbi Yochanan Sofer, the spiritual leader of the Erlau dynasty in Jerusalem, February 22, 2016. Credit: Reuters

There’s usually one crisis or another revolving around state and religion in Israel. But three simultaneous ones is a bit much even for this promised land. It could be the moment to employ that cliché about crises also being opportunities. Three crises is a trend; something is afoot and maybe this is the moment to achieve something bigger and more significant than just another temporary victory.

Is there anything in common between the Haredi campaign against the Western Wall prayer areas agreement, the attempts of Shas and United Torah Judaism to pass a law which would negate the High Court ruling allowing the non-Orthodox movements to use publicly-funded mikvehs (ritual purification baths) and similar legislation against last week’s ruling recognizing conversions to Judaism performed by private rabbinical courts? These are not issues of freedom of religion or more specifically, freedom from religion. It’s not about whether or not Shabbat will be observed or enforced or whether yeshiva students should be allowed to continue their studies instead of performing national service. It isn’t about funding for the religious establishment and appointments of rabbis or any of the other aspects of holy horse trading.

What is happening is an erosion of the rabbinical hegemony and the ultra-Orthodox monopoly on Judaism and it’s not taking place just because of the activism of the non-Orthodox “progressive” streams. The prayer-areas agreement which so enrages the Haredi leadership was drafted by Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit, a black kippa-wearing Ashlag Hasid; and the High Court petition on recognition of private conversions was for converts who had used the services of private Haredi religious courts; and the rabbinical court which most threatens the Rabbinate’s monopoly is headed by the Orthodox Rabbi Nahum Rabinovitch.

Ultra-Orthdoxy’s stranglehold on Judaism in Israel is under fire from all directions and most significantly, from within. The great rabbis of the last generation are nearly all dead. Those who remain and those who aspire to take their place command nowhere near the same authority. Young religious men and women are exposed through the web to a wide array of alternative forms of Jewishness and are seeking to improve their lives and financial situations in the wider communities opening up to them.

On the other side, many secular Jews in Israel and the Diaspora are no longer scared of Judaism or waiting for a friendly rabbi to show them the way. They have an unprecedented range of updated egalitarian forms of Jewish culture and heritage to choose from and experiment with. It’s unclear what’s more amazing, the readiness of those who grew up in non-religious families to engage in such experimentation — or the willingness of those from traditional backgrounds to deviate from the fixed path.

The establishment is on the back foot, and the political and legal challenges are just the tip of the iceberg. Even if the Haredi politicians prevail in the latest round, and they probably will, they are losing out at the grass roots level as barriers tumble between what were once clearly delineated and segregated communities. And one of the most exciting aspects of this ferment is that it’s happening on different continents simultaneously, in the chaotic and rebellious religious heartland in Israel, in the soulless metropoles of America and Western Europe where young people are coalescing into communities and in East Europe where Jews are rediscovering their roots and reinventing their future.

Diaspora Jews who despair at the direction in which Israel has been going should realize this is where they can have a real influence. As much as they would like to help us solve the conflict with the Palestinians and fight racism in our society, they just don’t have the credibility to do so without sharing the risk. But we are all equally invested in the future of Judaism. And more importantly, this is something which can actually succeed and the moment is now.

This is the time to start the big push which will ultimately send the whole rotten edifice tumbling down. It’s not a sectarian or sectorial battle anymore – it isn’t the secular against the devout or the Reform versus the Haredim. It’s about allowing everyone to be Jewish on their own terms and not needing the blessing of a rabbinate, any rabbinate, to do so. This can be as true of those continuing to lead a Haredi way of life as those choosing to leave it.

It may sound simple-minded to expect the realities of nearly 70 years of Israeli politics to come to an end just like that. But the groundswell is there and real change is coming — not through the courts or the Knesset, but simply through ordinary people doing it themselves.

It is happening through people getting married as Jews but without the rabbinate; men and women studying Torah and Talmud without the need for a traditional framework; alternative minyans and synagogues springing up; and families embracing members of different religious persuasions, while still celebrating Shabbat and Pesach together.

The time for ending the Rabbinate’s dominance of Judaism is nigh. This is the moment for individuals and communities to grasp the opportunity and not wait for politicians, who always lag behind, to get the message.