It is commonplace for democracies to enunciate their lofty ideals and then struggle for years to live up to them. Israel is a case in point. It defines itself as a Jewish and democratic state in its Basic Law of 17 March 1992, promising that it will protect—and not violate—the dignity and liberty of each person. To quote it: “The purpose of this Basic Law is to protect human dignity and liberty. . . . There shall be no violation of the life, body or dignity of any person as such.” These are highly laudable goals. The question to ask is, has Israel been working hard to achieve them with regard to women and Judaism? Surveying some recent developments, I think not.
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Israel restricts women’s freedom in a number of significant ways: Jewish husbands may divorce Jewish wives but Jewish wives may not divorce Jewish husbands. Jewish men may elect to study Torah in a yeshivah for their entire lives, and be subsidized by the government, but Jewish women may not. Jewish men may train and serve as rabbis hired by the government, with government benefits, but Jewish women may not. Public buses that pass through religious neighborhoods may permit men to sit in the front but require women to sit in the back.
Israel also privileges ultra-Orthodox Jews over 'ordinary' Jews, which again leads to discrimination against women and even against non-Orthodox men. The chief rabbinate, which determines the laws of personal status for all Jews in Israel, especially in the areas of marriage and divorce, has been turned over to the ultra-Orthodox, with unfortunate results for the general population. The Ashkenazi and Sephardi chief rabbis are not elected by the populace at large but selected by a small group which is almost exclusively male. The Western Wall, which for years was the collective property of the Jewish people, has now become the exclusive property of the ultra-Orthodox. The Kotel rabbi decided, most recently, to deny women the right to wear a prayer shawl at the Wall even though such behavior is fully consistent with Jewish law. All of these unfair practices add up to a society which is not fulfilling the provisions of its own Basic Law.
In the U.S., where church and state are separate, religion is a strictly voluntary activity. In such a setting, Judaism has thrived. Many people in the U.S. today, and also around the globe, are seeking spiritual sustenance, are yearning to find greater meaning in life. In response, new forms and practices of Judaism have evolved, created by men and women, some Orthodox and some egalitarian. It so happens that a number of the most successful new minyanim in the U.S. have been founded by, and are run by, women, such as IKAR in Los Angeles, Kavana in Seattle, and my own Ohel Ayalah in NYC, to name just a few. These minyanim offer rousing music, messages of meaning, intellectual stimulation, a sense of community, and a thrust for social justice—all within a traditional and egalitarian Jewish context. Many Jews who had abandoned their connection to Judaism are now being drawn back in. When religion is on its own, not intertwined with government, these are the kinds of positive, innovative outcomes one can expect. The challenge that faces American Jewish institutions, however, is that they have to fund their own activities. That is the price they pay for the separation of church and state.
Does it follow that in order to achieve the aims of its own Basic Law Israel has to stop being a Jewish state? No, not necessarily. If Israel could learn from the American model and implement religion in a way that does not discriminate against women or ordinary Jews, it could meet its goal of protecting the dignity and liberty of its citizens, without regard to gender or religious affiliation. In such a state, women would have the opportunity to become rabbis hired by the government; they could initiate divorce proceedings against men; the Western Wall rules would give full prayer access to all Jews; the two chief rabbis would be elected or selected in a broad-based way; women could sit in the front of all public buses, and so on. Is this a description of the messianic period? I don’t think so. The good news coming out of Israel last week is that the populace voted in large numbers for religious tolerance, for an end to religious favoritism. Change may be on its way.
The Talmud would say about times like ours, “Et la’asot lashem heifeiru Toratekha,” meaning it is time to take steps for the sake of God, for “they” have compromised Your Torah. Back then the word “they” referred to those who abandoned a life of mitzvot. Today this phrase refers not to those who are less observant but to those who are more so. It is they who have misinterpreted God’s Torah. It is they who must be sidelined so that Judaism in Israel can become a force for good, for community, for inclusivity. So that Israel can be not only Jewish—in the fullest sense of the term—but also proudly in compliance with its own noble goals.
Dr. Judith Hauptman is the E. Billi Ivry Professor of Talmud and Rabbinic Culture at the Jewish Theological Seminary and the Rabbi and Founder of Ohel Ayalah, a free walk-in High Holiday service for young Jews. Follow the JTS on Twitter at @JTSVoice