You may be surprised to know that Orthodox Judaism has been crowned the sole and eternal state religion of Israel. You may be surprised to learn that a particularly exclusivist brand of Orthodoxy not only holds sway over Israel's religious institutions, but that this situation is an expression of Israel's flourishing democracy.
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You may be more than surprised to find out that a politically convenient agreement establishing this situation, made in the earliest years of statehood, is holy writ – and anyone defying the autocratic rule of the rebbes, or mouthing the forbidden word 'pluralism', is dirtying Israel's name with a full-scale slander.
A recent opinion piece by David Landau made all these points. Landau is upset that the leaders of non-Orthodox streams of Judaism in the U.S. complain that it is undemocratic for there to be an Orthodox monopoly on laws of personal status in Israel. Landau reiterates proudly that "the official state religion of the Jewish State is not Judaism, with its confusing pluralism, but exclusively Jewish Orthodoxy." Landau's argument is that since this was arrived at democratically by Israel's elected officials – that is by the usual deal-making that goes on whenever a government is formed it – it is perfectly legal and democratic.
But this is a very selective and manipulative reading of democracy. My understanding of democracy is that it is not only the rule of the majority, but also requires the protection of minorities and the protection of human rights. The fact that the majority decides something, does not give it moral legitimacy. Slavery in America was perfectly legal, as was the lack of voting rights for women, but were they not a defect in America's democracy?
Furthermore, if these matters were really decided by the majority of Israeli citizens, there is little doubt that the reality of a non-compete clause for Orthodoxy in Israel would change. Instead, as in every generation since the state was born, decisions that affect every single Jewish citizen of the country – and the entire Jewish Diaspora – are made by appeasing the will of religious parties, without which a coalition cannot be sustained.
Landau correctly denounces the fact that Israel's Rabbinate continues to mishandle the socially explosive issue of the estimated 300,000 non-Jews who have come from the FSU and elsewhere, and of those who seek to convert but have been rebuffed at every turn. But then he makes an astounding claim: "some Orthodox rabbis care" about this pressing issue, but "the non-Orthodox movements don't care. They care solely about discrimination against themselves, not truly about the welfare and progress of Israel and Israelis." Where does he get this from? This amounts to a defamation of character and is a gross distortion of the truth.
I can testify to this from personal experience. In the late 1990s, the issue of conversions in Israel was debated by the Neeman Committee, which, for the first time, included the voices of non-Orthodox streams, as well as of the Orthodox Rabbinate. I myself sat on that committee on behalf of the Masorti/Conservative Movement.
The committee sought a solution to the problem of non-Jews who wanted to convert. We, the non-Orthodox streams, agreed to enter into a trial period in which we would not ourselves conduct the conversions, but would be part of a cross-denominational educational program that would then send the candidates to a Bet Din of the Chief Rabbinate – a Bet Din that would be more open to and understanding of the special circumstances of the converts in question.
But this proposal – which could have been a sea-change in how immigrants relate to their identities and the state, not to mention a positive embrace of the many faces of contemporary Judaism – was never accepted and never became an official recommendation of the committee.
Why? Because the Chief Rabbis of Israel denounced it, saying they would never have anything to do with converts who had been exposed to non-Orthodox teachings. I won't repeat the other calumnies they uttered at that time.
Despite this, the Conservative and Reform Movements joined a new, joint conversion effort, sponsored by the Jewish Agency and the government, which did not require the Rabbinate's relinquishing its right to convert. We were prepared to participate because it offered some hope to Israeli society. Unfortunately the Orthodox establishment did not co-operate. It still turns its back on all-too-many candidates for conversion, thus discouraging others from even trying.
When Landau states that "Reform and Conservative rabbis are welcome to worship, lead and teach their communities," he naively forgets to mention that they are 'free' to do that with no governmental aid, whereas Orthodoxy enjoys a government trough of millions of shekels to pay the salaries of their rabbis and support their institutions. What's democratic about that?
Landau accuses our movements of backing legislation that will allow civil partnerships for selfish reasons, but in fact we do so because it will benefit Israeli society. Similarly, if we oppose legislation aimed at strengthening the entrenched Chief Rabbinate, we do that for the benefit of democracy and of all Israelis. If Landau really wanted to solve the problems he is so upset about, he would be working day and night to eliminate the Chief Rabbinate and its monopoly and let Judaism – "with its confusing pluralism" – become part of Israeli life. That is what true democracy requires.
Rabbi Reuven Hammer is a past president of the International Rabbinical Assembly, the world organization of Masorti/Conservative Rabbis.