Why Orthodox Judaism Needs to Be the Law of Israel's Land

Religious Services Minister David Azoulay might have misspoken when he implied Reform Jews are not Jews, but his intent – contentious though it may be – touches on important truths.

Rabbi Avi Shafran
Avi Shafran
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Religious Services Minister David Azoulay.
Religious Services Minister David Azoulay.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Rabbi Avi Shafran
Avi Shafran

It was entirely understandable that Religious Services Minister and David Azoulay drew heavy fire for seeming to have written Reform Jews out of the Jewish people. Had the Shas MK in fact done so, it would have been an insult not only to Reform Jews but to halacha. A Jew, observant of Jewish law or not, is a Jew.

The media, however, focused on Mr. Azoulay’s odd first statement – which the Associated Press report characterized as asserting that “he doesn’t consider members of the denomination to be Jews” – but somehow weren’t puzzled by the rest of his words, which expressed his judgment that Reform Jews are “Jews who lost their way,” and who, he hoped, would one day “return” to the Jewish religious tradition.

So which was it? “Non-Jews,” or “Jews who lost their way”? Those of us schooled in both halacha and the sometimes mindless imprecision of politician-speak knew the answer right away. The minister was calling Reform Jews “non-Jewish” in the sense of “non-observant of the laws of Judaism.” It was, no doubt, an insulting way to state that, and one hopes Mr. Azoulay has learned something about how to express himself more carefully. But he didn’t intend to deny any Jew’s Jewishness.

Even so, what the minister did intend to say – that Reform represents a clear and unacceptable departure from the Judaism of the ages – would rile proponents of “religious pluralism” in Israel. Those activists, mostly American, characterize Israel’s official rabbinate as an “Orthodox monopoly” and consider its authority a curtailment of “human rights” to be fought tooth and nail.

There may well be legitimate complaints about the Israeli rabbinate’s bureaucracy. But deriding the very enterprise of an official Orthodox rabbinate as a “monopoly” is misleading; and calling for formal “religious pluralism” is short-sighted – and even dangerous.

To be sure, a case can be made that it’s a bad idea to throw the monkey wrench of religion into the complicated machinery of a liberal democracy. But that was done at Israel’s birth more than 60 years ago out of necessity. It was widely understood that if Israel were to meaningfully lay claim to being a Jewish state, there was a vital it needed to set standards for things Jewish, including, most importantly, marriage, divorce, and conversion.

As David Ben-Gurion himself noted in the famous 1947 “Status Quo Agreement,” a multitude of “Judaisms” in a Jewish state is a recipe for disaster, as it would yield several discrete “Jewish peoples” in the land - The Reform movement has its set of standards for conversion and the like, as does the Conservative movement. “Humanistic Judaism,” presumably does, too.

And they all differ from the original, time-honored “Orthodox” standards of traditional halacha. Those standards are embraced not only by Israel’s ultra-Orthodox and national religious communities but by a large number of “traditional” Jewish Israelis, who, although not strictly observant, understand and accept that halacha defines Judaism.

But, whether one subscribes to halacha or not, it is unarguably the only set of standards whose decisions can, at least begrudgingly, be tolerated by all. No one questions the Jewishness of a halachic convert or the marital status of a woman who received a halachic divorce. By contrast, an Orthodox Jew is compelled by his or her most deep-seated beliefs to see a Reform convert as not yet Jewish, and a Reform-divorced woman as still halachically married.

Hewing to a standard – particularly one aimed at preserving the unity of the people of Israel in the land of Israel – is no more the promulgation of some malevolent “monopoly” than what we in the United States have in our Food and Drug Administration or Federal Reserve Board, or their Israeli counterparts. Are such national standard-setting bodies regarded as sinister “monopolies”? -Well, maybe by some people, but the rest of us tend, wisely, to avoid such folk. -Do safety regulations or interest rate adjustments, disruptive though they may be to the plans of some, constitute a curtailment of “human rights”?-

The religious status quo in Israel is not a perfect system, not from-an ultra-Orthodox Jew’s point of view nor a Reform Jew’s nor a secularist’s. But it has helped preserve Israeli Jewry as an extended family – if a contentious one – for more than 60 years. - To tamper with it would be to court Jewish societal disaster. That, ultimately, is what Mr. Azoulay should have said.- And maybe, even, what he meant to say.

Rabbi Avi Shafran serves as Agudath Israel of America's director of public affairs and blogs at www.rabbiavishafran.com. His most recent collection of essays is entitled “It's All in the Angle” (Judaica Press, 2012).

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