The Jewish religious world is in turmoil. This is so in Israel, and it is true throughout the Diaspora as well.
Such turmoil is hardly new. For thousands of years, Judaism has been characterized by the absence of an established religious hierarchy, resulting in a significant measure of ongoing religious chaos. For the most part, this religious muddle has been a blessing for the Jews, giving rise to vigorous and creative competition in the religious realm.
Still, at this moment our religious wars seem to have taken on a particular ferocity. With that in mind, what follows is my scorecard, toting up victories and defeats for sanity and good sense in the latest round of religious struggles in Israel and the Jewish world.
Defeat: The recently passed “Sharing the burden” bill dealing with Haredi conscription. There is no significant sharing in this bill. The burden remains overwhelmingly on those who were burdened before.
The ultra-Orthodox continue to be mostly exempt from army service, while the yeshiva students of the National Religious camp in the special hesder yeshiva programs continue to serve about half the time in the military that other Israelis serve.
This result brings Judaism into disrepute and dishonors the religious traditions of the Jewish people.
Those who engage in never-ending excuse making should be ashamed of themselves. Note to the excuse-makers: There is absolutely no reason why those who embrace a life of Torah should be freed from the responsibilities of citizenship in the Jewish state.
Victory: The recently passed “Sharing the burden” bill. Yes, this bill is outrageously unfair. (See above.)
But it offers one vitally important benefit: Many of those yeshiva students who have undertaken full-time study in order to avoid army service will now be able, because of the bizarre complexities of the law, to enter the workforce without fear of being drafted. And despite the concerns of their rabbis, who would prefer that they remain safely confined behind the yeshiva’s walls, taking a job is precisely what many of the students will do.
In the last 35 years, the unemployment rate of ultra-Orthodox men has risen from under 10% to over 50%. This situation has been an economic disaster for Israel. But even more important, it has turned into a personal and religious disaster for ultra-Orthodox males, who have watched their families suffer while permitting themselves to be drawn into ghetto-like conditions of almost complete separation from the outside world. Strict Torah observance need not mean isolation from the broader Israeli society, and many young men are about to be free to learn that for themselves.
Defeat: The election of Moshe Abutbul as mayor of Beit Shemesh, narrowly beating Eli Cohen. Abutbul, the current mayor, was the candidate of radical Haredi elements in the city—groups that have engaged in violence and vandalism against those who did not share their extreme views on Judaism. Secular, National Religious, and even less extreme Haredi Jews came together to support Cohen, who was sympathetic to religious concerns of all groups but who opposed the outrageous behavior of the religious radicals. One possible result of Cohen’s loss is that non-Haredim will flee the city.
There are those in Israel who fear the growth of the Haredi population, but there is no reason why this should be so. All Jews should be welcome in the Jewish state, and a high birth rate is a blessing. But the goal should be the creation of cities where Haredim and non-Haredim can live together in harmony, each respecting the rights and sensitivities of the other. Beit Shemesh could have become such a city; now it is more likely that it will become an enclave of Haredi extremism.
Victory: An unprecedented coalition of American Jewish groups has been formed to wage a campaign to end the rabbinic monopoly of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate. The American Jewish Committee is emerging as the central address for the new campaign; until recently, it has had little to say about religious issues in Israel. The AJC called a meeting of interested parties on January 21st, and a diverse group of communal and religious organizations attended, including leaders of the Jewish Federation system. The focus of the effort will be on encouraging alternate options in Israel to the Chief Rabbinate’s exclusive authority over Jewish marriage and divorce.
The significance of the campaign is that it is being undertaken by centrist, mainstream American Jewish organizations that have long been the backbone of American Jewish support for Israel. What this means is that the American supporters of Women of the Wall have started something: Those American Jews most committed to Israel’s cause are finding their voice on religious issues, and are demanding that the Jewish state demonstrate respect for the religious concerns and beliefs of Jews everywhere.
What conclusions are to be drawn from these battles? That Israel’s religious reality is problematic, but that progress is being made; that Judaism remains a vibrant and vital tradition that is subject to diverse interpretations, and that Israel will be a central forum for the debate; and that advocates of religious freedom, pluralism, and mutual respect have won some victories, but have much work to do.