|Photo by: JUDY SIEGEL-ITZKOVICH|
Candidly Speaking: Religion and state at the crossroads
By ISI LEIBLER
Rather than displaying halachic sensitivity, the Chief Rabbinate imposes unprecedentedly draconian obstacles to conversion and has even sought to rescind conversions by national-religious rabbis.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his new coalition partner, Shaul Mofaz,
have pledged to introduce legislative reforms which will ensure that all Israeli
citizens – including haredim (ultra- Orthodox) and Arabs – will be obliged to
fulfill their civic duty by serving in the IDF or undertaking a form of national
service. The granting of indefinite exemptions or special privileges will be
terminated. The reforms, which must be in place by August when the Tal Law
expires, are also intended to create conditions which will ensure that haredim
assume a more productive role within the Israeli economy.
himself to “changing the agenda” and “creating a more united Israel society.” He
stated explicitly that “we are looking directly at the majority of the
population which serves, and at the minority that dodges the draft and does not
Both leaders face a dilemma. They are desperate to avoid a major
confrontation and seek to retain long-standing relationships with the haredi
political parties who, over the past decades, have held the balance of power and
were in a position to determine the composition of governments.
mumble reassurances to the haredim that their concerns will be considered,
however the people and the media will be monitoring these issues closely. Should
the government renege on this commitment, or indulge in mere cosmetic exercises,
it would ignite the ire of the nation and there would be an awesome electoral
backlash from enraged rank-and-file Israelis against both Likud and
Regrettably, notwithstanding the absence of halachic grounds to
justify draft evasion or the negation of earning a livelihood, most haredi
rabbis are determined to forestall any reform and have already threatened that
their parties would bolt the coalition if changes are implemented. Thus, the
haredi parties (and the Arabs) have hitherto refused to nominate representatives
to the Knesset committee, chaired by Kadima MK Yohanan Plesner, to formulate
Whilst Rabbi Yaakov Litzman of United Torah
Judaism proclaims, “We will not tolerate a situation in which someone wishing to
engage in Torah studies would be denied that option,” the real haredi concern is
that their students will be taken out of their self-imposed ghettos and exposed
to the world at large.
The government is also obliged to relate to the
escalating percentage of youngsters enrolled in the state-sponsored haredi
school system who receive no secular education whatsoever and upon graduation
would only qualify for the most menial jobs. Most haredi rabbis dissuade them
from seeking gainful employment in order to learn Torah full time, obligating
lifelong subsistence on state welfare.
THIS NEGATIVE attitude toward
earning a livelihood is utterly counter to Jewish tradition.
most ultra-Orthodox Jews in Diaspora communities not only earn a livelihood but
many are professionals and even include wealthy businessmen.
demographic explosion within the haredi sector has now reached a level where
Bank of Israel Gov. Stanley Fischer has warned that the economy is unable to
provide the funding required to sustain such a huge indolent
The government must also deal with the mounting rage among
non-observant and national-religious Israelis concerning the ultra-Orthodox
hijacking of state rabbinical institutions and their imposition of excessively
stringent standards of halachic interpretation on the entire nation, especially
in relation to marriage and conversion.
There is the ticking time bomb of
350,000 non-halachic Jews of mixed parentage (primarily from the former Soviet
Union), whose children serve in the IDF, many of whom remain unaware of the
implications of their status until they wish to marry. Yet, rather than
displaying halachic sensitivity, the Chief Rabbinate imposes unprecedentedly
draconian obstacles to conversion and has even sought to rescind conversions by
Last week, overriding hundreds of years of
halachic precedence which recognized the validity of all Orthodox Bet Din
conversions, the Chief Rabbinate proclaimed that only conversions conducted by a
handful of Diaspora rabbis selected by the Chief Rabbinate would be recognized
in Israel. Olim converted outside this framework would be obliged to undergo a
new conversion process.
Unless revoked, this new edict will intensify
tensions between Israel and the Diaspora.
Clearly there is an urgent need
for government intervention to recognize authorized conversions and for centrist
national-religious rabbis to reject such approaches and create their own Batei
These issues of religion and state now stand at a crossroads. But
the government’s current massive Knesset majority provides it with a unique
opportunity to introduce the long overdue reforms without the threat of veto
from the haredi parties.
The government must not only scrap the Tal Law
and ensure that conscription or national service becomes mandatory for all
sections of society. It must also initiate legislation making it obligatory for
all schools – including the haredi network – to incorporate a core secular
curriculum of language, mathematics and civics to provide students with a
worldly education and enable them to earn a livelihood. Implementing such
reforms will be difficult but is achievable if the government displays
determination and curtails state aid to schools which refuse to incorporate the
minimum core curriculum.
Such dramatic societal changes cannot be
implemented overnight or achieved simply by legislative fiat. It will require
sensitivity and recognition and Prime Minister Netanyahu has undertaken to
institute the changes gradually in a manner designed to minimize civil discord.
Besides, the IDF requires preparation time before it can absorb huge numbers of
haredim, the special requirements of whom it will be obliged to cater
Creative solutions must be employed to enforce such legislative
changes without resorting to state power to prosecute and fill jails with
haredim refusing to serve. Israel HaYom columnist Dan Margalit suggested that
the most effective manner to enforce compliance would be to deny state monetary
benefits and eligibility for government facilities such as driver’s licenses and
In the current toxic climate, some haredim see the
writing on the wall and appreciate that this government would act far less
harshly than an aggressively secular anti-haredi government. Increasing numbers
are now beginning to instill in their youngsters the realization that earning a
livelihood is obligatory. They appreciate that they will be the main
beneficiaries and will ultimately enjoy a higher standard of living without
necessarily compromising their way of life and that instead of being reviled by
most Israelis, they will become respected.
If Prime Minister Netanyahu
displays the courage, determination and skill to orchestrate these changes, his
popularity throughout the nation will skyrocket and he will be applauded for
having finally resolved the most difficult and frustrating domestic issue, which
over the years has caused immense anguish and increasingly divided the
The writer’s website can be viewed at www.wordfromjerusalem.com.
He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org