The State of Israel now officially recognizes “rabbis of non-Orthodox communities.” Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein’s courageous and groundbreaking decision rights historic wrongs. For too long, communities that identify with non-Orthodox expressions of Judaism have been subjected to taxation without representation. As long as the state – via taxpayers’ money – foots the bill for rabbis’ salaries, it is only fair that all recognized streams of Judaism be given access to these funds. Ideally, however, it would be preferable to do away with this problematic connection between religion and state altogether by letting the rabbis go.

Proponents of a separation of religion and state are often criticized for trying to import ideas that work well in American, but that are foreign and incompatible to Israel, a state that defines itself as Jewish. But in reality, the Jeffersonian separation of Church and State is universally applicable. Its goal is to protect the integrity of both religion and politics.

In Israel the mixing of religion and politics has created absurd situations. Secular courts have found themselves issuing decisions on purely religious matters such as whether the Chief Rabbinate can withhold a kashrut certificate from a restaurant that features belly dancing. Most recently, the attorney-general has weighed in on the “who is a rabbi?” question.

The state has no business interfering with religious autonomy. If rabbis want to revoke a kashrut certificate because of a belly dancer they should be given the freedom to do so. And only religious movements should decide who is a rabbi and who is not.

Because religion and state are intertwined, politicians are sometimes forced to act against their religious beliefs. For instance, Religious Services Minister Ya’acov Margi (Shas) was nearly placed in an untenable situation when the state agreed to pay salaries to non-Orthodox rabbis. Margi would have been personally responsible as religious services minister for paying the salaries of people such as Kibbutz Gezer’s Rabbi Miri Gold, who is both Reform and a woman – a double whammy for Margi. In the end it was decided that Gold and about 14 other non-Orthodox rabbis will receive their salaries from the Culture and Sports Ministry, thus rescuing Margi from the need to resign, as he threatened to do. We suggest helping Margi out of his predicament by abolishing his ministry altogether.

Connecting religion and state inevitably tempts religious leaders to exploit their political ties and to put narrow interests and cronyism ahead of nobler goals such as encouraging moral behavior, strengthening Jewish identity and making the ancient Jewish faith relevant to our times. Unfortunately, under the present circumstances, rabbis of towns, cities and neighborhoods are too often chosen thanks less to their Torah knowledge, their ability to communicate Judaism’s teachings or their compatibility to the local population than to their political connections.

Obviously, in a state that defines itself as Jewish, a radical separation of religion and state such as in the US or in France is not only impossible – it is contrary to Israel’s raison d’etre. The State of Israel was established to provide Jews with political self-determination for the first time in nearly two millennia. This is reflected in the national anthem, the flag, and in legislation such as the Law of Return, which grants automatic Israeli citizenship to any Diaspora Jew – including converts to Reform and Conservative Judaism and those not defined as Jewish according to Halacha such as someone born to a Jewish father.

There is even justification for granting Orthodoxy a monopoly over marriages, even if this discriminates against Israelis who are not Jewish according to Orthodox criteria. If US Jews were shocked by the National Jewish Population Survey of 2000, which revealed an intermarriage rate of 47 percent, how can Israel officially condone intermarriage by permitting civil marriage? But when it comes to rabbis on the state payroll, the separation of religion and state would do nothing but good. Both Judaism and politics would benefit from the divorce.

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