(photo credit: Robert Couse-Baker)
Though it has been almost 70 years since the establishment of the State of Israel, it seems that never before have issues of religion and state and the relations between the two been so fraught.
Israelis have taken to streets in Ashdod, Givatayim and Ramat Gan in protest against the recently passed “mini-markets law”, which empowers the interior minister – presently the haredi Shas chairman Arye Deri – to veto municipality bylaws allowing shops to open on Shabbat.
In Rishon Lezion, Holon, Givatayim, Ramat Gan, Modi’in and Herzliya, municipalities rushed to pass bylaws before the “mini-markets law” went into effect.
In the IDF, those demanding more egalitarian treatment for women have clashed with rabbis and religious leaders demanding strict gender segregation. At the Western Wall, Women of the Wall and non-Orthodox streams of Judaism demanding their own prayer area have come up against powerful political interests within the government coalition.
And battles have been launched for more religious freedom and a breaking of the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly on marriage and divorce, conversion and kashrut supervision.
Meanwhile, market forces – resulting most notably from the huge wave of immigration from the former Soviet Union – have created a demand for non-kosher food, more commercial activity on Shabbat and civil marriage.
If in the past the secular Israeli majority was practically silent on issues of religion, and left these matters to the haredi and Modern Orthodox political parties, there are signs this is changing. Though not at the level of concern about security and socioeconomic issues, Israelis nevertheless seem to be increasingly disturbed about religion-state relations. And if in the past religious Israelis blindly accepted the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly over religious services, this is no longer true.
But, as noted by Uri Keidar, executive director of Israel Hofsheet [Free Israel], in a recent interview with The Jerusalem Post’s Religious Affairs Correspondent Jeremy Sharon, the dispute between the religious establishment and its many detractors will not be solved by an American-style separation of religion and state, rather what is more likely is the development of a framework that regulates how religion interacts with the state “so that there is a place for everyone and so that Judaism draws people in and doesn’t distance them.”
We agree with Keidar that there needs to be room for more opinions, more diversity, and more ways to express one’s Jewishness. Judaism is a living entity and by granting a monopoly to any single group, no matter how honorable, principled and distinguished that group may be, Judaism’s tremendous potentials are stifled.
We have argued in the past that the best way to encourage the flourishing of Judaism in the Jewish state without separating religion and state is by creating “free market Judaism,” an atmosphere in which different expressions of Judaism are given the opportunity to compete freely.
For instance in the field of kashrut, the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly should be ended and in its place different organizations should be allowed to compete freely. Let consumers decide which kashrut supervisor is the best. The state’s role should be restricted to a regulatory function, ensuring that no organization is allowed to advertise that something is kosher when it is not, and punishing those who do.
A similar model can be used with conversion and marriage so that the various groups competing to provide religious services have an incentive to do their very best. Those who do will be rewarded by the market, those who don’t will be punished.
The establishment of a Jewish state provides a unique opportunity for Judaism to flourish in new and surprising ways. In fields such as music, literature and film, age-old Jewish texts, stories and ideas have been given new forms of expression that are relevant to contemporary Jewish society.
The same can happen with Jewish practice and ceremony. New ways can be developed to conduct marriage ceremonies and prayer services. Potential converts who are already a part of Israeli society can be welcomed in a more cordial way than when the Jewish people was in exile and was in danger of assimilation.
For all of this and more to happen, however, the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly must be dismantled and there must be a more open environment that will allow free market Judaism to develop. After 70 years the time has come.