The good news: A multitude of proposals for religious reform have been brought to the Israeli Knesset in recent weeks and months. At no time in recent memory have Israel’s political parties demonstrated so much interest in reforming Israel’s religious establishment and in changing the rules that govern the relationship between religion and state in Israel.
More good news: Issues of religious freedom in Israel have risen to the top of the American Jewish agenda. The November meeting in Jerusalem of the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America devoted a major part of its agenda to religious concerns.
The bad news: Most of the proposals that the Knesset has dealt with or is now considering will have little or no impact on the religious problems of Israeli life. At best, they constitute tinkering with a profoundly broken system and offer no more than cosmetic change.
For example, approximately 300,000 immigrants from Russia and Eastern Europe are not recognized as Jewish by the State of Israel, either because they do not have a Jewish mother or their Jewish status could not be verified by Israel’s religious authorities. Virtually all of these immigrants see themselves as Jews, were considered Jewish in their countries of origin, and assume all the responsibilities of Israeli citizenship, including service in the Israel Defense Forces. But because the Chief Rabbinate does not recognize them as Jewish, they cannot marry Israelis who are registered as Jews.
In fact, these immigrants cannot marry in Israel at all. Generally speaking, the only marriages that are legal in Israel are religious marriages—and for Jews, this means those marriages that are sanctioned by the Chief Rabbinate. Israel is the only industrialized democracy in the world in which substantial numbers of its own citizens are prohibited from marrying within its borders; these citizens must be married abroad to have their marriages recognized in their own country.
Naftali Bennett, the Minister of Religious Affairs, noted during his recent visit to the United States that the Knesset has addressed some of these problems by the passage of what is known as the “Tzohar Law”—the nationwide marriage registration bill. Until the passage of this bill, a Jewish couple wishing to marry was obligated to go to the government-recognized Orthodox rabbi in the home city of the bride or the groom. The new legislation allows the couple to go to any government-recognized rabbi in the country. The premise of the law, as Bennett said, is that “competition” will be created and encouraged; and, as a result of this competition, rabbis are likely to offer a warmer, friendlier, and more accepting approach to couples planning to marry.
There are advantages to this legislation, of a very modest sort. If young couples now have a greater measure of choice in selecting the rabbi who will marry them, this can only be a blessing. (Elsewhere in the democratic world, of course, such things are taken for granted.) And rabbis who are known to be hostile to performing marriages for converts to Judaism, even when their conversions meet the stringent standards of the Chief Rabbinate, can now be bypassed.
Nonetheless, the fundamental problem remains: Israelis who could not marry before are still unable, in virtually every instance, to marry. A religious “free market” is of great importance, but the new bill does not permit anything even approaching real competition; instead, it simply allows government-sponsored Orthodox rabbis to “compete” against each other, according to set rules, under the watchful eye of the Chief Rabbinate.
I have no argument with those who want their marriages to meet the halakhic standards of the Chief Rabbinate, but those who want to make different choices or who cannot meet the standards must be given other options. What is required is a bill that allows Reform and Conservative rabbis to perform marriages while also permitting civil unions. The bill on civil unions put forward by Yesh Atid is inadequate, but at least is a step in the right direction; still, it has no chance of passing.
And why is it certain to fail? Because Minister Bennett, MK Elazar Stern of Hatnua, and other legislators committed to “tinkering” are trapped in a time warp. The legislation that Bennett, Stern, and others are sponsoring –the “Tzohar Law,” the law to create additional conversion courts, the law to replace two Chief Rabbis with one – is intended to maintain Israel’s religious establishment by reforming it. They have good intentions, but they lack the imagination to see what many Israelis—and Diaspora Jews as well—understood long ago: Such reform is simply impossible.
Israel’s religious institutions are intransigent, corrupt, and incapable of changing their ways. If one needs proof of what they have become, consider this: Israel’s first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi was Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog; for the last 10 years, its Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi was Yona Metzger, who has spent most of the decade dodging charges of sexual and financial misconduct. “Tweaking” a structure that is rotten at its core will only waste precious time and bring greater dishonor to Torah and Jewish tradition. These institutions should be dismantled; at the very least, they should be circumvented and ignored. Note to all the well-meaning, would-be tinkerers: The people and the State of Israel deserve an agenda of meaningful, far-reaching religious change and a true “free market” in religion.