Fighting for the future of religious life in Israel

MK Elazar Stern discusses the future of religious life in Israel, the importance of its liberalization, and the dangers of alienating Diaspora Jewry.

By
June 26, 2016 06:13
Birthright

Birthright. (photo credit: ILLUSTRATIVE/COURTESY BIRTHRIGHT)

For the last three years, the place and character of religion in the Jewish state has been the source of intense debate, bitter recriminations, legislative battles and legal intervention.

The pendulum has swung from the concerted attempts to liberalize religious life in Israel under the last government, to the ardent and assiduous efforts of the current coalition to reverse or stop such reforms.

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During that time, MK Elazar Stern has been without doubt one of the most fiery and outspoken critics of the religious establishment and its political backers in the Knesset.

Both inside the coalition, as he was with Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua party in the 33rd government, or outside, as he is currently with Yesh Atid, Stern’s simmering frustration with what he describes as the alienation of Israeli citizens from Judaism by the religious establishment saw him first championing the cause of reform, and later castigating the forces of conservatism that sought to repeal the gains that had been made.

Although the haredi parties have scored some successes since their re-entry into government, notably with the repeal of the reforms to the conversion process that Stern led, the High Court of Justice has inflicted several blows to the Chief Rabbinate, which have given the proponents of religious liberalism a powerful fillip.

In particular, advocates of liberalization have warmly welcomed the greater legitimacy that has been gained through the legal system in recent years for alternatives to the religious services provided by the rabbinate.

Stern sat down with the Magazine to discuss the future of religious life in Israel, the dangers of the current situation, and the effect of these issues on the state’s relationship with the Diaspora.

How do you see the current relationship between the state and Jewish religious life in Israel?
The state is distancing its citizens from Judaism, among other ways, by making religious services stricter, which makes such services completely irrelevant to, and undesirable for, the average Israeli.

People are fleeing from religious marriage.

They are already uninterested in getting married with a rabbi and say to themselves, ‘Either we’ll live without getting married or we’ll go to Cyprus’ to marry in a civil ceremony.

It is the same thing with conversion.

When immigrants from the former Soviet Union came who weren’t halachically Jewish, they were interested in undertaking such a process. A ‘normal’ conversion should have been made available for all of them, although still a lot harder than the process at Sinai [where the Israelites said simply ‘We will do and will listen’] and harder than what [the biblical figure of] Ruth the Moabite [a convert] did, a two-month process, without investigating people and so on.

But the immigrants from the former Soviet Union were less vulnerable than the Falashmura. They came with professions, with skills, they were educated, they were cultured, and so they said, ‘If you don’t want to let us convert in a normal way, okay, thanks, goodbye,’ and they didn’t seek alternative forms of conversion – they just didn’t convert.

Why am I talking about this? Because the attitude of the state has reduced the relevance of the religious institutions.

There’s a similar situation with kashrut right now, where an alternative, independent kashrut licensing authority has sprung up because we’ve created a lot of hatred among food business owners and the public, and there’s now a connection between kashrut and corruption.

The same thing has happened with conversions and the establishment of the independent Giyur Kahalacha conversion authority. Our children will decide to marry converts who have converted under the auspices of the founders of the new authority, Rabbi Nachum Rabinowitz, Rabbi David Stav and Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, without caring if the Chief Rabbinate recognizes these conversions and the subsequent marriages.

This is the direction we’re going in.

Why are these independent religious services important? To save the Judaism of the state, we will need to create these alternatives, and I hope that they will in turn create a hope for a normal, sane Judaism that people will want to be part of, even if they don’t wear tzitzit and a yarmulke like I do.

If in another 50 years, people won’t know how to give Jewish meaning to our children, why should they stay in the Middle East? Someone who is religious will say “it’s a mitzva,” but someone who is not, which is the majority, if they have a possibility to leave, then they’ll leave.

What is the future of these alternatives to the religious services provided by the Chief Rabbinate under the auspices of the state? There are three options: The first is that the High Court of Justice eventually recognizes all of them, and annuls the monopolies [of the Chief Rabbinate] on religious services.

The second scenario is that the High Court rules not to grant them recognition.

In this eventuality, it won’t allow them to be shut down, but it also won’t force the state to recognize them.

Finally, perhaps the day will come when the rabbinate will wake up and understand that maybe the alternative to such independent services is even worse, which is already happening, that people will simply abandon it altogether.

Maybe they’ll recognize Giyur Kahalacha, abolish kashrut districts, abolish conversion districts, allow the Reform and Conservative movements a place at the Western Wall and will stop fighting against all of this.

If they do continue to wage war on such issues, then at the end the chief rabbis won’t even have their own jobs because they won’t be relevant anymore.

How do these issues affect the relationship between the state and the Diaspora? The State of Israel needs the Diaspora.

For the future, for its foreign relations, for a lot of things. In my opinion, it’s not that we need them but that they are our bothers. This is the challenge. The Diaspora also needs to preserve the State of Israel as an anchor, even for the sake of their communities, because it can serve as a place those in the Diaspora can identify with. It’s an educational tool, a tool to unite people.

But if the State of Israel puts a question mark over the Judaism of Diaspora Jewry it will distance them from the Jewish state. It will destroy an important anchor for them, cause internal fractures within Diaspora Jewry itself, and then we could lose them altogether.

It will decrease their attachment to the State of Israel and also increase assimilation by alienating Jews outside of Israel from a central aspect of their Jewish identity.

The haredim don’t understand this, and the prime minister is afraid of the haredim, as is [Bayit Yehudi chairman Naftali] Bennett.

Ideally, how should religious life in Israel be conducted? The state needs to know how to give Jewish meaning to those who are not religious.

If we say to some people, ‘You’re not Jews’ or that ‘You can only be Jewish according to our path,’ then we will lose secular people in Israel, and Reform and Conservative in the Diaspora.

In all the religious services the state provides, power should be used only for when it is needed. So regarding kashrut, for example, only the actual requirements of kashrut should be regulated and nothing else, not what happens in the establishment on Shabbat and not if Christmas parties are staged there or anything like this.

We need as little coercion as possible.

We need more legitimacy for Jewish pluralism, for women’s equality, and we need to take as much responsibility as possible for the existence of the Jewish people and not just the State of Israel.

Once we do this, religious services can be made more welcoming. I don’t think that suddenly everyone will rush to start, for instance, going to the mikve, but such things shouldn’t be something that is coercive and distances people from Judaism.

Should we leave Judaism and religious life to be run by every individual Jewish community in the country like it is done in the Diaspora? No. Just like we provide financial support for culture to improve the character of the state, so too there is an extremely lofty interest of the State of Israel to financially support its Jewish character and Judaism.

Should we separate between religion and state before it’s too late? Not yet. But if we continue in this way, and instead of religion giving meaning to the state strips away the Judaism of many of its citizens, then maybe we’ll be at a stage where we need to split these things apart.

Should the state fund non-Orthodox religious services? Without doubt, yes. Funding should be provided for synagogues, mikves, and all other religious services in accordance with the size of the community.

Should non-Orthodox rabbis be able to stand for state paid positions such as a municipal chief rabbi? Municipal chief rabbis are elected [by a small electoral body comprised of representatives from various institutions], and a city at the moment won’t elect a non-Orthodox rabbi. Nevertheless, communities who want a Reform or Conservative rabbi should be able to choose them, and the state should support this.

Haredi MKs have recently criticized Jews in the Diaspora for funding legal challenges to Israel’s laws pertaining to religious matters without living here. They have also claimed that the prime minister only listens to the concerns of the non-Orthodox movements because of monetary support from the Diaspora and US Jewry. How do you view such criticism? That’s politics! Why do we have all this religious coercion? Because they [haredim] have political power. Do haredim represent the majority of the State of Israel? They are a minority who, through the power of a political mechanism, impose upon us a whole lot of things. Okay, that’s democracy? So this is also democracy when they pick up the phone and call the prime minister.

I want Jews in the Diaspora to feel that Israel is their home even if they live outside of it. Not because they give money, a Saudi sheikh can also give money, but because I want them to see this country as their home, even if they don’t give money. This is in my interest no less than it is in their interest. Should we not fight for every one of our brothers?


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