Center Field: Save Israeli Judaism – end the chief rabbinate

The Knesset should break the rabbinate’s toxic monopoly on Israeli Judaism; that most of these rabbis are anti-Zionist is even more galling.

By GIL STERN STERN TROY
December 22, 2015 21:14
Jerusalem's Old City

An Orthodox Jewish worshipper prays at the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest prayer site, in Jerusalem's Old City. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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Terrorism is up; tourism, down. The economy is flagging. Organized criminals strut about openly defying the law. Police officers and politicians are imprisoned for corruption and sexual harassment. With all these problems, amid all this law and disorder, whom do some idiots in the Knesset want to jail? Why, owners of businesses open on Saturdays without special permission, of course.

It sounds like a joke. Where does a warden house the owners of a little makolet, minimarket, after the state expends precious police and judicial resources prosecuting this miscreant? With burglars, because these shopkeepers rob us of the right Shabbat atmosphere? With traitors, because they betrayed Judaism by acting like “goyim”? Or, perhaps, with security prisoners because the Lord will strike us dead if this evil of Shabbat shopping persists? MK Rachel Azaria of Kulanu, who proudly identifies as “religious,” called the bill “draconian.” While I agree with her and applaud her courage, she is being unfair to Draco, the Athenian lawgiver infamous for punishing small offenses severely. Draco’s targets at least were guilty of something. These citizens would be only “guilty” of selling Crembos to happy schoolkids, ice coffee to thirsty tourists, bread to hungry pensioners.

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Like Azaria, I take Judaism and Shabbat very seriously – it is the hijacking of state powers to enforce religion that I mock. Not only would this stupid law violate Israeli democracy, it would harm Judaism. Rather than continuing the tradition of hamhanded religious bullying, which alienates Jews in Israel and abroad, this Knesset should finally try saving Israeli Judaism – by eliminating the chief rabbinate and all religious coercion.

As someone who cares deeply about the Jewish future in Israel, and as a Shabbat observer who loves the quiet that descends on Jerusalem every Friday afternoon, I share the rabbinate’s goal of keeping the Jewish state Jewish. I agree with great liberals like Prof. Ruth Gavison that the majority in a democracy can express its culture and religion in the public space.

Precisely now, during the “Christmas Season,” note how much Christian religion – not just culture – permeates the atmosphere of Western democracies, except Israel. Wreaths and mistletoe, Santa and his reindeers, are everywhere. Most people are honest enough to say “Merry Christmas.” Of course, the politically correct say “Happy Holiday,” even though this generic “holiday” celebrates Jesus’s birth.

In Europe, through the tinsel, I see crosses on national flags, and national ceremonies awash in religious symbolism.

I respect it. I only resent it when Westerners get sanctimonious, claiming Israel doesn’t separate church and state, while they do. All democracies are on a continuum, balancing tradition and modernity, religion and cosmopolitanism, majority rule and minority rights.



In Israel, I love observing Shabbat publicly to express the majority Jewish sensibility. I see how the Jewish schools’ curricula, the national holidays, the Hebrew language, reinforce a sense of Jewishness, which is both national and religious. The thickness of Israeli identity, its solidity, anchors my family, making life in Israel appealing. The religious and cultural and national observances have a spillover effect, helping create a society that is more family- oriented, communitarian, mission-driven, and frequently more moral than many other democracies’.

I applaud the idea behind the initial legislation from 1951, which prohibited people from being employed on their day of rest. I understand the pressure of capitalist competition, and the blessing a day off provides, especially in the context of a traditional day of worship. Today, I would support a law prohibiting forcing individuals to work on their traditional day of rest.

The current proposal, however, inverts the original idea.

Instead of protecting workers from being forced to work, this law would enforce a particular way of life. Such medieval coercion backfires in the twenty-first century.

The Israeli rabbinate is one of the most anti-religious forces in Israel today. Rather than engaging in kiruv, bringing Jews closer to tradition, the rabbinate has been a decades-long force for hitrachkut, distancing, alienation, wrenching millions of Israeli and non-Israeli Jews away from Judaism.

It is one of the new laws of religious physics: coercion is a force that repels far more than it attracts. I’m tired of meeting Israeli Jews, “religious” and “secular,” who believe in the rabbinate’s all-or-nothing approach – and I mourn the many who then choose nothing, abandoning any tradition and faith because they cannot accept it all. I’m tired of attending weddings of wonderful, traditional, super-patriotic, Zionist Israeli Jews – some of whom are national religious – who refuse to have a religious ceremony in Israel to protest the rabbinate’s religious dictatorship. I’m tired of seeing the Jewish state privilege one response to the clash between Judaism and modernity – the ultra-Orthodox rejectionists – over the other responses, including the equally legitimate Conservative (Masorti) and Reform movements. And I’m tired of hearing about Israeli soldiers, especially Israeli martyrs, who aren’t considered Jewish because the rabbinate refuses to solve the Russian conversion problems that keep these patriots in identity limbo.

If, in 1948, enemies of Judaism had planned to estrange Israeli Jews from their Judaism – while infuriating millions of Diaspora Jews – I doubt they could have devised as effective a plan as the Israeli rabbinate has followed, mass-producing hostility to this rigid form of Judaism.

The Knesset should break the rabbinate’s toxic monopoly on Israeli Judaism. That most of these rabbis are anti-Zionist is even more galling. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should aim to make ending the rabbinate an essential part of his legacy as a proud nationalist, as a Zionist.

Israel has enough enemies. Judaism has enough detractors.

For too long, the Jewish people have not only tolerated but bankrolled and empowered this poisonous force, polluting people’s attitudes toward Judaism and Israel.

Let’s end the authorized, state-funded rabbinate – to save Israeli Judaism from these bullying Israeli Jews! The writer is the author of The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s, just published by Thomas Dunne Books of St. Martin’s Press. He is professor of history at McGill University and a Visiting Scholar this fall at the Brookings Institution.

Follow on Twitter @GilTroy www.giltroy.com

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