An ultra-Orthodox Jew gestures during a protest in the Mea Shearim neighborhood of Jerusalem.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Proponents of a wall of separation between church and state have traditionally had two motivations: To protect people from religious coercion and to defend religion from state control or from narrow interest groups. In Israel most activists calling to dismantle the Chief Rabbinate or to abolish religious legislation tend to have the former motivation. These are unabashedly secular Israelis who want to be free to marry whomever they wish; to use public transportation and conduct business whenever they want – including on Shabbat; to refrain from footing the bill for religious services they do not need and from paying a premium for kosher food when they would just as soon forgo the pricey rabbinic stamp of approval.
But increasingly a new breed of separationists is coming of age. These people want to see an end to the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly over kashrut supervision, marriages, divorces and conversions precisely because they care so much about Judaism, not because they want to escape it.
Moshe Koppel, chairman of the Kohelet Policy Forum and an Orthodox Jew, has argued in favor of more separation between religion and state. Elli Fischer and Charles Davidson, two Orthodox rabbis, recently made the news for performing fully Orthodox weddings outside the aegis of the Chief Rabbinate while Rabbi Michael Abraham has done the same in the field of divorce. Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz – also Orthodox – heads an independent kashrut supervision outfit called Hashgacha Pratit that bypasses the Chief Rabbinate’s authority.
The idea of separating religion and state is not foreign to Orthodox Judaism. The philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz (no relation to Rabbi Aaron) advocated it. So did the 18th-century German man of letters Moses Mendelssohn.
And many non-Orthodox Jews would like to see Judaism take a more dominant role in Israeli society and see the Chief Rabbinate or religious legislation as an obstacle.
Contemporary critics see the Chief Rabbinate as a body that does more harm than good, particularly among the uninitiated or unversed in Jewish religious culture. Like other state-run bodies, the Chief Rabbinate is marred by red tape and administered by career bureaucrats who receive monthly salaries regardless of how substandard they perform.
Often, they have been appointed not because of their selfless commitment to Jewish ideals or even their abilities and knowledge but thanks to their political ties.
If the services being provided are mundane – the issuing of a driver’s license, the transfer of a welfare check – contact with the state-run department or agency is bearable, if aggravating. But if the “service” being provided touches on the very foundations of religious faith or one’s religious identity (for instance when one’s conversion or Jewishness is being scrutinized by a marriage registrar) the negative effects can be devastating.
The problem is not with Judaism; it is with the system that has succeeded in distorting something beautiful.
Israel’s religion-state arrangement also creates an absurd situation in which inherently secularly institutions such as the Knesset and the Supreme Court interfere with matters exclusively religious in nature. This is an anathema from the point of view of those who would like to see Judaism flourish freely in the Jewish state.
An example was provided this week.
On Sunday, the Ministerial Committee for Legislation approved for a preliminary Knesset reading a bill that is designed to prevent independent kashrut authorities from operating outside the purview of the Chief Rabbinate. Legislation on the books already makes it illegal to advertise that a restaurant is kosher unless it is under the supervision of the Chief Rabbinate, even if the restaurant serves kosher food. Sunday’s bill seeks to consolidate the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly. In the past the High Court of Justice has intervened in decisions made by the Chief Rabbinate. In 1990, the High Court ruled that the Jerusalem Rabbinate could not revoke a kashrut certificate from a food establishment because its owners permitted belly dancing on the premises. In 2009, the High Court ruled that the rabbinate in Ashdod could not demand a more stringent level of supervision in a bakery owned by a Jew for Jesus.
A unique opportunity presents itself. A coalition can be formed between secular Jews who want to free themselves of religious coercion and those who would like to see Judaism take a more prominent role in society. The groups have a common goal, though each for very different reasons.