Jerusalem, June 4, 2018
In a historic act that millions of Jews around the world have anxiously been awaiting for years, the Knesset yesterday dissolved the heretofore sacrosanct office of the Chief Rabbinate. Earlier in the day, the cabinet received a detailed report on the ongoing implementation of the revolutionary plan drafted nearly a decade ago to fully integrate the haredi community into the country’s military. Leaders from across the spectrum were unanimous in their optimism that the two moves would lead to an unprecedented Jewish renaissance and sense of unity.
AN INSTITUTION that existed in practice even before the establishment of the state, the Chief Rabbinate was empowered at the time of Israel’s independence as the supreme halachic authority for the country’s Jewish citizens. As such, for seven decades it exercised monolithic control over matters of marriage, divorce, conversion and burial even for those who had no wish for their lives to be subject to Jewish law.
Still, for generations, a silent majority of the public acquiesced to the monopoly enjoyed by the religious establishment. Many of the less observant bought into the myth that the only authentic Judaism was one which rigidly adhered to centuries-old interpretation of Jewish law, and accepted that Jewish continuity required submission to its conventions. Others simply couldn’t be bothered with waging a battle against a structure that in practical terms intruded on their lives only sporadically. All that began to change a few years ago.
The first significant crack in the broad acceptance of the institution came in the spring of 2008. It was then that the Supreme Rabbinic Court annulled thousands of conversions that had been authorized by the Conversion Administration headed by Rabbi Haim Druckman. The ruling gave tangible significance to a process that had long been under way: the wresting of control by the haredim of the rabbinic courts that had heretofore been in the hands of the more moderate national religious Zionists.
Prior to this decree, which met with public outrage, only the Reform and Conservative religious movements had been vocally engaged in lobbying to revamp the conversion process. Now they were joined by the modern Orthodox, whose own standards and authority were also under attack.
FAST FORWARD to the spring of 2010. On May 26, The Jerusalem Post ran a front-page headline “New rabbinate guidelines call for stringent review of marriage licenses.” Fresh directives had been issued by the Chief Rabbinate requiring anyone whose parents had not been married by a rabbinate-recognized cleric to appear before a rabbinical court to undergo a formal inquiry into the authenticity of his or her Judaism.
Without the option of civil marriage, the consequence of this draconian measure was that hundreds of thousands of Israelis – including innumerable immigrants – were no longer able to wed here. They joined the approximately 300,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union and their 50,000 offspring who were required to serve in the IDF but not allowed to be buried in Jewish cemeteries. Half a million citizens of the Jewish state, who already felt themselves a part of the Jewish people, had been imprisoned in identity limbo, a condition they would inevitably pass on to their children. The writing was on the wall.
A major survey of a cross-section of Israel’s Jewish population was released at the time by Hiddush, an association promoting religious freedom. Among the findings: 70 percent opposed religious legislation, 68% wanted to reduce funding of yeshivot and 85% were against exempting yeshiva students from army service. Relating to the increasing polarization reflected in the poll, author Amos Oz warned that “the prime struggle is not between Left and Right, not between Ashkenazi and Sephardi, not even between the rich and the poor or between Jew and Arab. It’s the struggle between tolerance, open-mindedness and pluralism on the one hand and fanaticism and hatred on the other.”
One public figure who recognized this was leader of the opposition at the time, MK Tzipi Livni, who had made headlines that spring when she declared, “Israel 2010 is a country in which women ride in the back of the bus, conversion is a mission impossible, the Zionist vision is blurred and defining the Jewish state has been given to a monopoly of haredi politicians.”
Determined to bring about change through dialogue, she convened the first of a series of public forums at the Knesset on matters of religion and state, addressed by a gallery of thinkers unabashedly representing the pluralistic nature of Israeli society, from the haredim to the passionately secular, all of whom cherished Jewish learning.
The conference was held against the background of a conversion bill that had been brought before the Knesset by MK David Rotem that threatened to estrange the Jews of the Diaspora from the Jewish state. Alarmed by the schism that the legislation might create, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu called upon Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky to mediate the matter. Since assuming the position a year earlier, Sharansky had faithfully demonstrated his commitment to preserving the unity of the Jewish people even as he honored its diversity, having called upon the Religious Services Ministry “to nurture mutual respect among the leaders of the diverse religious approaches and, in this way, to deepen the honor and appreciation for the tradition of Israel.”
He was one who understood that diverse communities in Israel and throughout the world were not only seeking practical solutions but legitimization by the Jewish state they held dear. A free market of religious services, they believed, devoid of coercion, would attract consumers by the droves, spawning creativity, not jeopardizing continuity.
IN FACT, such a free market already existed “underground.” A popular uprising against the religious establishment had already begun: not one that rejected tradition as in the early days of the Zionist enterprise, but one that embraced it. Already by the spring of 2010, dozens of non-Orthodox yeshivot had sprung up throughout Israel; tens of thousands of secular youths were participating in hundreds of alternative tikunei leil Shavuot; TALI schools – founded by Conservative olim a generation earlier to enhance Jewish studies in non-Orthodox state schools – went mainstream; the non-Orthodox religious streams – once bastions of Anglo-Saxon immigrants – began attracting increasing numbers of born-and-bred Israelis, due in part to the increasing number of sabras graduating from their rabbinic academies.
And among the ever dwindling number eligible to marry under the
auspices of the religious establishment, thousands were already
choosing an alternative path to matrimony that would be more
meaningful, personal and spiritual. The days of the Chief Rabbinate
Concurrently, there was a growing recognition within the haredi world
that the community was in danger of imploding if it did not prepare its
young people for a modicum of integration into society, including
taking part in its defense. On May 31 of that year, The Jerusalem Post
broke a story that seemed fantastical at the time: The IDF had prepared
a plan to be implemented incrementally that would – 10 years hence –
result in the recruitment of 60% of 18-year-old haredim to military or
alternative national service.
Still, it would take another several years for developments within...
This story is to be continued. All references to people, events,
organizations, and news through May 2010 are real. The rest is up to us.The writer is a member of the Jewish Agency and World Zionist Organization Executives.