In a month or so, 150 rabbis and representatives of the public are set to vote
on the future of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate – ostensibly choosing between
maintaining the status quo or opting for a more open-minded and publicly
sensitive Orthodox leader.
More than any other institution in modern
Israel, the rabbinate is the product of a short-sighted and debased deal between
the country’s Jewish religious and secular citizens to define the relationship
between state and religion within society.
When the state was founded,
there were predominantly two Jewish denominations in Israel – religious and
secular, with secular interchangeable with the category of
Since Judaism is a religion, the meaning of this duality
was that society was divided between those who cared about Judaism and those who
did not, those for whom being Jewish was a religious identity, and those for
whom being Jewish, or in certain cases Israeli, was a national
The deal negotiated between the parties was that the religious
would be in charge of religion and the nonreligious would receive basic freedom
from religion, with the exception of a few instances where this freedom would be
limited (such as in the area of marriage) but would receive an adequate payoff
for this in the form of coalition support.
Freedom of religion would
basically be the inheritance of the non-Jewish population of Israel and Orthodox
Jews alone, all of whom would receive support from the state for their religious
ideologies and practices.
The nonreligious would have no freedom of
religion, but since they were self-defined as nonreligious, it was a freedom
they felt they did not need and would not miss.
When compared to the
United States’ model of the relationship between state and religion as outlined
in the Bill of Rights, Israel’s democracy was profoundly flawed.
institution of the rabbinate violates both the Establishment and Free Exercise
clauses which the First Amendment to the US Constitution intuits as being
central to religious freedom and democratic civil society.
do not insist upon a separation between state and religion, as the United States
is a nation “under God,” but that government shall neither inhibit the
inalienable right of every individual to follow his religious conscience, nor
establish a preferred, particular religious denomination as the official
religion of the country.
With the institution of the rabbinate having
been placed in the hands of the Orthodox, Israel established Orthodoxy as the
official Judaism of Israel, and gave it control over issues of marriage, divorce
and conversion, thereby limiting free exercise of religion in those areas which
fall under the purview of its authority.
Regardless of who is elected as
the next chief rabbi of Israel, the fundamental flaw embedded within the
institution, and the damage it causes to Israel’s democratic and Jewish fiber,
will remain. There is no doubt that Rabbi Stav of Tzohar would be a more
friendly Orthodox rabbi who would ensure that the meting out of Orthodox law
would be done in a more sensitive and user-friendly manner. He would combat the
ever-increasing opting out of rabbinate-governed ceremonies by providing a more
attractive Orthodox product.
At the end of the day, however, it will
remain solely an Orthodox product, and as such, regardless of his skill and good
intentions, a flawed product.
Israeli society in its 65 years has
undergone significant transformations.
We are no longer a society
bifurcated along religious and secular/nonreligious lines. The vast majority of
secular Israelis are no longer merely Jewish in its national sense but Jewish in
its religious sense. While the synagogue remains an institution which does not
serve the needs of most secular Jews, Jewish ritual, calendar, values, culture
and even some study have become integral parts of the lives of most Jews. Even
the Orthodox in Israel are far from a monolithic group. Leaving aside the
ultra-Orthodox, who by the way want to control the rabbinate but do not use it
or accept it as an authority in their own lives, and whose extra-rabbinic
institutions receive unofficial sanction from the official rabbinate, the rest
of Orthodoxy in Israel is profound and diverse and filled with nuances and
innovations far greater than its North American counterparts.
their North American counterparts, however, Orthodox and liberal alike, Israelis
have yet to parlay their individual commitments into a self-identified sense of
religious rights, into a freedom of religion within their personal and public
lives. And so, they, too, will vote to pick the next Orthodox chief rabbi of
Israel, a vote which may enhance the stability of the coalition but which will
continue to harm their religious freedom and religious expression.
nature of Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people may rightly give
preference to Judaism as part of the national heritage of the majority of its
citizens, all the while protecting the freedom of religion of non-Jewish
Israelis. The Jews of Israel may be one people “united under Judaism,” but
precisely because of that we need a rigorous Establishment clause amending the
Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty which ensures that no denomination or
approach to Judaism is established as the preferred Jewish religion of the
Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people invites Judaism, its
culture, language, calendar, values and ideas to enter into the public sphere
and to shape the nature of our public life. It does so, however, not because
Jewish law is binding within the confines of a Jewish state, but because it
reflects the values and heritage of the people who constitute the majority of
This people, however, does not live monolithic Jewish lives,
nor do we agree on either the nature of Jewish law or its authority. The only
Judaism that has any claim to a place within the homeland of the Jewish people
is a Judaism which mirrors this diversity and disagreement.
Israel as a
Jewish and democratic state can have a state-sponsored rabbinate, as well as
state-sponsored Christian, Muslim and Druse courts.
It cannot, however,
allow any one of these institutions to be defined and controlled solely by one
denomination, nor grant them authority over those who choose to exercise their
right to opt out.
Next month we do not need to vote on the identity of
the next Orthodox chief rabbi of Israel but on the identities of the next chief
rabbis of Israel, rabbis who will ensure that the Jews of Israel have a right to
freedom of religion.
In the past, secular Jews were willing to relinquish
their Jewish rights on the altar of a government coalition which would serve
Israel’s foreign policy and security needs. Our new coalition has ushered in a
new era in modern Israeli life, an era in which a coalition is forged not around
a consensus on foreign policy, but on a consensus that the future of Israel is
dependent on the nature of our society, its values, and economic equality. It is
time for the new coalition and indeed the new Israel to step forward and lay new
foundations and meaning for Israel as a Jewish and democratic
state.Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman is president of the Shalom Hartman
Institute and director of the Institute’s iENGAGE Project – iengage.org.il