Think About It: The Jewish identity administration

Many non-Orthodox secular and religious Jews protest establishment of the administration within framework of Ministry for Religious Services.

May 26, 2013 22:55
A soldier prays at the Western Wall. ‘

soldier praying at Western Wall 370. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Last week we were informed that the IDF’s former chief rabbi Avichai Ronsky has been appointed to head a new unit called “The Jewish Identity Administration” within the framework of the Ministry for Religious Services – a ministry created on the ruins of the erstwhile Ministry for Religious Affairs, which was created in 1949, and disbanded in 2003 as part of the coalition agreement between the Likud and Shinui parties.

In the current government it is Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett who is also responsible for the Ministry for Religious Services. Since Bayit Yehudi had called in its platform for the strengthening of the Jewish identity of the Jewish population in Israel, and since the Education Ministry is in the hands of Yesh Atid, Bennett decided to act within the framework of the Ministry for Religious Services, even though “strengthening Jewish identity” is hardly a religious service.

For the time being we do not know very much about the new administration. We have also not been informed why the civil service commissioner, Moshe Dayan, who insisted last week that Finance Minister Yair Lapid receive the approval of the government plenum before establishing a new “Housing Staff” in his ministry (due to the government decision to freeze all new appointments and expenditures), did not require the same from Bennett regarding the new Jewish Identity Administration.

Why Israel needs a Ministry for Religious Services, rather than a department for religious services in the Interior Ministry, and why this ministry has a monopoly over marriage, divorce and burial services, which means that hundreds of thousands of Israelis are prevented from getting married in Israel, or being buried in Jewish cemeteries, are questions I do not intend to address in this article.

However, like many other seculars, and religious Jews who are not Orthodox, I should like to protest the establishment of the new administration, and the appointment of Rabbi Amichai Ronsky to head it.

In the first place the term “Jewish identity” is neither monolithic nor completely clear. For Rabbi Ronsky Jewish identity is a national religious identity, which ignores the two Jewish movements that emerged at the end of the 18th century – the Hassidic movement on the one hand, and the Haskala (the Jewish Enlightenment) on the other, and the two non-Orthodox Jewish religious streams that developed in the course of the 19th century – the Conservative and Reform movements.

We can learn a lot about how Ronsky perceives “Jewish identity” from his educational activities as chief IDF rabbi in the years 2006-10, which included the buds of the public exclusion of women, and support for Jewish settlement in all parts of Eretz Yisrael, whether or not in consensus areas, and whether or not under Israeli sovereignty.

Chief IDF rabbi Ronsky ignored the fact that the IDF Rabbinate was created to provide Jewish religious services in the IDF, and not for any other purpose. He also ignored the fact that educational activities in the IDF are the duty of the Education Corps, and not the IDF Rabbinate.

Now he is ignoring the fact that the Ministry for Religious Services is in charge of providing Orthodox religious services to the Jewish population – not education, which is the job of the Education Ministry.

I personally am in favor of the Education Ministry revamping the curricula for the teaching of general Jewish history, the Bible, the Jewish prayer books, some basic understanding of Halacha, or Jewish law, and what the various religious streams of Judaism advocate, and how these differ from Halacha. I have a feeling that in the 1950s, when I went to school in Haifa, these subjects were dealt with much more seriously than they are today in the national education system, though I doubt whether the national and “independent” religious streams ever taught their students anything about general Jewish history, or elements of Judaism that are not part of the Orthodox mainstream in Israel.

I am also in favor of all parts of the Jewish population being taught that while democracy means that you can legitimately advocate almost any vision of the “Jewish State,” including a halachic state, what the founding fathers meant by “Jewish state” was a haven for all Jews; religious or secular, Orthodox, Conservative and Reform, Ashkenazi, Sephardi or other, in which all could live as they please in freedom, without being harassed by anyone – not even the Orthodox religious establishment.

It should be recalled that most of the early waves of Zionist immigration to Eretz Yisrael were made up of individuals (including my grandfather), who wanted to escape what seemed to them the stifling and degenerate Jewish way of life in the Eastern European shtetl, and to live a non-religious life as Jews in the Land of Israel.

Unlike today’s seculars, many of whom are ignorant regarding Jewish religious practices and beliefs, their forefathers had deliberately revolted against these practices and beliefs on which they had been raised. It was only the Holocaust, which physically destroyed this way of life, which created an aura of nostalgia around it, and stigmatized the revolt against it.

It is against this background that the new Jewish Identity Administration appears to me so anomalous and unacceptable. Ronsky and Bennett certainly have the right to advocate any sort of Jewish identity as they please – but not in the name of the government, and certainly not in the name of “true” Zionism.

I just wonder why, if the two gentlemen are so concerned about the Jewish identity of Israeli Jews, it is only seculars they target, and not the so-called “Hilltop Youth,” the “price tag” terrorists, national religious rabbis who consider the murderer Baruch Goldstein to be a hero, haredi rabbis who consider the Jewish state to be an abomination, and charlatans in the guise of pious “miracle workers” who call themselves rabbis, and dupe tens of thousands of innocent believers (including one Nochi Dankner). Do they consider the Jewish identities of the above mentioned to be immaculate? Ronsky and Bennett certainly have no respect for how people like me perceive their Jewish identity. My Jewish identity is made up of the fact that the Jewish people – with all its diversity – is my people; that my history is the Jewish history, with all its twists and turns; and that I consider myself part of the more enlightened and tolerant world as a Jew.

My Jewish identity does not include practices and traditions – be they Jewish or non-Jewish – that I object to on principle, and I resent being told that I have to accept a particular brand of the Jewish religion and traditions, lock, stock and barrel, in order to have a “proper” Jewish identity.

Cultural revolutions and reeducation of the masses might be fine for Communist China. They have no place in the democratic state of the Jewish people.

The writer is a retired Knesset employee.

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