Balancing Judaism and democracy

Obviously, in Israel, a state that defines itself as Jewish, there can never be a complete separation of state and religion.

June 2, 2013 22:53
3 minute read.
Women of the wall

Women of the wall protest. (photo credit: Tovah Lazaroff)

The Religious Services Ministry announced last week that it would begin providing Reform and Conservative (Masorti) congregations with state funds to pay their rabbis’ salaries.

At least that is what a ministry representative said in response to a High Court of Justice petition filed against the ministry by the Reform and Conservative movements back in January.

If implemented, the change in the way religious services are funded would be an important step toward a more egalitarian and freer religious environment in Israel. Spiritual leaders such as Rabbi Miri Gold, who heads a Reform congregation at Kibbutz Gezer, or Rabbi Haya Rowen- Baker of the capital’s French Hill neighborhood would for the first time begin receiving a state salary just like their Orthodox and male counterparts. Unfortunately, chances are slim that the state will begin transferring state funds to non-Orthodox congregations anytime soon.

The Religious Services Ministry’s announcement might well have been nothing but a tactical ploy. Realizing that it was about to lose its battle in the High Court, the ministry opted to temporarily retreat. It would concede to the non- Orthodox congregations, but delay implementation.

For instance, the ministry might now adopt funding criteria that discriminate against the non-Orthodox by, say, providing funding only to congregations that have prayers three times a day, seven days a week. Congregations that provide other services, such as daily Torah classes for adults, Jewish meditation or other activities offered by non-Orthodox congregations would not be recognized.

Also, the reforms, which include a revamping of the way all rabbis’ salaries are paid, might be less about religious equality and more about a power struggle between religious Zionists – the new force in the Religious Services Ministry – and the haredim, who have been in control in recent years. Apparently, Bayit Yehudi is interested in bypassing the religious councils, which were appointed during the time when Shas-United Torah Judaism controlled religious services. Instead of funding rabbis’ salaries via the religious councils, Bayit Yehudi wants to transfer funds directly to congregations. Ostensibly, these can be either Orthodox or non-Orthodox congregations. But chances are only Orthodox congregations will end up receiving money.

The power struggle between haredim and religious Zionists affiliated with Bayit Yehudi over state funds for religious services underscores the problematic nature of mixing religion and politics and the sagacity of separating as much as possible state from religion.

Inevitably, when religious political parties are given control over religious services, less attention is given to improving the quality of services than to exploiting political clout. Be it Bayit Yehudi, Shas or United Torah Judaism, religious parties tend to use their control over the Religious Services Ministry to appoint cronies and functionaries, to consolidate power over institutions such as religious councils, and to a allocate money on the basis of political considerations.

And often there is an inherent contradiction between Orthodox Judaism and the upholding of democratic principles such as gender equality or the fair treatment of non- Orthodox streams of Judaism. Recent controversy over the “Stern Law,” a bill proposed by MK Elazar Stern (Hatnua) that would incorporate for the first time women in the voting process for a chief rabbi, is a case in point.

Disqualifying women simply because of their gender is anti-democratic. But it is a violation of Orthodoxy’s religious autonomy to force the Chief Rabbinate to elect chief rabbis in a way that contradicts religious practice. Further complicated matters is the fact that the Stern bill was proposed not only to advance women’s rights but also to improve the chances that Rabbi David Stav of Shoham would be elected chief Ashkenazi rabbi. Under the circumstances, the best solution is to separate as much as possible between state and religion.

Obviously, in Israel, a state that defines itself as Jewish, there can never be a complete separation of state and religion.

Legislation such as the Law of Return should remain in force as should state recognition of Shabbat as a day of rest and of Jewish holidays.

For the sake of both democratic rule and religious autonomy, however, state funding of the Chief Rabbinate – including rabbis’ salaries – should be kept to a minimum if not done away with altogether. Israel will end up both more Jewish and more democratic as a result.

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