(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The Jewish Agency for Israel, whose Board of Governors is meeting in Jerusalem this week, is expected to consider a resolution calling for official Israeli recognition of non-Orthodox conversions.
Speaking more broadly on the issue of pluralism in a recent interview with The Jerusalem Post, JAFI Chairman Ze'ev Bielski said: "The time has come for the government and the rabbinate to show the millions of people from the Reform and Conservative movements that they are a part of us.
"I don't think that anyone can take the responsibility for losing out on so many people who might want to come on aliya and be integrated into Israeli society. ... There are, after all, so few Jews in the world. We should not all be fighting each other and we should look for common ground."
Orthodox representatives argue that it is the other streams that have compromised Jewish unity, by changing the standards for observance and conversion to such a degree that there is dwindling agreement over who is a Jew, let alone how to be Jewish.
Whether they are right or not, this response, together with Bielski's explanation that pluralism is needed to encourage aliya, show that the discussion of the issue continues to miss the point. Israel's Orthodox establishment has done more to discredit Judaism in the eyes of the non-observant than to advance it.
The Israeli rabbinate jealously guards its sole right to administer marriage and divorce for Israelis, so that even Orthodox rabbis who come from overseas to perform a marriage must stand beside - and pay - a representative of the rabbinate to gain official sanction for the wedding. It also holds the keys to kashrut certification and burial for all Jewish Israelis.
Yet this rabbinate, with its monopoly on life cycle events, expresses next-to-no view and offers little guidance on such deeply Jewish issues as social justice, the minimum wage, redeeming a captive soldier, the ethics of war, individual spirituality and much more besides. Where it isn't trying to enforce its jurisdiction as an institution, the rabbinate is almost always, tragically, silent. Indeed, the only encounter most Israelis have with Judaism is with a disinterested rabbinate clerk paid by taxpayers to whom he does not see himself accountable.
It would be better, both for Jewish unity and for the advancement of Judaism in Israel, if the Orthodox gave up their official monopoly over religion in Israel. Even better, there should be no official rabbinate to monopolize. Far from compromising the Jewishness of the state, eliminating the rabbinate would enhance it, since rabbis from three streams would be free to serve their own communities in Israel as they do in Diaspora.
But it isn't enough to call for a separation of religion and state. What's needed is a specific type of separation.
The current system, apparently modeled after that of the French Revolution - according to which a secular state oversees a carefully-controlled religious hierarchy, offering a state service to those religion-seeking citizens stricken with what the revolutionaries saw as a psychological illness - has broken down everywhere it was tried, including Israel.
The alternative is the American model, according to which it is political power that is corrupting, and religion, the highest aspiration of the free-thinking man, cannot be allowed to be prostituted to its vicissitudes. So the Americans never sought the separation of religion and state - American politics have always been deeply religious - but the separation of church and state, of the institutions of religion and the necessarily corrupting institutions of political power.
Here, as with every other country in which religion has been placed under government jurisdiction, such as England, much of the population has long since stopped seeing religion as a meaningful component of their lives. Israel's state church, its state rabbinate - a new phenomenon in Jewish history - should be dismantled not merely in the hope of increasing North American aliya, nor merely to guarantee equality for Jews in the Jewish state's institutions. Rather, it should be dismantled to save Orthodoxy itself in Israel, and to save the relevance and significance of Jewish spirituality and the Jewish bookshelf for the 40 percent of the world's Jews who live in Israel.
The mixture of religion and politics has been harmful to Judaism here. For the sake of Jewish unity and the advancement of a religious agenda, the link should be severed.
We hope the Jewish Agency's Assembly and Board of Governors send this message to the Jewish world they represent. And we hope the Orthodox delegates, those who care deeply for the influence of tradition and ancient wisdom on modern Jewish life, courageously stand at the vanguard of this vital initiative.
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