A mikve, the Jewish ritual bath [Illustrative].
(photo credit: CHABAD.ORG)
Israel, the only Jewish state in the world, systematically discriminates against Jews – if they happen to belong to non-Orthodox streams of Judaism.
This discrimination is often justified in the name of “unity.” If Israel begins recognizing the marriages of Reform or Conservative rabbis, so goes the reasoning, we will soon see a split in society. One group of Jews will refuse to marry another – indeed, will cast doubt on the other group’s very Jewishness.
Many would argue that this “split” happened long ago.
Already, there are many groups within Israeli society that would never dream of marrying members of another group. The monopoly enjoyed by the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate did not prevent this split. Many would say that it hastened the split.
In any event, discrimination against Reform and Conservative Jews is regularly justified in the name of “unity.” But gradually this discrimination is being rolled back, usually by Supreme Court decisions.
As a result of these rulings, non-Orthodox marriages and conversions performed abroad are recognized for the purpose of obtaining citizenship, and non-Orthodox rabbis can receive salaries from the state like their Orthodox counterparts.
And last week, in another landmark decision, the Supreme Court ruled that employees of state-funded ritual baths, called mikvaot in Hebrew, cannot prevent access to Reform and Conservative Jews.
The idea that until last week such access was regularly blocked is difficult to fathom. But that is precisely what happened. Local religious councils which operate public mikvaot, which are funded by jointly by the Religious Services Ministry and the local municipality, would not allow non-Orthodox Jews to use these facilities for ritual purposes.
How did it come about that workers who receive their salaries from taxpayers prevent one of these taxpayers from using a mikve that was built with taxpayers’ money? We don’t understand why the religious affiliation of mikve-goers disqualifies them from using state-funded facilities. Nor do we understand why the taxpayers’ particular stream of Judaism should be anyone’s business.
The Supreme Court justices did not understand either.
The justices wrote that the denial of access to public mikvaot for non-Orthodox conversions is discriminatory and illegal and “is inconsistent with the duty of the administrative authority to act with equality in all its actions.”
But now a group of Orthodox MKs is working to circumvent the Supreme Court and pass legislation that would make it possible to prevent Reform and Conservative Jews from using state-funded mikvaot.
These MKs, convinced God is on their side, want to curtail the religious freedoms of their fellow Jews. They are particularly incensed by the idea that Reform and Conservative Jews are using the mikve to finalize conversions.
They have the backing of Chief Sephardi Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef who called the court’s decision “scandalous.”
It seems rabbi Yosef and the Orthodox MKs pushing their mikve legislation believe they can enforce their version of Judaism via coercive laws. They fail to understand that in open societies such as Israel, religious expression cannot be dictated from above.
Preventing Reform and Conservative Jews from using state-funded mikvaot will not convince them to think differently.
This sort of behavior, however, creates an atmosphere of stagnation when it comes to religious expression.
Instead of encouraging alternative forms of religious expression, the Chief Rabbinate and its allies are doing everything in their power to stifle innovation and creativity.
Ultimately, this leads to less religiosity, not more.
The US is the most religious country in the West not despite its long history of fostering religious freedom but because of it. It is no coincidence that Jewish innovation is most robust in the US where Jews of all affiliations are free to practice their form of Judaism freely. Today for many Jews visiting the mikve is not just about family purity. It is used after all sorts of significant experiences: after chemotherapy, after marital infidelity, after rape. Psychologists have suggested using the mikve as “spiritual therapy.”
The conservative Orthodox establishment might not like such alternative uses of the mikve. But attempts to use legislation or other coercive means will ultimately fail. Stifling religious innovation will not foster unity. If anything, it will make Israel a less religious place.