A mikve, the Jewish ritual bath [Illustrative].
(photo credit: CHABAD.ORG)
Advocates of a “wall of separation” between political power and religious authority have traditionally sought to attain two goals.
The first, of course, was to protect politics and political rule from religious bigots motivated by irrational religious dictates. But no less important was the need to protect religious expression by protecting the individual’s right to worship God the way he or she sees fit, free from the meddling of the state.
The present battle over mikvaot [ritual baths] illustrates perfectly the second point.
Local religious councils, under orders from Chief Rabbinate rabbis who receive their salaries from the state, systematically prevent Israeli citizens belonging to the Reform or Conservative (Masorti) movements, from using mikvaot to perform conversion ceremonies.
In mikvaot across the nation, Israeli taxpayers who wished to exercise their right to take advantage of state-funded mikvaot were turned away because they wanted to use the mikve in a way deemed unacceptable by the Orthodox rabbis of the Chief Rabbinate.
For those of us who view conversion as an intimate and very personal act of religious faith, it is difficult to grasp the idea that a state functionary (in this case a mikve attendant) acting on the orders of a state-employed rabbi has the power to prevent a tax-paying citizen from worshiping God in the way he or she sees fit.
Many of us would rightly ask: “What business of the rabbis are the thoughts and intentions of the prospective convert as he or she plunges into the mikve?” Unfortunately, in the Jewish state it is not the prerogative of the individual to worship God freely. In matters of spirituality, there is no sovereign self.
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Religious parties have skillfully used their political power to perpetuate this state of affairs since the establishment of the State of Israel. And since the majority of Israelis are either indifferent to the plight of Reform and Conservative Jews or are openly opposed to granting them rights, no government has seriously revamped the relations between religion and state via legislation despite pressure from the Jewish Diaspora, particularly in North America.
Thankfully, the High Court has stepped in repeatedly as a bulwark against the tyranny of the majority to protect the basic rights of non-Orthodox streams of Judaism. And it did so regarding the mikve issue, as well.
In February, the High Court ruled that it is illegal to ban the Reform and Conservative movements from using state-run mikvaot. Even if there is an Orthodox establishment that controls religious services, this establishment cannot impose any policy that goes against the basic democratic values of the state of Israel, the justices said.
But now, United Torah Judaism, backed by other parties in the Knesset, has taken steps to bypass the High Court decision.
New legislation that empowers local religious councils to refuse access to mikvaot, was approved for a first reading in the Knesset on Monday by the Knesset Interior Committee.
There have been attempts to reach a compromise. The government suggested that the Jewish Agency build four “pluralistic” mikvaot around the country that would permit access to non-Orthodox streams.
The problem with this suggestion, however, is that North American communities are being asked to finance not just the construction, but the ongoing upkeep of the mikvaot. Not only are Reform and Conservative Jews being discriminated against by the State of Israel, they are being asked to foot the bill, as well. It should come as no surprise that they are unwilling to play that game.
The State of Israel should be a place where all forms of Jewish expression are encouraged and given the freedom to grow and flourish. If state funds are allocated at all for religious services, they should be allocated in a way that encourages all forms of Jewish religious expressions, not just a narrowly Orthodox form.
One of the most beautiful aspects of Judaism is its diversity and richness. Rationalists, as well as spiritualists; reformers, as well as traditionalists – all find meaning and a sense of belonging within Judaism’s broad tent.
Religious diversity flourishes when allowed to develop organically and in an open atmosphere of free expression.
Where else should this happen but in the world’s only Jewish state?
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