Praying room

Just as free and open markets are a boon to economies, so too will a freer religious environment encourage more vibrant Jewish religious expression.

February 1, 2016 21:26
3 minute read.
An ultra-orthodox Jew is restrained by a Border Policeman

An ultra-orthodox Hassidic Jew is restrained by a Border Policeman as he screams against a group of Reform and Conservative rabbis holding prayers at the Western Wall. (photo credit: REUTERS)

It may sound difficult to believe, but in the 21st century the world’s only Jewish state still discriminates against religious Jews who deviate from accepted Orthodox practices.

Non-Orthodox rabbis or rabbis considered too independent- minded on matters of gender equality or conversions are not recognized by the state to perform marriages or conversions, but mainstream Orthodox ones are; non-Orthodox streams of Judaism or streams not properly “connected” to the right political parties do not receive funding from the Religious Affairs Ministry; non-Orthodox forms of religious expression are not respected in public spaces and institutions; and women who choose to don talitot and tefilin and read from the Torah scroll in public are ostracized.

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However, non-Orthodox streams of Judaism and the Women of the Wall – many of whom consider themselves Orthodox – scored a significant victory Sunday as part of their struggle for recognition from the Jewish state. A large and prominent portion of the Western Wall, the site probably most resonant with meaning for Jews of all stripes and denominations, will now accommodate alternative forms of Jewish religious expression.

Sunday’s cabinet decision to double the size of an area located south of the Kotel plaza already reserved for non-Orthodox prayer and to provide a place for Women of the Wall as well is official acknowledgment that there is more than one way to be a religious Jew.

For a Jewish state which for too long has deferred to the Orthodox Jewish establishment on all sectarian as well as religious matters, it represents a symbolic victory for pluralism and a more dynamic form of Jewish religious expression.

According to the cabinet’s decision, an “official and respected” 900 square meter prayer space in a non-Orthodox section of the Western Wall will be set aside for non-Orthodox or unconventional forms of Jewish religious expression. It will have government-funded staff, Torah scrolls and other ritual objects and will open to all forms of Jewish prayer.

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. Not unlike free and open markets, different streams of Jewish religious expression grow and innovate, reacting to different spiritual and psychological needs.

One would think that the world’s only Jewish state would do its utmost to foster a vibrant, multi-faceted Judaism.

Unfortunately, since Israel’s founding, religion and state have been overly intertwined. Different groups within Orthodoxy have been granted a monopoly over state funds, rabbinic and quasi-rabbinic appointments and influence. In the first decades after the establishment of the state it was the National Religious Party that traditionally controlled the Religious Affairs Ministry and wielded critical control. Later it was Shas’s turn. The best way to stifle religious expression and innovation is by granting a state-sanctioned monopoly to one sect with a narrow political and economic agenda. Competing streams are deprived of resources while the non-religious become disillusioned by the cynicism of the purportedly pious exploiting political power for materialistic ends.

The State of Israel should be a place where all forms of Jewish expression are encouraged and given the freedom to grow and flourish. State funds should be allocated for this purpose. So should state institutions and religious sites. The government’s decision to expand the section adjacent to the Western Wall is precisely the step needed to encourage a more vibrant, freer and more innovative Jewish environment in Israel.

As Rabbi Susan Silverman, one of the leaders of Woman of the Wall that did so much to cause to trigger the cabinet decision, wrote in Monday’s Post: “This southern side of the Western Wall will have its heart open to everyone, freed from the bondage of shtetl-think, of the idolatrous clinging to the idea of a zero-sum God, of the dangerous amalgamation of political power and piety.”

Just as free and open markets are a boon to economies, so too will a freer religious environment encourage more vibrant Jewish religious expression. Where else should this happen but in the world’s only Jewish state?

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