The next gov’t will have to tackle matters of religion

The good news is that these issues are playing a central role in the upcoming elections. They are regularly spoken of, even argued about.

By YIZHAR HESS
September 12, 2019 22:07
'The immediate aim of Netanyahu’s move was to reduce the chances of theRight losing maybe five seats

'The immediate aim of Netanyahu’s move was to reduce the chances of the Right losing as many as five seats due to the multiplicity of right-wing religious parties.’ . (photo credit: REUTERS)

In the final scene of Fiddler on the Roof, at least in the version currently showing in London’s West End, Tuvia and his wife, Golda, separate from the residents of Anatevka, each of whom is on his way after the czar’s deportation order forcing them to leave their shtetl. It’s quite a scene, sad and funny, especially when Yenta the matchmaker comes to say goodbye to Golda. Yenta is the only one of all of them who goes to Eretz Israel.

“To Eretz Yisrael?” wonders Golda. “Why?”

“Because that’s what Jews do,” Yente replies. “That’s what Jews do. We suffer.”

There is nothing like Sholom Aleichem’s Yiddish humor to illustrate the grim, even tragic situation in which the State of Israel is today, at least in the so-not-holy relationship between religion and state. Oy, so much suffering! Yes, many challenges face the state of Israel – security, economics, peace, the Iranian bomb, Hezbollah, Gaza – and that’s before we even mention transportation, education or the situation of hospitals. But, one of the most annoying issues confronting the Jewish citizen in Israel from the day of birth until his death is the fact that the State of Israel decided, from the day of its founding, to deposit the keys of the country’s Jewish identity in the hands of one stream, giving that stream the power that only a sovereign state can bestow. And this historical glitch haunts the state like a curse. 

The good news is that these issues are playing a central role in the upcoming elections. They are regularly spoken of, even argued about. On Tuesday, the Israeli electorate will go to the polls, and I want to cautiously project that any government that will be formed after the elections, unless it is a narrow right-wing, haredi (ultra-Orthodox) one, will have to make a change in the relations between religion and state in Israel. The Israeli public is not only ready, but truly very thirsty for change.

In the field of marriage and divorce, it is simply necessary to grant legal status to the silent revolution that is already occurring. As more than 20% of Jewish couples in Israel are already choosing to marry in a ceremony outside the Chief Rabbinate, it is clear that the die has been cast. The politicians have recognized this. White and Blue has pledged to create a route which will be an alternative to the Rabbinate’s, and Yisrael Beytenu has pledged to institute full civil marriage. Their joining a government which does not implement these changes will be a blatant violation of explicit promises it has made. It seems to me that they understand this.

Similarly, on the matter of the Western Wall, the next government will have to take action. The current government approved the Kotel compromise, then canceled it, and since then through High Court of Justice deliberations, the government has employed every possible excuse to drag its feet. The issue has become a strategic crisis with the Jewish Diaspora, but no less interesting is that Israelis have “discovered” the Wall. There are days of the year that Ezrat Israel/the egalitarian Kotel is busier than the other side of the Western Wall, which is run by Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz.


PEOPLE HAVE discovered that a family prayer where a grandmother need not stand on a plastic chair in order to peek at her grandson over a high mehitza (separation barrier), is a great thing. Competition is doing its job, even though the egalitarian Kotel (which we call the family Kotel) is much less decorative, maybe even neglected, with a bit of the feeling to some of a back bench on the bus.

The conversion issue is also pending in the Supreme Court. A few weeks ago we were contacted by the government (yes, they know how to call us when they want), and agreed to another postponement by the court. We agreed, as the government promised not to promote legislation on the subject prior to the court’s decision, and we assumed that the court would choose not to make a decision in the height of elections. But we will not accept any further request for delay. Whether it wants to or not, the next government will have to resolve the conversion crisis.

Kashrut is another sore point. Almost every week there is a media inquiry into yet another case of corruption in the kashrut monopoly of the Chief Rabbinate. The Rabbinate’s certificate of kashrut is no longer understood to be a guarantee that a place is kosher. The Rabbinate itself knows this is true. In their own conferences, they notify that the food will be supervised by the Haredi Badat”z. Privatization is the order of the hour.

If there is one office that needs to be eliminated immediately, it is the superfluous and archaic Religious Services Ministry. This office’s sole purpose is to serve the Orthodox stream of Judaism. Salaries for rabbis, building synagogues, and mikvaot (ritual baths) are under its purview. It is an office which functions in a parallel universe.

Incidentally, budgets for the Orthodox stream are found in a range of government ministries. More than NIS 3.7 billion (over a billion dollars!) is invested annually by the State of Israel in Orthodox religious and cultural services. Can you imagine how the State of Israel would look if the non-Orthodox streams were to receive even one-tenth of 1% of that amount every year?

The current government almost fell, twice, because of Shabbat-related crises (the Supermarkets Law, infrastructure work on Shabbat). The next government, if the ultra-Orthodox do not control it exclusively, must settle these Shabbat issues. A historic opportunity awaits. Partial public transportation on Shabbat is a necessity. And the country cannot or should not prevent the operation of cafes and restaurants on Shabbat. Yet, the nature of Shabbat in the Jewish state is important to all sectors of the public. It is possible to reach broad agreements on this subject. Adopting the Gavison-Medan plot, for example, can be a worthy way to do so.

The list I have mentioned is only partial. The realm of religion and state is large and dense, and I doubt if any government can solve all its aspects in one term. But I must admit I am a little optimistic. We have finally gotten to a boiling point. These subjects disturb a large enough public. How disturbing? Like an ingrown toenail, like a toothache, Yenta the matchmaker would most probably say. There are bigger problems, but when your tooth or toe hurts, nothing else interests you. You have to take care of it. It seems, at least I hope, that we have arrived precisely at that point. 

The writer is CEO of the Masorti (Conservative) Movement in Israel.


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