In August a group of Religious Zionist Rabbis, headed by Rav Nahum Rabinovich, implicitly backed by the popular Tzohar organization, proclaimed a new Bet Din (Rabbinical court) for Giyur – conversion to Judaism.The move was seen as controversial for several reasons: firstly, it has been portrayed as a rebellion against the authority of the Chief Rabbinate (an institution dear to Religious Zionism's heart, as it has been founded by Rav Kook, the founder of modern Religious Zionism), and secondly, and more importantly, its controversial policy of converting small children under the age of 12-13 without their parents. Halachic requirements for conversion of children are less strict than for adults.
The Chief Rabbinate of Israel has recognized and worked in the past with private courts – such as Rav Karelitz's Bet Din in Bnei Brak, but the new Bet Din's controversial positions has put it at odds with the Rabbinate policy (which is controlled by the ultra-Orthodox). Outcries and protests against the move erupted immediately. Ironically, traditional roles have been switched: Charedim defended the Chief Rabbinate, a state institution, whilst prominent Religious Zionist Rabbis, who attribute spiritual significance to the state, attacked it. Even so, interestingly enough, most of the criticism against the move came from within Religious Zionist circles.
This presents in it of itself an important sociological development, as it redraws entirely the map of religion-state relationship in Israel, as I will demonstrate below. But first, let us go back to the last great inner debate within Religious Zionism, on the eve of the 2005 Disengagement from Gaza. Then, the topic was insubordination: should a religious soldier, when faced with an order to evacuate Jews from their homes in the Land of Israel, an act seen as contrary to Jewish religious law, comply or disobey?
Then, in 2005, there were two main ideological rival groups: street-language dubbed them as the "Mamlachtim" (statists) and "Fanatim" (fanatics). The leaders of the "fanatics" was the Merkaz HaRav Yeshiva, headed then by Reb Avrom Shapira. I remember how Rav Uri Cherki, a rabbi affiliated with Merkaz, summed it up: "the State is equivalent to one's father. The Torah obligates one to honor and obey his father, but if the father instructs his son to commit a transgression, then the son must decline. Similarly, we honor the State, but when it tells us to disobey the Torah, we refuse".
Their ideological rivals, "Mamlachtim", were spearheaded by the Har HaMor Yeshiva, a splinter group of Merkaz. Rav Shlomo Aviner said that decisions made by the "Klal Israel" – the entire nation - cannot be disobeyed by private individuals, even though they are against Halachic law (he moderated his statement by adding that if a student of his is psychologically capable of evacuating people from their homes, he would see that student as an educational failure). The basic principle of Har HaMor's ideology is that the state and its institutions are holy, and any move against them is forbidden.
Today, however, the situation has become more complex, due to the lack of outright transgression of Torah law. The Chief Rabbinate is not actively transgressing but rather performing poorly - as of January 2015, only 9% of secular Jews see the Rabbinate positively. Should Religious Zionism's loyalty and honor to state institutions require it only to cooperate peacefully ("within the tent"), or should it perhaps challenge the Rabanut from outside.
There have been several approaches to this question. It is interesting to note that the two bitter opponents, Har HaMor & Merkaz, are united in their opposition to Rav Rabinovich's new Bet Din. Prominent Rabbis Tau and Steiner from the opposing ideological camps signed together a declaration denouncing the new Bet Din – a level of cooperation between the two groups that would have been unthinkable even three years ago.
The old rift between "Mamlachti" / "fanatics" is dead. The new rift is between the stricter Chardal (Charedi-Dati-Leumi) and more liberal approaches. Studies by Professor Asher Cohen of Bar-Ilan University suggest that both groups, Chardal and liberal, compromise small ideological minorities inside Religious Zionism (both around 20%), with the silent majority in the center undecided, as both groups vie for influence and try to pull the majority to their side.
The position of the Chardal alignment is clear and has been unchanged. They continuously believe in the sanctity of state institutions. What arguments do the liberals present in their "mutiny" against the Rabbinate's monopoly on religious affairs?
Rav Shagar z"l, who led a post-modern approach to Judaism, believes in a vision of an "instrumental" state – a state with less ideological tension and religious legislation. He does not specify the exact boundaries of his vision: should the Rabbinate be dismantled? Should there be civil unions? - but the direction is definitely a step back towards the Haredi position, of lessening the ideological tension that is inherent in the very existence of a "Jewish State", and treating state institutions with a practical rather than theological perspective.
Then there's "Neemanei Torah veAvoda", who advocate for a "bottom-up" community model, unlike the hierarchical form of the Rabbinate. According to their vision, communities should elect their own Rabbis and organize their religious life themselves rather than have a central authority that will direct the process from above.
Another position is that of Rav Chaim Navon from Modiin, who says that although he opposes the new Bet Din from practical reasons, he does think it is time to reform the Rabbinate and end its monopoly on issues such as marriages and conversions, and instead adopt the role of religious "regulator".
It is expected that this new rift will be at the heart of the debate of State-Religion relations in Israel in the following years. Only time will tell what faction will ultimately prevail, and what would be the effect of this debate of the state of religion in Israel.