Saving Judaism in Israel: A fantasy

When Yaakov Epstein became Chief Rabbi of Haifa in 2029, neither the press nor the public took special notice of the event. True, he was the first Reform rabbi elected to the highest rabbinic position in a major metropolis, but he had already served with distinction as Chief Rabbi of Netanya. In fact, four Conservative and two Reform rabbis were then serving as Chief Rabbis of medium-sized Israeli cities.


By then, the “Religious Revolution of 2013” was long forgotten, known to most Israelis only from their school books. In the early years of the 21st century, religious turmoil was at its height. Israel had become a partitioned country in which Jews with different religious beliefs could no longer live side-by-side; a Jewish family would choose an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood, a national religious neighborhood, or a secular neighborhood. Furthermore, more than 20% of Jewish Israelis, unwilling or unable to be married by the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate, left the country to have their marriages performed, and tens of thousands of Russian immigrants were effectively blocked from converting to Judaism. Worst of all, more than 60,000 Yeshiva students were exempted from army service, generating deep resentment in the general population. In 2013, fed-up voters had had enough, and a government was formed without the ultra-Orthodox parties; politicians by the name of Lapid and Bennett were the driving force. The government began by passing a bill that obligated haredi young men, over time, to enter the army or national service, and mandated a national curriculum that would be taught in every Jewish school; the curriculum included math, science, the principles of Zionism and Zionist history, and the study of Tanakh and Talmud. The bill was greeted with gratitude and relief, leading a year later to a second, more far-reaching law that substantially de-established synagogue and state; its most important provisions called for each municipality to elect its religious leader and for the establishment of a single school system for the “secular” and “religious” populations.


The impact of this second law was dramatic and immediate. Despite some inevitable tension, Orthodox and non-Orthodox children soon came to understand and respect each other; and hotly contested elections for rabbinical positions tended to push all candidates to moderate, centrist positions. When the first Conservative rabbi was elected Chief Rabbi of Kfar Saba in 2021, it made headlines, but such developments soon became commonplace.


Not surprisingly, it was Orthodoxy that benefited most from the newly-created “free market” in religion. The national religious camp in particular, no longer held hostage by a monopolistic government establishment that imposed Judaism more by coercion than by persuasion, grew in strength. Its outer forms changed; by the year 2025, the Orthodox religious parties had declined into insignificance. But national religious institutions became a major religious force in the Jewish state. Freed from the corrupting force of politics, they contributed spiritual vitality to all aspects of Israel’s social and intellectual life. And the Reform and Conservative movements, while smaller, shared in the general religious renewal, and all Israelis benefited from vigorous debates among the movements on matters of spiritual and ethical import.


Israel in 2029 was not a religious utopia. It could not escape the hedonism and secularism so endemic to Western culture. But it was a country in which an end to Orthodox hegemony had produced a revived Orthodoxy, an active and growing progressive Judaism, broad pockets of deep religious commitment, serious Jewish education, and a major challenge to the spiritual emptiness that had so long characterized Israeli society. It was a country to which Jews of the Diaspora looked for inspiration and spiritual sustenance. It was a Jewish state which, by divesting itself of authority over Judaism, had revived Judaism, and, for many of its grateful citizens, had transformed Torah from a political slogan into an ets hayyim (tree of life).


And it all began with Yair Lapid, Naftali Bennett, and a handful of courageous politicians who knew, in 2013, that Israel’s approach to Jewish religious tradition had to change.