There is a lot of news on the religious front in Israel, and it is all bad.
As Yair Lapid recently noted, the average student in a non-religious government school probably does not even know what a page of gemara looks like. The reason for this is that the tensions between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox worlds are so great that so-called “secular” Jews do everything possible to distance themselves from anything religious, including the great and profound teachings of the Jewish tradition. When they think of Judaism, they do not think of prayer, Torah study, visiting the sick, blessing their food, maintaining integrity in business, and being implicated in the religious destiny of the Jewish people. Instead, when young Jews in the non-religious world look around them, they see a religious establishment that is too often corrupt, extreme, and self-serving. And they see a charedi population that refuses to share the burdens of army service and taxation without which the Jewish state cannot sustain itself.
At precisely this moment, what does Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar do? Rather than focusing on teaching Torah and encouraging Israelis to encounter their ancient heritage anew, he proclaims to the world that he has found the real culprit in Israel’s Jewish crisis: Reform and Conservative Judaism. Reacting to a government decision to fund a small number of Reform and Conservative rabbis, Amar announced that it is these rabbis who have defiled the honor of heaven, uprooting and destroying Judaism in the process. Of course, as every Israeli knows, Reform Judaism and Conservative Judaism have a modest presence in Israel; yet somehow, for Rabbi Amar, they are now responsible for all of Judaism’s ills.
And that is not all. Preliminary reports indicate that the recommendations of the Plesner Committee, charged with proposing how the burden of army service can be equitably shared, will fall dramatically short. Instead of setting specific limits to the number of yeshiva students who can be exempted in any given year (as Ben Gurion did when the State was founded, and as Ehud Barak wants to do now), the committee will set “recommended goals” for the rabbis, with ill-defined penalties if those goals are not met. Likud appears to be intent on keeping the Charedi rabbis happy and their parties in the coalition, even if that means creating a system that will result in no more than cosmetic changes in ultra-Orthodox enlistment. The result of all this will be to dishearten the non-Charedi world even more and to drive young Israelis even further away from their Jewish heritage.
I continue to believe that there are many moderate voices in the Orthodox world who understand the challenges that Israel faces and who think that a spiritual revival is possible. They know that the way to get there is not by defaming others or exploiting Torah to evade the responsibilities of citizenship in the Jewish state. The way to get there is to offer a model of a life in Torah, and without coercion, to invite others to join that life.