Israeli Judaism needs someone like Martin Luther.
The doors of the Chief Rabbinate as well as those of countless ultra-Orthodox yeshivot qualify for the nailing of documents calling for reform or rebellion.
Luther may not be the appropriate model for what Israel needs, given his calumnies against the Jews once it was clear that they would not answer his call to join him in Christ. Nevertheless, the shock he brought to the medieval Church--minus the bloodshed that came along with it--would be good for several features of what Judaism has become in the Promised Land.
There will be more on Luther below.
The ultra-Orthodox with their expensive demands and minimal contributions have been with us for a long time, receiving financial support for unlimited study and child bearing, whose children do not to learn anything useful or serve the community like the children of other Jews.
Currently the Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi, Yonah Metzger, is under house arrest and the subject of a police investigation for bribery, fraud, money laundering, and breach of trust. And this is not the first time he has been the suspect of official inquiries. There were previous charges of a similar nature that never reached the stage of indictment, but led the state prosecutor to recommend the rabbi''s retirement. And there were nasty stories about improper behavior with young men. The Rabbi and his supporters deny all, and claim that organized smearing is responsible for the allegations. If those claims are true, then organized smearing of a major religious figure is itself a reason to clean out the stable.
Rabbi Metzger''s term is about to end, and campaigning for the selection of the next Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi is not deserving of praise for its moderation. One candidate, Rabbi David Stav, head of the association of Orthodox rabbis, Tzohar, which seeks to make Judaism more attractive to secular Israelis, has been vilified by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox party SHAS. Rabbi Ovadia said that selecting Rabbi Stav would be like
"bringing idolatry into the temple . . . This man is a danger to Judaism, a danger to the Rabbinate, a danger to Torah . . . They want to make him a chief rabbi? This man (is) unworthy of anything! Can they do such a thing?”
Rabbi Stav was also jostled and pushed by ultra-Orthodox youths who tried to make him fall during the dancing at the wedding of a prominent family.
Spirituality being what it is, one should not have great hope of turning Israel''s ultra-Orthodox into good citizens and making the selection of the Chief Rabbis something akin to a civilized discussion in a university seminar. Faithful who serve the Lord, in any of His/Her/Its manifestations, never have been known for moderation.
Some of those claiming to speak for the most modern versions of Judaism are not more moderate than those asserting the claims of Orthodoxy or ultra-Orthodoxy. The Women of the Wall qualify for the label of religious extremists by virtue of their insistence on challenging the norms of orthodoxy at a site given over to the Orthodox. Some of its activists rejected what appeared to be well intentioned efforts to arrange compromise when a lower court ruling suggested that they might be able to achieve more of their claim to pray in the style they demand at any place along the Western Wall.
Lest anyone think that Jews monopolize the unpleasantness of religion in the Holy Land, the Palestinians have weighed in with their predictable opposition to any changes along the Western Wall that would be associated with settling a dispute between Orthodox and Reform Jews. Assertions led by Palestinian Muslims that the Jews never had an important presence in Jerusalem, and that the Western Wall is Muslim property, accompanied by their efforts to destroy whatever archaeological remains could n be found under the surface of the Temple Mount qualify as among the most extreme distortions of history and destruction of religious comity.
Christians also contribute to the spiritual oddities endured by those of us living in God''s Holy City. Among the stories is that of an American Evangelical who told his faithful about his visit to Paradise and his encounter with Martin Luther. He reported that Luther is concerned with his poor reputation among Jews, and claims that he is working with God to assure the future of His people.
Whether it is the land, the air, or the relative absence of water, the Holy Land has had its share of the wondrous, bizarre, and contentious. What some call miracles others describe as good stories. All of the above indicate that the area has not lost its potency. Insofar as the politics in and about the place respond to believers of various faiths, it should be no surprise that the calm pursuit of rationality is not likely to be present in any election for civil offices or in the election of the Chief Rabbis. Candidates and supporters answer to their own realities, are moved by the most spiritual of motives, and--according to revelations in the police reports--by opportunities to make some money if the right candidate wins.
One should not expect a sweeping, or perhaps even an incremental reform of Israel''s religious communities. The essence of spirituality is intense belief, or faith, which by nature is otherworldly and resistant to any assertions of rational analysis. Judaism, in particular, is a challenge to reform. The individualism that produces Nobel Prize winners has also produced a wide variety of charismatic religious leaders, each capable of convincing themselves and their followers of the appropriate ways to distinguish themselves from other Jews. In this trait, the Women of the Wall differ not at all from the most insular of the ultra-Orthodox sects.
The election of two Chief Rabbis is currently on the agenda, but one should not exaggerate the meaning of their titles. The selection will come from a limited electorate representing various sectors of Orthodox Judaism, municipal authorities, and political party delegations from the Knesset.
Ultra-Orthodox rabbis seek to influence who will be elected and who should not be elected, but once chosen proceed to ignore the office. Each ultra-Orthodox congregation is independent, with their own capacity to choose which rabbis interpret religious law, including matters of marriage and divorce, what standards of kashrut should apply, and who should inspect the food, the markets, and restaurants where members shop and eat.
Strange, bizarre, otherworldly, or simply the intensity of faith and what we live with in the Holy Land.