Analysis: Is the Orthodox funding monopoly ending?

Free religious expression and multi-denominationalism may be dawning.

orthodox 88 (photo credit: )
orthodox 88
(photo credit: )
The state may soon fund the salaries of Reform and Conservative rabbis, foot the bill to build non-Orthodox synagogues and ritual baths, and provide funding for Torah study in liberal Jewish institutions. That seems to be the upshot of Tuesday's precedent-setting High Court decision. The panel of judges headed by Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch stated very clearly that if the State of Israel wants to fund religious services - such as preparation for conversion - it cannot discriminate against non-Orthodox streams of Judaism, since doing so violates the principle of pluralism and undermines the fostering of a free market of religious expression. The court rejected the state's argument that it had a right to give preferential funding to Orthodox conversion preparation over Reform or Conservative preparation. Beinisch and the other justices said that Reform and Conservative streams of Judaism were legitimate expressions of Judaism; a Reform Jew was no less Jewish than an Orthodox Jew. There are 300,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union who are not halachicly Jewish but who were eligible for automatic Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return. The State of Israel has decided to use conversions to help better integrate these non-Jews culturally and spiritually into the Jewish people. Turning a non-Jew into a Reform Jew achieves this integration process in the same way that turning her or him into an Orthodox Jew does, the court said. What would the court say about Reform Rabbi Miri Gold, the acting rabbi of Kibbutz Gezer and the surrounding area? She visits the sick, delivers eulogies at funerals, and leads prayers on Shabbat and holidays. But she does not receive a salary from the state like the Orthodox rabbis in the Gezer region who perform many of the same functions. If the state is depriving Gold of a state salary just because she belongs to the Reform Movement, this would appear to constitute discrimination on the basis of religious affiliation and would be deemed illegal. There are other non-Orthodox rabbis in a similar situation. Tuesday's ruling might also lead to the state funding of other religious services provided by the Reform and Conservative movements. If Orthodox communities receive state support for the building of synagogues and mikvaot, why shouldn't Reform and Conservative communities, according to the same logic? The fact is that the vast majority of Jews in Israel and in the world do not identify as Orthodox. In the US, the second-largest concentration of Jews in the world, Reform and Conservative Jews far outnumber Orthodox Jews. The court on Tuesday brought this fact to the attention of the state. The court may thus have signaled that the Orthodox monopoly over state funds is over and a new era of free religious expression and multi-denominationalism is dawning.