Freedom of religion

My concern is the guarantee of freedom of religion. The lack of that freedom makes us – ironically – the only nation in the free world in which complete freedom of religion does not exist for Jews.

An illustration by Pepe Fainberg (photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
An illustration by Pepe Fainberg
(photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
One evening not long ago I received phone calls from several of my children asking when they would be able to visit me in prison. The calls – which, I hasten to add, were only semi-serious – came in the wake of reports that a colleague of mine, Rabbi Dov Hayun of Haifa, had been rousted out of bed by the Haifa police and hurried off (illegally) in a closed police van like a criminal because he had been (falsely) accused by the Haifa Rabbinate of violating a law by conducting an unauthorized wedding and not reporting it to the Rabbinate.
Since I had recently conducted such a wedding for my own grandson, might it not be possible that I too would be hauled off for questioning and maybe sent to prison? I assured my children that should that happen, I would really appreciate their visits. In Yiddish this would be called “a bitterer gelechter” – a bitter joke.
When we made our decision to make aliyah in 1973 we did so knowing full well that there were minuses as well as pluses in doing so. The major plus was in moving from a country in which Jews were a minority to one in which they are the majority. The major minus was in moving from a country in which there was complete freedom of religion and lack of religious compulsion to one in which Jewish religious freedom was constricted and religious compulsion was part of the governmental system.
In America – thank God – there was separation of religion and state. In America there was no Chief Rabbinate. In America, as a Conservative rabbi I was free to practice my religion and to work as a rabbi in the same way as any other rabbi of any denomination of Judaism. I was fully aware that none of that was to be the case in Israel.
Nevertheless, we came but with the determination to work to establish religious pluralism here and fight against the religious establishment in order to obtain complete religious freedom for all Jews – freedom for religion and freedom from religion. My dream was – and still is – of an Israel in which the words in the Israeli Declaration of Independence guaranteeing full religious freedom for all would become an actuality:
“The State of Israel will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture…”
What inspiring words – if only they were inscribed in the hearts of all our governmental officials, most of whom seem to have forgotten what Israel is all about. Otherwise, why did they deliberately refrain from including them in the recently passed law defining the nature of the Jewish state?
I feel that we are far from realizing these ideals and my specific concern is the guarantee of freedom of religion. The lack of that freedom makes us – ironically – the only nation in the free world in which complete freedom of religion does not exist for Jews. I know of no other country in the free world which would tolerate statements against streams of Judaism by its governmental officials such as those made from time to time by members of the Israeli government, including ministers and chief rabbis, statements defaming Conservative and Reform rabbis and movements as destroyers of Judaism, heretics and more. In what other free and democratic country would a rabbi be threatened with prison for conducting a Jewish marriage?
I consider myself to be a law-abiding citizen. The only fines I have ever received were for parking violations – and even those were questionable. Yet the possibility seems to exist that I could be questioned, tried and imprisoned for conducting Jewish weddings according to Jewish law. Obviously I am not the only one in that situation. Hundreds of marriages are performed here each year by rabbis from Masorti (Conservative) or Reform movements outside of the authority of the Chief Rabbinate. Even some Orthodox rabbis do that.
Hopefully Rabbi Hayun’s case will make it clear that this is not a criminal offense, but that is not the worst thing. The worst thing is that thousands of Israeli citizens have no way of being married in Israel because there is no such thing as civil marriage here and all religious marriage is under the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate which, at its whim, can decide who shall be called a Jew and who shall not, who shall be married and who shall not. The same thing is true concerning divorce. The lack of freedom of choice forces hundreds of couples to go outside the country for civil marriage in order to be recognized as married by the State of Israel. The ketuba – the marriage document – that I gave my grandson’s wife is worth nothing in Israel. But a civil certificate from Cyprus or New Zealand or New York will gain the couple official recognition!
The abolishment of the official Chief Rabbinate has been called for by many – including some Orthodox voices who realize that without that there can be no religious freedom here. A Chief Rabbinate can exist. Other places such as Great Britain have them but they do not have exclusive governmental authority – they are private organizations and that is what we need here as well.
Has the situation of religious freedom in Israel improved since 1973 when we moved here? One thing that has improved is that religious movements other than Orthodox have grown greatly since then so that more religious pluralism exists. But the basic situation has not.
The refusal of the government and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to implement its own decision concerning the establishment of an area for egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall is proof of that. It is inconceivable that a government can debate such an issue for years, come to a compromise agreement endorsed even by Orthodox representatives, and then refuse to implement it because of political pressure. To hear the protests about it that the ultra-Orthodox and their political parties made about the desecration of the Kotel, you would think that we have suddenly invaded their place at the Western Wall. Then, to have two prominent ministers who had endorsed it suddenly declare that in good conscience they could not be part of such a desecration only added fuel to the fire. You would think that we had not been holding mixed minyanim (prayer services) there for decades.
Irony of ironies, every poll taken in Israel – and there have been many – has indicated clearly that a majority of Israelis are in favor of recognition of non-Orthodox movements, of civil marriage, of rabbis of all denominations being recognized and able to officiate and of a place for pluralistic prayer at the Wall. Why then are these not implemented by the government? Why does the prime minister renege on his word? Only because the method of government we have chosen, with its proportional representation, gives veto power to groups without which coalitions cannot be formed. These groups will not permit full religious freedom. Were we to have a different system, the voice of the majority would have greater force, but that is not the case.
Our national anthem proclaims that we wish to be am hofshi b’artzeinu, a free people in our own land. Indeed, that is our dream, to be a people that is free of religious coercion – enjoying the freedom of religion that the Declaration of Independence spoke of. It is time that we had that in actuality and not only in word.