How is Israel faring on issues of religion and state?

‘Metro’ takes a look back on how Israel has fared on key issues such as ‘mikvaot,’ Shabbat in the public sphere, conversions and marriage/ divorce – and the work still left to be done.

Batya Kahana Dror of Mavoi Satum (photo credit: ARIEL ALON)
Batya Kahana Dror of Mavoi Satum
(photo credit: ARIEL ALON)
‘Don’t ask, don’t tell” has long been the policy of the haredi parties when it comes to how the state deals with public works on Shabbat. As long as the work was kept quiet, the ultra-Orthodox parties did, too. However, as was recently the case with Israel Railways’ infrastructure work on Shabbat, as soon as the haredi media reported it, the politicians had to protest publicly.
And they did. And work was halted, inconveniencing thousands.
Since its founding, the State of Israel has had to maintain the delicate balance of being both a Jewish and democratic country. While Jewish and democratic values often align, when the two clash, they do so with vigor.
For much of the state’s history, religious matters have been the domain of the ultra-Orthodox, the legacy of prime minister David Ben-Gurion, to ensure unity and support for a Jewish state. The “status quo” arrangement Ben-Gurion made remains in effect.
And it worked – for a long time. Matters of religion used to be black and white, as MK Rachel Azaria of Kulanu explains it. People were religious or they weren’t.
Kulanu MK Rachel Azaria  (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)Kulanu MK Rachel Azaria (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
They kept kosher, or they didn’t. Over the past 20 years, however, many Israelis have taken on an in-between ideology, one that incorporates religious observance with democratic values, and therefore conflicts with the strict ultra-Orthodox approach that has governed the Jewish identity of the state.
At the same time, Israeli society has absorbed more than a million immigrants from countries where Jewish family lines had been blurred, leaving many unable to prove their Jewish roots. Thus, they are socially Jewish, but not necessarily as far as traditional law is concerned.
But the ultra-Orthodox establishment hasn’t kept pace; if anything, the establishment has dug in its heels. This, in the words of Batya Kahana Dror, director of Mavoi Satum, an organization that represents agunot (women chained to marriage) in religious courts, causes a deep disconnect, with “the rabbinate going one way, and society the other.”
However, Shira Ben-Sasson Furstenberg, director of Jewish Pluralism Watch, which monitors the Knesset for transparency and accountability in this area of religion and state, says that change is in the people’s hands.
Shira Ben-Sasson Furstenberg of Jewish Pluralism Watch (photo credit: Courtesy)Shira Ben-Sasson Furstenberg of Jewish Pluralism Watch (photo credit: Courtesy)
“Many say that the country is caught in a [haredi] stranglehold. [But] for the haredim to be in power, someone has to allow them that power. There is a general apathy in the country that allows for this. If we don’t call for different marriage, conversion and interpretation of Shabbat, if we only get angry and point fingers, we leave this issue in the hands of the haredim.”
MK Azaria predicts that we will work through our growing pains and learn to work together on matters – first of mikve, then Shabbat in the public sphere, marriage/ divorce, and finally conversion.
However, many people deeply involved in these issues are not waiting for the state to grow up. From lawsuits to outside-the-box suggestions, to creating alternative systems, individuals and organizations are taking matters into their own hands to address some of the most pressing issues in religion and state.
Ritual baths are administered under the auspices of the government. This means that the ultra-Orthodox make decisions about how the mikvaot are run, who can immerse when, and how. Mikve use for Conservative and Reform conversions was therefore outlawed, and religious women have been bound by the principles of religious councils, even when the women’s personal rabbis ruled differently.
Yet recently, numerous lawsuits forced a response to this matter by the Supreme Court, which ruled that those who use the mikvaot are allowed to do so as they themselves wish. MK Moshe Gafni, backed by coalition agreements, sought to cancel that ruling, and while he successfully barred non-Orthodox groups from using state-run mikvaot for conversion, a fierce battle waged by women’s organizations and female MKs has protected the individual rights of the women who use the mikve regularly – to the extent that one may immerse without an attendant, should one request it.
The ruling is so new that it remains to be tested, but it speaks to the possibility of compromise between the value of “individual rights” in a religious environment.
Arguably, the nature of the day of rest has the greatest impact on the fabric of Israeli society, as far as matters of religion and state go. The clash over how much the Jewish laws of Shabbat dictate public functions in a largely secular society breeds unsurpassed ill will.
That is why Miri Shalem, CEO of the Institute for Zionist Studies, dedicated to maintaining the balance of Judaism and democracy, sees Shabbat as the most pressing issue to resolve. Beyond the railway infrastructure work, she mentions battles over shopping malls, swimming pools and perpetual arguments over public transportation. The question, says Shalem, is how to uphold the rights of secular citizens without hurting the spirit of Shabbat.
The Gavison-Medan Covenant, a document three years in the making and created to specifically deal with the issues of religion and state, raises this same question. The covenant suggests ways to resolve all issues of religion and state, recognizing the importance of finding a workable path for sectors of Israeli society, and legislating it.
When it comes to Shabbat, the covenant recommends closing businesses and keeping leisure activities open. Shalem believes sticking to these suggestions will solve many painful issues. Indeed, MK Yehudah Glick (Likud) says that the state can and should mark Shabbat, but it need not be an Orthodox Shabbat.
Marriage and divorce
With no civil marriage option in Israel, all marriages and divorces go through the rabbinate. This places a huge responsibility on the rabbis to use halachic tools responsibly and with alacrity when it comes to ending marriages. Yet in 2016, despite 900 halachic decisions against recalcitrant spouses (“get” refusers), only nine men are currently serving jail time.
The absence of civil marriage leaves all divorcing spouses at the mercy of the religious courts, and promotes the inherent halachic inequities of Jewish divorce, as interpreted by the strict rabbinate.
One initiative to correct the degree of power in the hands of those rabbis took place this past year, when, for the first time, the committee to select the religious court judges included women. MK Aliza Lavie (Yesh Atid), who spearheaded this effort, says, “I have no doubt that the judges who were selected, most of whom have secular as well as rabbinic education, served in the army and are aware of greater Israeli society, will be more responsive to the plight of women, and act with sensitivity resolve the distress [of women awaiting their divorces].”
Granted, the haredi parties can and do veto chosen judges, and some in the Knesset, such as MK Yisrael Eichler (United Torah Judaism), aim to return the committee to its all-male status, but for now, the heads that seek compromise between modern democratic values and Jewish law are prevailing.
Kahana Dror of Mevoi Satum, who spends her days in religious court, isn’t waiting to see if these changes bear fruit. She has teamed up with haredi Rabbi Avrohom Dov Levin to create an alternative, halachic marriage ceremony that includes protection for both spouses against get refusal and other ensnaring circumstances.
These alternative ceremonies are illegal – as is any marriage outside of the rabbinate. Indeed, Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau has called Levin to a disciplinary hearing to force him to cease and desist, but the very existence of this endeavor attests to grassroots support for community initiatives outside of what has become a hated establishment.
Rabbi Seth Farber of ITIM, founded in the organization’s words “to oppose the alienation many Israelis feel at what are supposed to be the most significant moments of their lives as Jews,” boils down these issues to one underlying challenge: the refusal of the religious establishment to be respectful and responsive to the needs of the Jewish people. He also sees clear standards for “who is a Jew” that allow us to be one people again as a vital need.
Seth Farber of ITIM (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)Seth Farber of ITIM (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
He cites the plight of the 374,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union, nearly 7% of the population, who are not halachically Jewish. The national conversion authority converts a mere 1,700 people a year. The independent (not recognized by the rabbinate) Giyur K’Halacha – which seeks to be a less onerous, yet completely halachic option – converts 300 people a year.
At 2,000 conversions a year, it will be generations before this population that is Jewish in all ways but in Halacha will be so in the eyes of the state – too late by far.
Farber says the means to solve this situation are at hand: “I believe that Halacha has the capacity to meet the challenge of the day. [For example,] Jewish law allows child conversion from families that are not fully observant,” and according to Farber, converting the children of these non-halachically Jewish parents could solve 85% to 90% of personal status issues in Israel.
Given the rabbinate’s recent rejection of conversions done by prominent, vastly respected rabbinic courts in the US, the odds of it recognizing the optimal value of being inclusive when it comes to ensuring the Jewish future are slim.
What can we do?
These issues and the conflict around them affect us all. Your neighbor may be waiting to convert (and what happens when your daughter wants to marry the boy next door, only to discover he is not considered Jewish?). Your friend or cousin may be waiting for her get, unable to move on with her life because of the current equation of religion and state. Your neighborhood may reject new families because tensions between secular and religious have made everyone suspicious of the other’s effect on their lives.
Farber implores: “Get educated. Speak to [your] politicians...
take a look at your local religious council and ask what they are doing. Get involved.”
Read the report on issues of religion and state compiled by Jewish Pluralism Watch after every Knesset session and be aware of the issues. Director Ben-Sasson Furstenberg pushes for a power-to-the-people approach.
She elaborates: “Use the alternative options.
Eat outside of the rabbinate. Get married outside of the rabbinate. Only then will public and communal leaders take action.”
It is perhaps these alternative options that best show the future. By remaining committed to both Judaism and the Jewish people, those who care are giving us options to not leave one or the other behind. With alternative kosher certification, we can eat kosher while denying the rabbinate’s monopoly. With alternative halachic conversions, we can welcome those wanting to be part of our nation who cannot seem to satisfy the establishment. By opting for alternative weddings, we can retain Jewish marriage while remaining safe from the inflexibility of the rabbinic courts.
So, act! But do not be disheartened... not when so many MKs are optimistic.
Azaria notes the power of working together to make positive change. “I am optimistic. I know that’s not popular, but I am. I see what is happening in Knesset.
Everyone is realizing that we are all here together and we must learn to live together. Yes, even the haredim.”
Glick agrees with her. “The beauty of the Jewish state is all streams of Judaism playing their part in the orchestra of the Jewish people. People need not be threatened, not of Reform women at the Kotel and not of ultra-Orthodox in Tel Aviv. Only our disunity threatens us. We’ve come so far and will we continue.”
Israel is feeling growing pains as it figures out how to protect the rights of the individual and keep the Jewish people whole, both here and in the Diaspora.
With the identity of so many citizens and the state itself at stake, we must all work together to overcome these challenges.