Counterpoint: Let's declare ourselves a separate religion

Not only would the Reform and Conservative movements get equal rights, but Orthodoxy would also benefit.

david forman 88 (photo credit: )
david forman 88
(photo credit: )
The Ne'eman Institute for Conversion was established to find a compromise on the issue that would satisfy all branches of Judaism. In preparation for conversion, potential converts enroll in the institute, studying with the stream of Judaism that most appeals to them. However, when it comes to the actual conversion, three Orthodox rabbis officiate, and the ceremony is in concert with Halacha. This rather tame compromise is presently being undermined by official Judaism in this country - that is, the Orthodox establishment under the guise of the Chief Rabbinate. Yet, even as the Ne'eman Institute for Conversion is being discredited by "religious officialdom," so too are conversions conducted outside the country - not only those done by Reform and Conservative rabbis, but also those performed by many Orthodox clergy. Now, conversions concluded abroad will only be recognized if sanctioned by a few dozen "approved" Diaspora Orthodox rabbis. One would have hoped that over the years Israel would ease into the role of an enlightened democracy, and those who opposed the principle of equality, which is the foundation of a democracy, would be shunted aside. However, the opposite has occurred. With Orthodoxy becoming more emboldened - forever attempting to thrust religious medievalism down the throats of a secular citizenry - the country is slipping into a theocracy. Admittedly, there are contradictions that prevail. While issues of personal status, particularly matters of conversion, marriage and divorce, are securely in the grasp of an Orthodox establishment that tolerates no halachic elasticity, the rights of gays and lesbians, for example, who are considered an "abomination" by Orthodoxy, are dutifully protected by the court system. (This does not mean that Orthodox clerics do not express their outrage at homosexuality.) Given the fact that no party was able to muster a definitive majority in the election, the political power of the Orthodox parties has increased substantially, as, without their participation in a coalition, it will be virtually impossible to form a stable government. Indeed, Shas and United Torah Judaism are already making demands that will further increase their hegemony over all matters that they deem fall within a religious purview. The Orthodox establishment is not above exploiting the country's precarious political situation, not only in areas that affect the daily life of the Jewish population, but also in matters of national concern - that is, determining whether their narrow interpretation of Jewish texts will allow concessions that will need to be made to secure peace with our neighbors (not to mention its prejudicial inclinations toward the non-Jewish population). In short, a greater threat to democracy than Orthodoxy's control over personal status issues is the cohabitation of a chauvinistic theology with a religious ego. As Orthodoxy continues to enlarge its egotistical piety, with little or no respect for domestic and international considerations, the fusion of religion and nationalism will guarantee that Israel fits neatly into the Middle East panoply of religious extremist states. Since Israel's establishment, the Reform and Conservative movements in this country have waged a war to gain recognition as a legitimate expression of Judaism, entitled to equal rights with Orthodoxy. They have consistently maintained that they too are heirs to the Jewish tradition. In the Conservative Movement's case, it claims, like Orthodoxy, to be halachically based, that is until sociological realities force it to alter Halacha. Both movements have been steadfast in their refusal to declare themselves separate sects within Judaism. The reason for this is that they believe to do so would sever them from the Jewish people, which is pure bunkum. The gulf between Conservative and Reform Judaism and Orthodoxy in Israel is unbridgeable. The Conservative Movement virtually admitted as much when, at its recent rabbinical convention here, it called for the abolition of the Chief Rabbinate. This week, the Reform Movement's North American rabbinical association is holding its convention here. Its members have been told by their Israeli colleagues that the prejudicial attitude against them among the Orthodox rabbinate is becoming more and more entrenched. IN LIGHT of all the above, if, together, the Reform and Conservative movements were to declare themselves a separate religion from Orthodoxy, which in fact they are - perhaps not in some of their ritual and liturgical traditions, but most certainly in their ethical moorings regarding their respectful tolerance and concern for the "other" - the state would have no choice but to grant them the rights and privileges enjoyed by other religions in the country, which would necessarily include control over life-cycle events for their own constituency. Such a dramatic move would most likely marginalize Orthodoxy. Free of the shackles of Orthodox domination, Reform and Conservative conversion classes would soar. Those thousands of Russian immigrants who are halachically not Jewish would choose these conversions over Orthodox ones, not because the Reform and Conservative movements would be less demanding - Reform and Conservative conversions here are performed according to tradition, as are Reform and Conservative marriages (the Reform and Conservative movements cannot contend with all the requests they receive to perform weddings) - but rather because they would not demand a certain religious lifestyle within one's family, open to reexamination by a "God squad" to see if it conforms to one stream of Judaism or another. At first, official Orthodoxy would vigorously protest, but as its religious and social influence in the country began to wane, it would be forced to modify its rigid stances, many of which are politically motivated and not religiously commanded. Further, Orthodoxy would most likely tone down the profane ruminations of some of its rabbis about blemished mezuzot being the cause of the deaths of children killed in a collision between a train and a school bus, or the lack of religious observance being the reason that soldiers die in war - blasphemous perorations which hold Judaism up for ridicule in the eyes of the majority of people in the country and throughout the world. Most significantly, Orthodoxy's stranglehold on the political system, which has often negatively impacted educational, social, medical, economic and diplomatic advances - all the while suppressing religious pluralism, which is an essential component of any democracy - would be mercifully loosened. Once the Reform and Conservative movements declare themselves independent religions, Orthodoxy will rightfully be reduced to merely one of three branches of Judaism. Unfettered of Orthodox parochialism, Israel would then be free, with the help of a vibrancy, inclusiveness and progressiveness that religion should embrace, to fulfill the promise of its Declaration of Independence: "It [the Jewish state] 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 for all its inhabitants, irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture."