Guest columnist: Pursuing an illusion

Would you take your life's most important questions to your local post office manager?

jerusalem rabbinical court  248 88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
jerusalem rabbinical court 248 88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
In his Thursday, February 6 Post column ("Tackling the elephant"), Avi Shafran defends the system of religion and state in Israel - the so-called "status quo." Rabbi Shafran's contributions elevate public discussion in the world Jewish community, and his preliminary point is well taken: we must open discussion of religion and state in Israel. Beyond that, Shafran is deeply mistaken. His positive evaluation of the dysfunctional "status quo" flies in the face of the experience of religion and state not just here but in numerous other countries. As we see with Britain, to give just one example, democratic societies with established churches are generally less religious, not more. Where governments finance and staff churches, religious institutions do not stand on their own. Impact on society lessens and the churches' moral influence is undermined. So it is odd that the greatest defenders of this system come from the sector of society most compromised by it - the Orthodox. Shafran is correct in noting that the current system produces incongruous results, such as Supreme Court rulings on religious matters that make no religious sense. But he fails to locate the source of the dissonance. Where religion is a service provided and subsidized by the state, it is naturally and inevitably - and arguably correctly - subjected to coercive state oversight, as all state services must be. A religious organization supervised by the state is de facto weaker than one not constricted by state institutions. Yet Shafran blames specific Supreme Court actions for the resulting absurdities, instead of recognizing the essential paradox at the heart of institutionalized state-provided religious services. True, no American court would demand of the Orthodox community to certify kosher a hotel where Jews work on Shabbat, but the Israeli courts have no choice. It is their function in society to apply standards of civil judgment to the affairs of the state and to force state bureaucrats, including Orthodox ones, to conform. That is the steep but unavoidable price of having an established Jewish church. YET THERE is another, even higher price: alienation of much of the public from their cultural and religious heritage. In the American Orthodox community, privately hired clergy have a direct relationship with their congregations. Often fraught with tension, this system at least promotes a clear-cut association between clergy and congregant. It encourages the development of the kind of clergy that invest immensely in connecting with their congregations. In Israel, clergy are often imposed on neighborhoods in much the way the director of the local post office can be imposed. The clergyman is first a bureaucrat, and only then beholden to his congregation's spiritual and emotional needs. This rabbi, who may be a wonderful person but could as easily be wholly inappropriate for the congregation, almost always receives his job because of his political party connections, as much as any congregational skills. It is hard to imagine a more damaging way of presenting Jewish life to the majority of Israelis. The rabbis' dependence on the party-political functionaries who sustain them in their jobs inevitably compromises their credibility and moral leadership in the eyes of the wider communities they are supposed to serve. Broad-based anecdotal evidence suggests that outside a relatively small inner circle, few Israeli Jews would think of turning to the state-appointed community rabbi for guidance on life's moral challenges. Would you, reader, take your life's important questions - the heart-wrenching ones, such as divorce or abortion - to your local post office manager? Would you take it to your state-appointed neighborhood rabbi? This credibility problem then becomes doubly damaging for the Orthodox when it is projected onto our national politics. Politicians who claim to represent religious ideas are all too often viewed as the representatives of a sector unconcerned with the welfare of the general public. RELIGIOUS RATIONALE has virtually no influence outside Orthodox circles on national issues ranging from the disengagement from Gaza to the legal acceptance of same-sex adoption. The Chief Rabbinate itself is silent on issues that don't directly influence Orthodox and haredi politics, such as road accidents, higher education, a just welfare system, the release of prisoners. Are we to believe that Judaism has nothing to say on these issues? What are we to make of a rabbinate that is fantastically competent at rejecting willing converts because of incomplete observance or arranging state jobs for its narrow constituency, but is unable to muster a message on nearly any other issue? Compare this with religion's ubiquitous presence in the American public square, from the writings of the Founding Fathers and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to the pages of the major news media, or the work of Agudah and the Reform Religious Action Center. Disestablished and freed from the politicians, religion suffuses American politics on the Left and Right and is an influential factor in every national question that affects American society. In defending the status quo, Shafran is pursuing an illusion. Having a state-funded, established Orthodox Jewish church does nothing to enhance what he calls "the word 'Jewish' in the Jewish state." Establishment may look like an attempt to support religious life, but it is quite the opposite. State sponsorship leads inevitably to corruption, to politicization and to the sad confining of religion to a tiny corner of the public arena, where it cannot compete with other sources of political or moral authority and does not threaten them. For those of us who want the state of the Jews to be a democratic national home where religious and cultural lives are deeply, joyously and non-coercively Jewish - and I believe that is also Avi Shafran's goal - the current mechanism of an established Jewish church is a recipe for failure. Let's change it. The writer, a rabbi, is Associate Director of the American Jewish Committee Israel/Middle East Office. The views expressed here are his own.