Keep dreaming: Recalculating

There is a better way to reach your destination.

American Jews partcipate in the annual Israel Day Parade 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
American Jews partcipate in the annual Israel Day Parade 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
There is a refreshingly moderate voice emanating from the Religious Affairs Ministry of late.
Minister Naftali Bennett and his deputy, Rabbi Eli Ben-Dahan, are clearly making a sincere and conscious effort to restore the credibility of their office and earn back the respect of a disillusioned public – alienated by a religious establishment that has for far too long been insensitive and indifferent to the needs and sensibilities of those it is meant to serve.
This welcome change in tone was evident in Bennett’s Rosh Hashana call to Jews everywhere to “join me as we work to settle our differences… and move forward as a single and unified people.” He issued this invitation in support of Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky’s initiative to resolve the issue of access to the Western Wall, which, he went on to declare, “belongs to all the Jews in the world, not to one denomination.”
It was also apparent in Ben-Dahan’s presentation to an international assembly of Jewish leadership that convened in Jerusalem earlier this month. The deputy minister began his remarks by reviewing a number of measures that have taken effect since the last national election, which make the services provided by his office more user-friendly.
Foremost among them is the right of a couple wishing to marry to register at the representative office of the Chief Rabbinate anywhere in the country; past practice required registration in the prospective newlyweds’ locale. It is anticipated that this will have the twofold effect of motivating the rabbinic authorities to be more forthcoming in terms of their accessibility, flexibility and deportment vis-à-vis the bride and groom, while simultaneously providing them with greater choice in selecting the rabbi to officiate at their wedding.
As long as he is Orthodox, that is, and deemed fit by the Office of the Chief Rabbi to do so. And as long as both partners are recognized as being Jewish in accordance with Orthodox standards. And herein lies the rub.
The new reforms, as welcome as they may be, do nothing to mitigate the angst felt by those couples who do not wish to have their wedding presided over by an Orthodox rabbi, nor do they diminish the outright discrimination against the non-Orthodox who want to marry in a religious ceremony of any sort. Nor, of course, will the new regulations alleviate the plight of the 300,000 adult immigrants from the former Soviet Union – and their estimated 90,000 children – who are not Jewish according to Jewish law, and have no realistic possibility of converting even if they wanted to.
It is doubtful, then, that this legislation will do very much to stem the tide of the ever-growing number of Israelis opting to live together without marrying, or to wed overseas – a choice, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics, already being made by more than 11 percent of Jewish Israelis marrying every year.
But back to the innovations Ben-Dahan proudly shared with us, as an indication of just how contemporary his ministry has become.
Further to its new arrangement with Waze, he noted, you can now type “mikve” into the software’s GPS navigation pane and be directed to the nearest ritual bath, along with the hours it is open.
Unless, of course, it happens to be closed for the purpose you are interested in using it for. Rub No. 2: There is hardly a mikve in this country that will grant entry to a potential convert undergoing a non-Orthodox conversion, though such conversions have been deemed legal by the Supreme Court.
Accordingly, I asked Ben-Dahan what measures his ministry would be taking to ensure that every mikve in this country will be open to all, regardless of one’s brand of religious practice, noting that the baths are paid for by taxes collected not only from the Orthodox but from every citizen of the state. Surely if the Western Wall belongs to every Jew, so too the mikvaot. All I wanted was assurance of his support for pending legislation put forward by Yesh Atid MK Aliza Lavie, which would make it illegal for bath attendants to question women about their religious custom and practice. Intended to safeguard the dignity and privacy of women regularly visiting the mikve, it could also ensure free access to potential converts of any stream.
The question set off an argument I had hoped could be avoided. Rather than welcoming the suggestion implicit in my query that would make the services provided by the Religious Affairs Ministry more inclusive and welcoming, the deputy minister responded by challenging the legitimacy and efficacy of Reform and Conservative Judaism. He pointed to the statistics highlighted in the recent Pew Research Center report on American Jewry, attesting to the devastatingly high rates of intermarriage and low rates of retention among the non-Orthodox. I take issue not with the data he quoted, but with his omission of other figures – as well as with his commentary on the study and the lessons to be derived from it.
Much of the discussion of the Pew findings has focused on the failure of Reform and Conservative Judaism to hold on to their congregants. Precious little has been said about the irrelevance of Orthodox Judaism for the vast majority of Jews anywhere in the world. The facts: only 10% of Jews in the US define themselves as Orthodox, and just 3% as Modern Orthodox.
And even that number is misleading. Of the entire population of Jewish Americans aged 18-29, the number who identify as Modern Orthodox drops to a mere 1%! And the pedigree of that minuscule population is itself questionable, as a full 96% of them avowed that working on Shabbat is compatible with being Jewish, not to mention the highly controversial, mind-boggling 33% who declared that one can be Jewish even if believing that Jesus was the Messiah.
The non-Orthodox, who still account for 86% of Jews in the US associating with one denomination or another, may not have done enough to guarantee the Jewish future, but they are certainly not alone.
This, then, is not a time a time for any sector of the Jewish community to gloat, nor to dismiss the other. It is a time for soul-searching, and for all who care about the Jewish future to come together to figure out where we might go from here.
The session with the deputy minister ended with a call for dialogue – a dialogue, I note, which Bennett has already initiated.
I am looking forward to continuing it. I have no doubt that both he and Ben-Dahan have a love for every Jew, and I would like to believe that if we can steer clear of denominationalism, territorialism and labels, together we might come up with ways of enriching Jewish lives both in Israel and the Diaspora, by engaging Jewish souls in positive Jewish experiences and infusing them with the values which we have struggled to maintain for thousands of years.
Hanukka is upon us, and its lesson should not be ignored. The threat of Hellenization is as real today as it was 2,000 years ago, and – in this global village of ours linked by the Internet – far more immediate than ever before, no less so in the Jewish state than in the fleshpots of our dispersion.
The Religious Affairs Ministry is uniquely positioned to lead the battle against it. But it will only succeed if it is able to rally the forces of all segments of world Jewry, however disparate they may be. Already pleased with its association with Waze, its leadership must be prepared to trust the message already appearing on society’s screen: Recalculating.
There is a better way to reach your destination.
Postscript: After this article went to print, The Jerusalem Post reported that “The Chief Rabbinate has announced that, together with the Religious Services Ministry, it will be instructing mikve attendants not to conduct intrusive checks on women seeking to immerse in a mikve.” I acknowledge this development with satisfaction, and hope it will prove to be a first step towards opening the ritual baths to all.
The writer is vice chairman of the World Zionist Organization and a member of The Jewish Agency Executive. He is a past chairman of the Masorti Movement in Israel. The opinions expressed herein are his own.