Editor's Notes: Time for a Halachic revolution

Halacha is being used as a tool in the hands of cynical politicians.

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish youths study religious texts at a synagogue in Jerusalem April 7, 2011.  (photo credit: BAZ RATNER/REUTERS)
Ultra-Orthodox Jewish youths study religious texts at a synagogue in Jerusalem April 7, 2011.
(photo credit: BAZ RATNER/REUTERS)
Two events in recent days have illustrated not just the problem of mixing politics and religion in Israel, but also of Halacha – Jewish law – and its inflexibility when confronted with modern challenges.
First was the joint refusal by Sport and Culture Minister Miri Regev and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked to sit on a government committee that was being asked to approve renovations to the egalitarian prayer site at the southern section of the Western Wall.
Both ministers caved to pressure from religious elements within their parties. Regev voted in favor of the original Kotel compromise and spoke out publicly about the need to allow women to pray there the way they want, but she then claimed last week that her “conscience” did not allow her to remain on the committee.
What she meant to say was that her political career did not allow her.
Regev was not motivated by her conscience, she was motivated by a fear that chairing the committee would undermine her future standing in the Likud Party primaries.
Shaked was not much different. A secular woman who happens to be in a religious party, Shaked also caved to rabbinic pressure not to remain on the committee. Her decision was particularly surprising considering that Shaked is an ally of Naftali Bennett, the Diaspora Affairs minister, who has tried to push through the compromise since it was first reached and was the one who built the existing platform near Robinson’s Arch known in Hebrew as Azarat Yisrael.
Shaked, unfortunately, also seems more focused on her political future than with the future of the Jewish people.
She had no problem over the last three years as justice minister taking on the Supreme Court, legal advisers, or any constitutional challenge, but when it came to her political base, that is asking too much. The fact that she announced her decision on the fast day of the 17th of Tamuz only added to the feeling that some politicians – like Shaked and Regev – are more interested in Jewish strife than Jewish future.
THE SECOND event took place a week earlier, when the Barkan Winery, allegedly out of Halachic concerns, decided to bar employees of Ethiopian descent from jobs requiring them to touch wine. This is in line with Jewish law which bans non-Jews from touching wine during production. The winery apparently feared that some of the Ethiopian workers were not considered fully Jewish under strict, ultra-Orthodox rabbinical standards, and Barkan didn’t want to lose haredi clientele.
Once the news became known a public outcry quickly followed, and Barkan reversed its decision – not because of a sudden understanding that it was wrong, but out of concern that it would face a major consumer boycott.
One popular Jerusalem liquor store, for example, reported a 50% drop in sales of Barkan wines in the week since.
These stories are just two of the latest sad examples of a trend that has taken hold of Israel in recent years: the negative mix of politics and religion.
This is what happened to Regev and Shaked. They both feared political retribution from their base constituents if they lent a hand to the establishment of an egalitarian prayer plaza at the Kotel, and this is also what happened at Barkan.
It doesn’t matter that privately and publicly both of these ministers had in the past supported the Kotel deal.
They simply changed their mind. The problem is that the authority for this should never have been in their hands to begin with. Why should Regev and Shaked have the power to decide which Jew gets to pray at the Kotel? What qualifies them to make these decisions? As we see, they are motivated by politics and not the sustainability of the Jewish people, failing to realize that if Israel wants to continue being a Jewish homeland, it has certain responsibilities toward the Jewish people.
The politicization of religion is why the two-minute video the Foreign Ministry made about alternative marriages in Israel was such a joke. There are no alternative marriages in Israel.
The only marriages allowed in Israel are through the Chief Rabbinate. Anything else is not considered marriage, and people who want to be married not through the rabbinate have to do so outside the country.
Why? Again, because of the toxic mix of politics and religion. Instead of simply giving people the freedom to choose, the government prefers to force religion down peoples’ throats.
THE BARKAN story brings rejection of the “other” and the combination of politics and religion, to light with something else – the tension between morality and strict Halacha. Israel, as a modern sovereign Jewish state, faces challenges that Halacha was not necessarily created to know how to deal with.
As Yair Sheleg, director of the Religion and State Program at the Israel Democracy Institute, recently wrote about the Barkan affair: “It is time to stop this. Instead of being ashamed of certain discriminatory parts of Kashrut laws or cases when the Rabbinate wants to bury an IDF soldier outside boundaries because it turns out that his mother is not considered Jewish, we need to take a stand against these halachot. A ‘Holy Rebellion’ [is needed] in the name of the principle that Derech Eretz [acting decorously and with respect] comes before the Torah.”
Sheleg goes on to explain that the only way for this to happen is for Jewish law to change. While Orthodox Halacha does not change easily, he writes, it eventually knows how. As examples, look at the status of women and the LGTB community. Their treatment within Orthodoxy is still in fluctuation but the nature of their relationship is constantly evolving for the better.
I can imagine what some readers are probably thinking: only rabbis should be allowed to voice an opinion on Halacha. That might be the case when arguing the specifics or legal interpretation of a Jewish law. This, though, is about a way of thinking. Moreover, you cannot turn religion into a government institution – as has been done in Israel – and think that the discourse is strictly halachic. It is not. It is about politics, society and also law.
And while change does eventually occur in the clash between modernity and Halacha, something bigger is needed today in the State of Israel, because the challenges are not going away. Indeed, they are only growing.
Take the issue of marriage. Putting aside the Foreign Ministry’s unfortunate video, there is a serious problem for a state when more than 350,000 of its citizens – about 5% of Israel’s Jewish population – cannot get married because they are not halachically Jewish. These are people who serve in the army, pay taxes and are law abiding citizens. But when the time comes to get married, they are forced to go to Cyprus.
Citizens live in a system of duties and rights. They have a duty to pay taxes, but they also have a right to get married. Marriage is supposed to be a basic right in any democracy. In Israel, it unfortunately isn’t.
WHY? Because of Halacha, which has been used by politicians for decades as a political tool to promote a political agenda. Maybe the only way to counter this, as Sheleg wrote, is to consider adaptations to Jewish law. In Israel’s early years, for example, David Ben-Gurion initiated a debate about the definition of a Jew, since he recognized that a state cannot be run according to Halacha and needed to find guidelines beyond ancient texts to determine issues of nationality and citizenship.
It could be that a debate needs to be initiated about the issue of patrilineal descent, for example. In the modern age, it is now possible to determine with certainty the identity of someone’s father. Why should someone who is the child of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother be discriminated against in the so-called Jewish state, when a DNA test can definitively determine if Jewish blood runs through his or her veins? Matrilineal descent was not always required for Jewish identity, as a cursory glance at the Bible makes clear. Changing this might not be a realistic solution, but why is no one even talking about it? It is as if Judaism has become paralyzed in the State of Israel.
Then there is the issue of the Kotel.
Here too, Halacha is being used as a tool in the hands of cynical politicians, who manipulate Jewish law to deny basic rights, and to ban and bar denominations and streams.
Today, most Orthodox Jews are more troubled with eating kitniyot (legumes) like rice or corn on Passover than with making every Jew feel at home in the Jewish homeland. They are more focused on obscure laws about wine-making than about the alienation and racial discrimination of an entire sector in Israeli society. This is a sad state of affairs.
I know it will be easy to dismiss what I write here by simply labeling these ideas as Reform or Conservative.
But that won’t make the problems go away. We need to think about what is right for Israel, its citizens and the Jewish people at large. Sooner or later, the challenges need to be dealt with.
The mix of politics and religion in Israel has done harm to both governance and Judaism.
It is time not only to separate the two, but also for rabbinic leaders to begin tackling these issues head on.
Judaism is a religion that has always taken pride in its embrace of life and its ability to be dynamic. Its time for that to happen once again.