Freeing Judaism

Israel is a Jewish state and it should remain that way; but the means of Jewish expression are many and varied.

A man wears a kippa.  (photo credit: REUTERS)
A man wears a kippa.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
At the beginning of the cabinet meeting on Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attempted to defuse a potential clash with Diaspora Jewry.
“Over the weekend,” Netanyahu told his ministers, “I took the step of convening a round table headed by the cabinet secretary and by the Chairman of the Jewish Agency Natan Sharansky that will focus on a variety of issues concerning the different streams of Judaism. I requested that the head of these streams take part, as well. Israel is the home of all the Jews, the government of Israel serves all citizens of Israel – secular and religious, regardless of which stream they belong to.”
The prime minister’s statement comes in the wake of disparaging comments about Reform Judaism made last week by Religious Services Minister David Azoulay of the Sephardi haredi party Shas and Knesset Finance Committee Chairman Moshe Gafni of the Ashkenazi haredi party United Torah Judaism.
In an interview with Army Radio, Azoulay called Reform Judaism a “disaster to the nation of Israel” and said Reform Jews are not part of the Jewish people.
Then last week in the Knesset, in an apparent attempt to “clarify” his comments, Azoulay said that even Jews who sin like Reform Jews are nevertheless Jewish. He then went on to cite the “damage” done to the Jewish people by the Reform movement.
Azoulay’s comments aroused nearly across-the-board criticism. Leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements lambasted the Shas minister, as did the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America, leaders of the Jewish Federations of North America and the Anti-Defamation League.
In a country not bound by a shaky coalition agreement, such hurtful and hateful words by a cabinet minister on a subject he is in charge of would be grounds for immediate dismissal. But this is Israel, and the most that a prime minister dependent on his partners, no matter how distasteful, can do is express his displeasure.
The truth is that controversies that pit Israel’s Orthodox- controlled religious institutions against Diaspora Jewry’s non-Orthodox communities have been relatively common over the years.
Indeed, while making his statement in defense of non-Orthodox streams of Judaism, Netanyahu was probably experiencing a bout of deja vu. Back in 1997, when he was serving his first stint as prime minister, Netanyahu faced an even more severe “Who is a Jew?” crisis. Haredi legislators in his government coalition were pushing for a law that would deny Israeli citizenship to non-Orthodox converts from the Diaspora.
Non-Orthodox leaders were warning of a irreparable rift between the Diaspora and Zion. At the height of the crisis, in a speech before the Council of Jewish Federations in Indianapolis, Netanyahu sagaciously noted that legislation would never solve the “Who is a Jew?” controversy. He hoped that by bringing together Orthodox, Conservative and Reform leaders under the aegis of the Neeman Committee, the three streams would settle their differences.
It did not happen primarily due to the Chief Rabbinate’s intransigence.
But 18 years later, Netanyahu’s observation still rings true: Legislation is not the solution. The failure of the Neeman Commission proves that dialogue does not work either.
Instead, the question of “Who is a Jew?” should be opened up to the competing definitions of the major recognized streams of Judaism – Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist.
Like in the Diaspora, the Jews of Israel should be permitted to operate as sovereign selves. They should be given the freedom to choose among the different streams of Judaism. They should be allowed to practice Judaism in a way that feels right for them. Religious services presently monopolized by the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate such as marriage and divorce, burials, synagogue construction, kosher supervision and the state funding of rabbis’ salaries, should be privatized.
Competition among different denominations encourages dynamic leadership and breeds excellence.
Israel is a Jewish state and it should remain that way.
But the means of Jewish expression are many and varied.
These diverse means of expression should be encouraged and fostered not restricted and legislated. This will not only strengthen Jewish identity, it will also improve relations with our fellow Jews in the Diaspora.