Guest Columnist: Can Israel be both Jewish and democratic?

Guest Columnist Can Isr

yaakov neeman new  (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimksi )
yaakov neeman new
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimksi )
The controversy over Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman's recent statement concerning the place of Torah law in Israeli life has once again sparked a debate over the role of religious law in Israeli society. There have been two interpretations of Neeman's statement. The first, that he would like to see Torah law become the law of the land, he has denied. The other, which he offers as his explanation, is that there should be a greater input of Jewish law into Israeli law. Let us hope that the latter is correct and that no member of our government envisions the time when Israeli law would be determined by rabbis rather than by the democratic process. Many others, including Justice Menahem Elon, have long advocated the use of Jewish law as precedents in our civil law, no less than other systems such as British common law. There can be no objection to this since Jewish law in matters of damages and torts indeed has much about it that is laudable. As long as it is subject to the interpretation of our civil judges and does not supplant the power of the Knesset, that would be a positive development. However if Neeman really hopes to see Jewish law, enforced through rabbinical authority, replace our current system of justice that would be a catastrophe. AS A Masorti rabbi, I am certainly in favor of Jewish law, but not in place of civil law and not as coercive legislation. Furthermore, Jewish law can be interpreted in many ways, and the way that many rabbinic authorities interpret it here is not acceptable to me. Which interpretation and which rabbinic authorities would be put in charge? The revolution that the Western world underwent in the last few centuries was a revolution in which religion and state were separated, in which power was given to the people and not to religious authorities, in which individualism and pluralism were recognized as legitimate. Israel was founded on those principles as well, but unfortunately they were not carried out fully regarding the religious establishment and religious freedom. Unfortunately, the current situation is that Torah law is interpreted by state-appointed rabbinic authorities who already control certain vital aspects of our lives. In matters of marriage and divorce the civil authorities from the beginning have ceded these areas to the Chief Rabbinate in a great compromise that avoided conflict with the Orthodox elements, but created an intolerable situation for a modern, democratic, secular state. I know of no other nation in the Western democratic world in which such a situation exists. The results are well known. Large segments of the population have no way of marrying within the country. The scandalous situation of agunot - women unable to obtain a divorce - is too well known to require any elaboration here. In addition, the existence of such a Chief Rabbinate discriminates against other rabbis and Jewish religious organizations, denying them governmental funding and recognition. Taxpayers' monies are distributed in a way that does not reflect the wishes or the beliefs of the taxpayers themselves. THE SOLUTION to these problems is also well known but has been successfully avoided by all the governments because of political pressures and lack of resolve. It requires as a first step the enactment of civil partnership legislation which would then permit people to be registered as partners with all the civil privileges thereof, while any religious marriage would become a private decision, a religious ceremony to be conducted by whatever religious authority the couple would choose. Such legislation has already been prepared, but has always been put aside at the critical moment. It is time for it to be tabled and passed. The second step is the abolishment of the monopoly of the current Chief Rabbinate - not the abolishment of the Chief Rabbinate but the change of its status from a governmental monopoly into a privatized NGO which would exist alongside other rabbinates. These would be funded in part by tax money on the basis of the number of those who adhere to them. Individuals would have the right to choose their own religious affiliation. What does it mean to say we are a Jewish and democratic country? What does it mean to say that Israel is a Jewish state? Certainly not that it is a state in which Jewish religious law is the law of the land. That would be no different from the Islamic nations that enforce Muslim law. Rather, it means that it is a state that will provide a home for Jews and that will support Judaism, its culture and its religion, by making it possible for Jews to live according to their beliefs and help and encourage all elements of Jewish civilization. All of this can be done without compromising the basic tenets of democracy. It is time for Israel to become truly Jewish and truly democratic. Establishing a state ruled by rabbinic authorities is exactly the opposite. The writer is the head of the Rabbinical Court of the Masorti Movement and the author of several books, the most recent being Entering Torah.