Mixing religion and politics is always a bad idea. Last week, Shas’s Religious Affairs Minister David Azoulay provided a reminder why.Acting in the name of his constituents and supporters who adhere to a fundamentalist interpretation of the Jewish tradition, Azoulay is reportedly trying to use his political clout as minister to restrict religious expression at the Western Wall – particularly the forms of expression adopted by the Women of the Wall.In 2013, Azoulay’s predecessor, Naftali Bennett, head of the religious nationalist Bayit Yehudi, had agreed to a plan to establish an egalitarian section for Women of the Wall and others in an area adjacent to the Western Wall plaza known as Robinson’s Arch. Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky and cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit were involved in the formulation of the plan.Women of the Wall and representatives of non-Orthodox streams of Judaism had agreed in principle to move to the new section, provided that a list of demands was met. Representatives of the Orthodox establishment, who are responsible for the day-to-day management of the Kotel, had their own demands. The sides were unable to finalize a deal.But now Azoulay is reneging on the whole idea of compromise.
See the latest opinion pieces on our pageAccording to the daily Israel Hayom, Azoulay said during a meeting with Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked last week that Women of the Wall were “provocateurs” because they wear prayer shawls and phylacteries and read from the Torah – all practices considered deviant by most, but not all, Orthodox Jews. Indeed, many Women of the Wall are Orthodox. According to Israel Hayom, Azoulay somewhat misguidedly identified Women of the Wall with the Reform Movement and proclaimed that Reform Judaism is “a disaster for the nation of Israel.”Azoulay is, of course, entitled to his opinions or religious beliefs about Reform Judaism and about the Women of the Wall. But as the minister responsible for providing religious services to all Israeli citizens, he has no business using his political position to advance the narrow interests of his religious sect.Though Shas claims to represent authentic Orthodoxy, in reality his party has its own specific agenda, its own rabbis, its own religious institutions – including those created for economic gain, such as the Beit Yosef kosher supervision company. And members of Shas have not lashed out solely at “Reform” Jews.In the run-up to the 2013 elections, the late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef declared that whoever voted for Bennett’s Bayit Yehudi Party was a heretic. Rabbi Shalom Cohen, who took over the spiritual leadership of Shas after Yosef died, referred to religious Zionists as Amalekites.Orthodoxy is hardly a homogenous whole. There are sectarian battles between Ashkenazim and Sephardim, between Hassidim and Lithuanians, and among various groups of Ashkenazim, Sephardim, and Hassidim. There are different groups within religious Zionism, as well a broad spectrum of modern Orthodox Jews. And of course there are various forms of non-Orthodox religious expressions as well.One of the most beautiful aspects of Judaism is its diversity and richness. Rationalists as well as spiritualists, reformers as well as traditionalists – all find meaning and a sense of belonging within Judaism’s broad tent.Diversity flourishes when Judaism is allowed to develop organically and in an atmosphere of free expression. Not unlike free and open markets, different streams of Jewish religious expression should be allowed to grow and innovate, reacting to different spiritual and psychological needs.One would think that the world’s only Jewish state would do its utmost to foster a vibrant, multifaceted Judaism. Unfortunately, Israel’s founding religion and state have been overly intertwined. Different groups within Orthodoxy have been granted a monopoly over state funds, rabbinic and quasi-rabbinic appointments, and influence. In the first decades after the establishment of the state, it was the National Religious Party that traditionally controlled the Religious Affairs Ministry and wielded critical control.Later it was Shas’s turn.This does not mean that the State of Israel can adopt the sorts of Jeffersonian walls of separation that exist in the United States. Legislation such as the Law of Return must continue to remain in force. But we can learn from the American experience and prevent men like Azoulay from monopolizing and exploiting political power for narrow sectarian interests. Doing so would be a boon to Judaism.