Signing out of Judaism

Israel’s ultra-Orthodox hegemony is a threat to Jewish peoplehood.

Hassidic bride with body covered 311 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS)
Hassidic bride with body covered 311 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS)
It is now legal for Israeli Jews to sign out of the Jewish religion officially. Last week, an Israeli court ruled that Israeli author Yoram Kaniuk can change his official religious status in the government registry from “Jewish” to “no religion.” He requested this change in order to have the same status as his grandson, whose mother is not Jewish, and therefore has fewer rights, including no legal way to be married in Israel. Kaniuk, a hero of the 1948 War of Independence and a major literary voice in the evolution of Hebrew culture, is widely admired in Israel. His rejection of the religion of the state is an indictment of a system that causes many Israelis to feel nothing but contempt for Judaism as they know it.
It is not hard to imagine branches of the Ministry of the Interior crowded with people hoping to sign out of Judaism and move on with their lives simply as “Israelis.” Research shows that they would most likely still hold family Passover Seders, fast on Yom Kippur and even light Shabbat candles sometimes. They will of course continue to speak Hebrew and live in the Land of Israel but they will refuse to be identified with the fundamentalist religion now presented to them as the only form of legitimate Judaism.
And who could blame them? The Judaism of Israel today has become an ultra-Orthodox hegemony that represents neither the views and values of the vast majority of Israelis, nor those of the global Jewish community. This official religion of the Jewish State does not recognize the existence of the multiple streams of Judaism to which the majority Jews around the world adhere, let alone the commonly accepted advances of the Enlightenment that promote basic human equality.
The Judaism of Israel today, which is supported legally and financially by the state, does not recognize women as equal to men in marriage, divorce, or most recently, even on public buses. The official religion of Israel today supports racism even between Jews, with clear preference given to Ashkenazim over Sephardim and above all over Ethiopians – a fact demonstrated by several state-supported religious schools. The Judaism of Israel today accepts no converts unless of course they are willing to convert ultra-Orthodox. Baruch Spinoza would be ostracized by the State of Israel even today.
It is time for Israelis and the global Jewish community to recognize that Jewish peoplehood is threatened not just externally from assimilation but internally from the all powerful ultra-Orthodox rabbinate and its vice-like grip over the Jewish homeland – the modern political representative of the Jewish people and, supposedly, their refuge.
The global Jewish community is focused on strengthening Jewish identity and Jewish peoplehood, spending billions of dollars to further these goals. A common element in many programs is visiting Israel, which is meant to provide Diaspora Jews with a strong foundation upon which group participants can gain a greater perspective of their roles in Jewish peoplehood and connect more deeply with their own Jewish identities.
Ironically, however, the ebbing of Jewish identity has been a serious problem right here in Israel. For years, polls have shown that when given the choice between identifying as Israeli or Jewish, most Israelis will choose the former. The only exposure that most Israelis ever have to Judaism is one that is a very strictly Orthodox brand, one that is completely remote from their lives yet has tremendous control over them. Many Diaspora Jewish philanthropists have become aware of this problem of Israelis disengaging from Judaism and have begun supporting programs to engage secular Israelis in Jewish pluralism programs in an attempt to stem the tide.
The recent State and Religion Index, conducted by the Smith Institute just before Rosh Hashana, shows that a majority of the Israeli public are unhappy with and feel unrepresented by the current Orthodox control over Israeli society. They want the option of civil marriage, public transportation on Shabbat and to end unfair exemption of yeshiva students from military service. The study shows that Israeli Jews perceive the tension between secular and religious Israelis as the worst intergroup tension within Jewish society today.
For all those who are committed to Jewish peoplehood, it is time to invest your energy, your time and your funds in addressing religious coercion and the lack of Jewish pluralism in Israel. This will only be achieved when Israelis and the global Jewish community stand up for their rights and free themselves of this oppressive and intolerant ultra-Orthodox monopoly on the Jewish state that drives so many away.
If Israel is to be a democratic Jewish state, it must embrace a Judaism that is compatible with democracy and civil society, a Judaism that allows for the values of justice and equality to all people, regardless of their race, religion, or gender. Perhaps then Israelis wouldn’t be so eager to sign out.
The writer is a consultant for development & international advocacy to Israel Hofshit, the public movement for freedom of religion and pluralism in Israel.