Tackling the elephant

'Orthodox monopoly'? Ben-Gurion recognized the danger of heterodoxy.

ben gurion 88 (photo credit: )
ben gurion 88
(photo credit: )
Mere days before I was privileged to participate in a Washington, D.C. symposium on religious freedom in Israel, the Malaysian government threatened to withhold a Catholic newspaper's publishing permit, to punish it for having dared to use the Muslim appellation for the Creator in its Malay-language pages. A week later, an Afghan judge sentenced a journalism student in that country to death for distributing an article critical of Islam's founder. All in all, making the case for Israel's respect for religious rights isn't really much of a challenge. An impressive number of students and interested others braved snowy weather to attend the January 17 event, sponsored by the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown University. Of the three presenters, I was last and, since the others -Knesset member Rabbi Michael Melchior and author Dr. David Elcott - did admirable jobs of covering much that lay in my prepared remarks, when my turn came I truncated my speech and focused on the increasingly restless elephant in the room. Well covered before I spoke were the facts that Israel is both a democracy and a state with a special relationship to a religion (like many around the globe); that it is pledged, through its declaration of independence to protect the religious rights of its citizens; and that it generally in fact does so in an exemplary manner. There have been occasional allegations of inequities in funding for upkeep of Muslim holy places and of disproportionate appropriation of Muslim-owned land. Such issues must be addressed, of course, and have been, in Israeli courts. To that I added that complaints by some Israeli and West Bank Muslims that the Israeli security barrier does not allow them to worship in the mosque of their first choice cannot be reasonably construed as akin to a gratuitous denial of religious rights. Such inconveniences are, while regrettable, unintentional results of legitimate security concerns. THEN I turned to the elephant - "Jewish religious pluralism." Leaders of heterodox Jewish movements regularly rail about the lack of official recognition of their movement's ceremonies in Israel, portraying it as a curtailment of religious rights. In addressing the pluralism pachyderm, my Exhibit A was the Jewish state's other foundational document. Less than a year before Israel declared its existence, on June 19, 1947, what came to be known as the "status quo agreement" was signed by the future first prime minister of the state, David Ben-Gurion and other officials of the Jewish Agency. In the words of professor Harry Reicher, University of Pennsylvania adjunct professor of international law: "For significant elements of the religious population... the status quo agreement was the inducement to their participation in that creation [of Israel], and...it was quite fundamental to the character with which the state was stamped at its birth." Addressed to the Agudath Israel World Organization, that document too, like the state's declaration that would follow, pledged the state-to-be to guaranteeing religious freedom for all its inhabitants. But it went on to promise state observance of Shabbat as the official day of rest, provision of only kosher food in government kitchens and a system of traditional Jewish religious education. And, finally, it assured that "everything possible will be done [to] avoid, Heaven forfend, the splitting of the House of Israel into two" - that would result from multiple standards regarding Jewish "personal status" issues like marriage, divorce and conversion. THOSE ELEMENTS were the nascent state's founders' concessions to the word "Jewish" in the phrase "Jewish State." For that phrase to have meaning, the signatories realized, credible definitions of words like "Jew" and "Judaism" were essential. From a haredi Jew's perspective, the only such workable definitions are those based on the "highest common denominator" of halacha, or Jewish religious law. A Reform Jew would presumably offer different definitions. But whatever the yardstick, if "Jewish State" is to be more than a hollow slogan, something must do the measuring. And, as a result of the status quo agreement, something - in fact halacha - indeed did do the measuring, and has been doing so for the past 60 years (not to mention the several millennia prior). That historical standard for establishing who a Jew is, and what a conversion, Jewish marriage and Jewish divorce are, has preserved a single Jewish people in the Jewish state. THOSE WHO demand multiple standards on the grounds of religious freedom misstate the case. What they are advocating is not freedom of religion - which is alive and well in Israel - but rather a redefinition of Judaism, and the radical amendment of one of Israel's foundational charters that would result, as Ben Gurion foresaw, in the "splitting of the House of Israel into two" (or three, or four...). Thus far, due to both the historical and legal importance of the status quo agreement and the traditional bent of a large majority of Israelis, Israel's single-standard approach to Jewish religious matters (what the media, with characteristic "objectivity," prefer to call the "Orthodox monopoly") remains in place. There are, though, threats to the delicate balance between religious freedom and Israel's core Jewish identity, in particular the state's highest court, which, under its former chief justice Aharon Barak, proclaimed a goal of promoting what it deems to be the "fundamental values of democracy" and has shown itself ready to, in effect, legislate by fiat (prompting influential American judge Richard Posner to call Mr. Barak an "enlightened despot"). What the Israeli Supreme Court may in future years choose to deem "enlightened" is anyone's guess. But an educated one should worry Jews - of whatever affiliation - who consider Israel's Jewish character essential to its identity, unity and future. The havoc that can be wrought by unbridled elephants is legend. The writer is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.