Yes to separation between synagogue and state

Recent proposals to liberalize marriage laws to include non-Orthodox streams of Judaism are insufficient.

Alternative wedding, Tel Aviv_311 (photo credit: Reuters)
Alternative wedding, Tel Aviv_311
(photo credit: Reuters)
When the Ministry of Religious Affairs tried to deny liberal Orthodox Tzohar rabbis, a group worthy of praise and support, the right to perform weddings, several individuals, including the prominent Rabbi Shlomo Riskin took to the press to voice their objection.
Last Tuesday, a Jerusalem Post editorial suggested a “free-market” Judaism approach in which “recognized non-Orthodox streams – Reform and Conservative – should also be allowed to conduct weddings as long as they adhere to basic consensus tenets such as matrilineal descent.” The eligibility requirements for the Post framework are coincidentally a working definition of the Conservative/ Masorti movement.
Tzohar’s attempt to work within a more open Orthodox framework and the Post’s proposal for a free market for those who adhere to “basic tenets” both fail to address the problem of religious coercion. Israelis must be able to form the bonds of marriage in any religious framework or a non-religious framework of their choosing, and the state should recognize that marriage.
Access for “recognized streams” that “acknowledge basic tenets” is not really “free market” Judaism – and even true “free markets” do not ensure the basic protections of human rights such as freedom of religion and freedom of conscience. So long as a predetermination is made as to “whose Judaism is Jewish enough” in order to have one’s marriage qualify for registration, a form of religious coercion that denies basic human rights will continue to alienate Israelis from their own Judaism and impoverish the development of a vibrant, indigenous modern Jewish expression in Israel. The question of whether Israeli democracy can expand to include freedom of religion and freedom of conscience, basic human rights, must be addressed in any proposed solution.
ONE IS reminded of the adage that it “depends on whose ox is gored” when reading Rabbi Riskin’s indictment of the Chief Rabbinate. He energetically supported a conversion bill drafted by his community member, MK David Rotem, designed to open the way for the praiseworthy Tzohar rabbis, with whom Rabbi Riskin identifies, to oversee conversion courts. However, that very same proposed law contained a Faustian bargain with the rabbinate that further expanded the rabbinate’s monopoly over individual religious status in Israel.
Moreover, in an unprecedented effort to expand the rabbinate’s power to the Diaspora, the proposed law was purposely drafted in an ambiguous manner to allow the rabbinate to argue that they have authority in the determination of who is a Jew for the Law of Return. This is the very same rabbinate whose power Rabbi Riskin now correctly decries.
The problem we now face with the rabbinate is the inevitable outcome of entanglement of religion and state. The price, as Rabbi Riskin well knows, and articulately states, is generations of Israelis lost to Judaism and a young, vulnerable country losing its way.
The hunger of many Israeli couples for a Jewish wedding with a rabbi of their choosing, from outside of the rabbinate, was well established in 2009, when the Masorti movement launched a wedding campaign, albeit acknowledging that such marriages would not be recognized by the state. The campaign, which drew the ire of the Chief Rabbinate, drew 25,000 hits to its website within the first five days of operation.
Sadly, in the absence of a free market (the state spends an estimated $450 million per year on the broad Israeli Orthodox establishment, while non-Orthodox streams must raise funds privately) this and other successful Masorti programs have been cut due to lack of funds.
It is true that allowing my colleagues to perform legally–recognized weddings in Israel, as suggested by the Jerusalem Post, would give more Israelis the opportunity to participate in marriage ceremonies that are consistent with their values and beliefs, and the same is true with allowing the Tzohar rabbis to perform legally-recognized weddings in Israel.
But a gored ox is a gored ox. We would no more support a “free market” statute that shuts the door behind us than Shlomo Riskin should define religious inclusion by the privileges of his own colleagues. This is not about religious ideology. This is about whether the basic human rights of religious freedom and freedom of conscience will have a place in Israeli society.

The writers are, respectively, president and executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly.