Tackling The Elephant

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 the Establishment of the State of Israel, 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, the state’s precursor. 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 the Jewish Sabbath 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.


[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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17 Responses

  1. S. says:

    >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.

    Why would haredi perspectives be pitted against Reform, as if there aren’t gradations in between? Could it be that, in fact, there might be differences of opinion between fruum Jews on this issue, and only the haredi and Reform view?

  2. Gil says:

    This article made me laugh, because the only thing that does not occur in the article is “Tackling The Elephant.”

    The title, “Tackling The Elephant” rightfully implies that there is an important issue in israel which is being ignored. However, in the article, instead of looking at the issue and trying to find some resolution which would appeal to those who are looking for a resolution to their complaints and appeal for the Orthodox community, you just repeated the generic Orthodox mantra of we are real Judaism (which is obviously a point they disagree on) and thus your complaints do not matter.

    Agreed the historical precedent for giving control of the religious institutions of Israel is well established. Yet, you also forgot to mention the intense political nature of those compromises. That the Chiloni leadership of Israel did not care about religious laws and were happy to give the Dati leadership most things they required in return for the votes on important social and security issues.

    Anyhow, in your discussion you are completely dismissive. I wonder how you would feel if America would have made the same decision about religious freedom as Israel did in the 1950’s. The Jewish establishment at that time was the Reform movement, accordingly America would have granted them decision making over religious life for all Jews, from birth to marriage. Obviously, the reform movement doesn’t force its members to not keep kosher, not keep shabbat, and not follow the Halachot of Nidah; nonetheless, imagine that it was allowed to and wanted to force its standards for all “official” Jewish functions. eg: the only marriage a Jew could engage in was a Reform Jewish marriage. I do not think you would be so pleased.

    Until Jews are enabled to live as they please, marry as they please, divorce as they please, pray how they want at their holy places without being compelled by force or by immense political pressure, there is a large part of religious freedom still missing in Israel.

    Lastly, throughout this I have only talked about non-Orthodox movements. I have not even begun to discuss the Dati Leumi, Rabbani Tzhoar, and American Modern Orthodox communities who also feel that they practice “Torah True Judaism” but feel that the religious laws of Israel discriminate against them and their Kehilah.

    Indeed this is a complex question with no simple answer, but that admission would be better response than the current dismissal.

  3. Ori says:

    There is no simple good solution, but it is very clear which direction the solution is going. Israel will continue to ignore Heterodox Judaism, except when asking for money or political support. Heterodox Jews will ignore Israel as irrelevant to their lives – see here and here.

    I don’t think there is a way to stop this trend – it’s not in retaliation. Israel is simply irrelevant to the lives of most Heterodox Jews, and will continue to be that way.

  4. Melanie says:

    Sounds to me like there are two different aspects about the government, that aren’t being delineated clearly enough: (1) freedom of religion, and (2) the definition of Judaism.

    But if someone wants to have a Jewish marriage or conversion or kashrut certificate or whatever recognized by the Jewish state, there are particular standards that have been established, with no connection to the freedom of religion concept.

    But what happens when the two elements come together – for example, when an Arab wants the Israeli state to recognize a marriage for the benefit of government subsidies – how is that done? Can Jews get a civil-only marriage, or are they “forced” to go through the Rabbinate if they want tax benefits or whatever?

  5. Alan says:

    The Dati leadership could, within the bounds of halacha, find ways of encouraging rather than discouraging conversions among those who want to be part of the Jewish people, including among those who are Jewish according to Reform criteria but not according to halacha. Unfortunately, by using extreme and historically unjustifiable misinterpretations of halacha, they are causing unnecessary schisms within the Jewish people and harming Jews, Israel and even respect for halacha itself.

  6. a k says:

    With all due respect, your comments need some clarification.

    You state that within the bounds of halacha, those who meet reform criteria should be encouraged to convert (presumably a halachic conversion). A person who is ‘Jewish’ through patralinial descent, as well as a reform convert, most probably is not interested in accepting Halachic Judaism. I think that you would agree that by any interpretation of halacha, one must accept halachic Judaism to convert halachically. Seems axiomatic.

    Also, what are your qualifications to claim that halachic standards are ‘extreme and historically unjustifiable misinterpretations’? Are you possibly a Talmudic and halachic expert?

  7. Ori says:

    Melanie, if two Muslim Arabs want to get married, they get married by their Imam in accordance with Muslim Shari’a. If two Christian Arabs want to get married, they get married by their priest in accordance with their Christian sect’s canon law. Same for divorce.

    If two people from different religions want to get married, or if the marriage is not allowed by their religious law? Can’t be done in Israel. The common solution is such a case is to fly to Cyprus and get married there, and then the Israeli Ministry of the Interior does accept the marriage as valid. I couldn’t have gotten married with my wife in Israel – I’m glad I ditched the country.

    Alan, why do you think a schism is unnecessary? There is no solution that both Orthodox and Heterodox Jews can accept.

  8. Shlomo says:

    Ori, I can’t believe that having to fly to Cyprus for a wedding was enough to make you move to a whole different country permanently. There must be additional reasons which you did not mention.

  9. Ori Pomerantz says:

    Shlomo, you’re right – I didn’t make myself clear. I didn’t leave Israel because of wanting to get married to Teresa. I left Israel for other reasons, years before I even met her. I just consider the fact that Israel would try to put obstacles on my marriage confirmation that it is not a good place to live.

    The real reason I left was conscription. I did my three years, and hated it. I didn’t have a particularly difficult service, my job was to sit in an office next to a computer. It still felt like slavery, or angaria (= taxes paid by forced labor). I agreed then, and I agree now, that Israel is a small western fortress in the Middle East and that such extreme measures are the cost of living there. From my perspective, it’s overpriced.

    If my children decide to go in the military, I’d cry and give them my blessing. But it would be their choice. Not mine (because at eighteen they don’t have the job skills to immigrate legally) or the government’s.

  10. Calev says:

    Ori writes: “I don’t think there is a way to stop this trend – it’s not in retaliation. Israel is simply irrelevant to the lives of most Heterodox Jews, and will continue to be that way.”
    This is not a result of a lack of religious freedom in Israel. There are Reform, Masorti and even, heaven help us, “Messianic” centres of learning and prayer throughout the country.
    The fact that Israel is increasingly irrelevant to heterodox Jews is because being Jewish is increasingly irrelevant to them. If one is seeking to point fingers then you have to aim at the heterdox movements themselves which desperately throw money at one scheme after another to stench the flow of members into assimilation.

  11. Ori says:

    Calev, I agree with you that it’s not a matter of lack of religious freedom. That’s the reason I wrote that it’s not in retaliation. Everybody is allowed to speak and teach in Israel – it’s only where the government gets involved in religion (marriage, divorce, burial, and funding) that Israel discriminates, and that’s something people can live with. Jews have lived with a government that didn’t recognize their religion as valid for centuries, after all.

    I apologize if I came across as trying to lay blame on anybody – that was not my intention.


    How would you make Judaism relevant to people who do not want to observe Halacha? Is there a way to do that?

  12. tzippi says:

    Re 11: “How would you make Judaism relevant to people who do not want to observe Halacha? Is there a way to do that?”
    I might qualify that question: who’ve made an informed decision not to observe Halacha.
    Your question is one kiruv pros can answer, but all I can imagine is that it’s a delicate balance to make it relevant without watering it down to an unrecongnizable degree. Homeopathic Judaism?
    KT and gut Shabbos,

  13. Ori says:

    Tzippi, the only thing I can think is to unbundle Judaism. A person might be uninterested in observing Kashrut, but still enjoy arguing over a page of Talmud, for example.

  14. tzippi says:

    Ori, the problem then is, how to introduce all the options? There are so many people who aren’t aware of the panoply of mitzvos, from the ethical to the ritual and Jewish-specific. I remember an article by a former Reform rabbi who was unfamiliar with the concept of the laws of carrying from one domain to another on Shabbos.
    And how are the people who would enjoy arguing over a page in the Talmud to get educated to the point where they could do it with intelligence and integrity? I’m asking this honestly, not as a rhetorical question.

  15. Ori says:

    Tzippi, I think you’d use the “embrace and enhance” strategy.

    You start by showing them the thing they want. They care about alleviating poverty? Be right there with them, banging nails for Habitat for Humanity. They like jokes? Sit with them and tell them the funniest stories from Midrash. They care about business success? Find something relevant in Jewish tradition.

    Never try to pretend to be something you’re not, but try to meet them where they are and give them what they want. Basically, you have two messages:

    1. I am on your side. I’m not here to change you in a way you don’t want to change.
    2. Judaism is relevant to you.

    Once you have those two in place, you can very subtly offer a bit more. “How would you like to come over for Shabbat, and we’ll talk some more about Bava Metzia’s laws of lost articles”, etc. But it has to be somewhat subtle with the understanding that you wouldn’t think less of them if they’ll say “no, thank you”.

  16. Ori says:

    I rethought my previous comment, and it is stupid. If you are Orthodox, you cannot like the fact that another Jew ignores and disobeys Halacha. You can befriend such people, you can teach them, but you cannot act as if it’s not a bad thing that they don’t accept the full 613 package (or the portion that is possible today). If Judaism can be unbundled, and parts of it made useful to people who won’t follow Halacha, it will have to be done by the Heterodox.

    Look at the Chabad thread. From every practical perspective, a mashichist and an anti-mashichist (who thinks the mashichist is an idolater) are a lot closer to each other than they are to me. Maybe not to the person they hope I’d develop into if I become a baal-teshuvah, but to the person I really am.

    If they cannot accept each other as good Jews who make a few mistakes, how can they ever accept that most Jews who do not follow Halacha are not going to start following Halacha?

  17. Ori says:

    Discussing this with Rabbi Avi Shafran (he doesn’t normally read here, but he got my message through a different channel) made me realize that I made the unwarranted assumption that you’ll judge all Jews by the same standard.

    It makes sense for Orthodox Jews to expect more from other Orthodox Jews who have had extensive Jewish educations than from people like me who didn’t. Maybe that’s the reason why some Orthodox Jews are so mad at Chabad Meshichists, but do not have the same vehemence against me.

    As usual, I am wearing my ignorance on my sleeve. I’d rather everybody think I am ignorant and correct me than that people respect my supposed knowledge and let me keep my real ignorance.

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