A democratic Jewish state demands equality for all streams of Judaism

A democratic Jewish state demands equality for all streams of Judaism

Martin Raffel’s “An inclusive Israel begins in the diaspora,” (Aug. 3) is not only comprehensive in its scope, but presents the possible options open to the American-Jewish world in their efforts to promote religious pluralism in Israel. As an Israeli who feels very strongly about this matter, I decided to share with you some of my thoughts. 

One should begin any analysis by referring to the roots of Zionism. The movement for the national revival of the Jewish people envisioned a democratic-liberal state. Theodor Herzl and Ze’ev Jabotinsky were secular and their conception of the Jewish state reflects their values. Both envisioned a state where religion would be separated from the body politic and where non-Jewish citizens would enjoy full equality. Such liberal ideology never became the dominant school of thought in the Zionist movement. Most of those who embraced and implemented the Zionist dream came from realities totally ignorant of such liberal conceptions as pluralism. Moreover, the only Jewish practice around was the Orthodox version in all its varieties. No wonder then the phrase “the synagogue I don’t go to is Orthodox.” The result was that from the outset Israel adopted the only Jewish expression familiar to most — the Orthodox version. 

It is 70 years too late to discuss David Ben-Gurion’s decision to hand all matters concerning civil status to the Orthodox establishment. What can be ascertained, however, is that over the years secular Israel finds itself struggling to maintain the legitimacy of our way of life. 

Let me make it very clear, the views I share with you are mine and mine alone, though they may be shared by many others. The view I hold is that in a modern society, religious matters are not and should not be determined by the state. The state can and should underscore the basic freedom of people to choose their way of life and provide the legal basis for implementing their choices. In other words, in matters concerning marriage and divorce, there is no reason why justices can’t be authorized to perform these tasks, alongside the rabbinical option, which should include rabbis of all streams — Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform. Such a framework will provide all of us the options and the rights we should enjoy. The status quo at present is oppressive and contradicts the basic tenets of a liberal democracy.

Even though the liberal steams of Judaism are still a minority in Israel, they should be able to enjoy equal rights as the Orthodox ones. The situation today is unacceptable. Is it conceivable that New York City’s board of rabbis include representatives of all streams of Judaism, while in Israel their counterparts are discriminated against? If we intend to be a democratic and a Jewish state, the only path to follow is full equality among all Jewish currents. Such a development will ensure the recognition of conversion by every denomination, as well as the abolishment of discrimination in the area of the Western Wall and other holy sites.

The present situation is indeed worrisome. Those of us who subscribe to the Western liberal ideology cannot accept the ongoing attempts by the Orthodox to convert our country to a halachic state. Many fear that the radical religious groups will try to drive the country into some adventurous policies that may ultimately transform Israel into a land where Jews would become a minority. Such an outcome can only spell negative consequences.

So what are we to do? I am certain that Jews around the world should make their voices heard. After all, for decades we turned to you to help us in so many ways. I fear the possibility of Jews in America and the West turning their backs on us; I am aware that if we continue along the present course, the disagreements may degenerate into gaps and those will deepen and widen and result in a schism too wide to bridge.

Some 17 years ago, while serving as deputy consul general of Israel in New York, I had the good fortune of accompanying Rabbi Michael Melchior to different meetings. Melchior was deputy foreign minister at the time and one of his scheduled meetings was with the New York Board of Rabbis. I vividly remember entering the room and finding rabbis of all affiliations sitting together. Melchior looked around the room and asked, “Can you teach me how to do this?” Unfortunately, Melchior is unique in his approach. Yet his question points the way for you to follow.

However small liberal Judaism may be in Israel now, it behooves you to engage the Jewish public in Israel. Be proactive, challenge the Orthodox here on the ground. Make people see that there is Jewish life that responds to our modern challenges and realities. Underline the family-oriented services and the pluralistic approach that recognizes other options. Use the media to make people aware of who we are. Start with the High Holy Days and follow the Jewish calendar. 

Finally, do not be afraid to project the relevance of Reform and Conservative Judaism to the efforts to shore up support for Israel. This is a major challenge and success is not guaranteed. Nevertheless, failing to meet it head on may lead us to a place no one wants to be in — the separation between Jerusalem and Jewish America.

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