American-Jewish leaders who support religious pluralism in Israel were rightly concerned by the narrow political coalition formed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which strengthened the hand of Israel’s religious parties. As if to confirm their fears, Chief Rabbi David Lau, speaking at a conference of the Israel Bar Association, suggested that the rabbinate be consulted on “every bill that the government submits, just as it seeks the professional opinion of relevant ministries on the matter.”
Lau said his goal was not for the rabbinate “to decide,” but rather to provide advice on “Jewish values.”
For supporters of democracy in Israel and abroad, that is an unacceptable commingling of religion and state. The rabbinate already has an advisory role, and has access — even a monopoly — to a bully pulpit in which it can comment on and exert influence on pending legislation. And it has strong allies in the government itself, representing Orthodox interests.
But as so many pluralists point out, the religious sector in Israel already has too much control of religious life, on everything from marriage to conversion to burial. Non-Orthodox expressions of Judaism struggle for a foothold, hampered by inequitable state funding and discriminatory regulations.
Diaspora Jews are often told to butt out of internal Israeli issues, but pluralism in Israel is an issue that affects Jews everywhere. It also affects their perception of the Jewish state, and the last thing the Israeli government needs right now is to alienate natural allies.
Of course the Jewish religious tradition should inform Israeli society. But imparting those traditions should be the function of education and inspiration, not coercion. The rabbinate should be opening paths to religious engagement, not closing them down. As Chaim Weizmann, the first president of Israel, once warned, “Religion should be relegated to the synagogue and the homes of those families that want it; it should occupy a special position in the schools; but it shall not control the ministries of State.”