JULY 27, 2017 – JERUSALEM – Tons of newsprint (and terabytes of bandwidth) have been spent on the friction between the Israeli rabbinical establishment and non-Orthodox streams. Right now, it’s conversions and prayer rights at the Western Wall.
During the weekly cabinet meeting on June 25, government ministers, under pressure from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – himself under pressure from ultra-Orthodox parties in his coalition that are flexing their muscles over numerous issues, including military deferments for male constituents – voted to do two things. The first was to renege on an agreement to establish a government-recognized egalitarian prayer section at the Western Wall. The second was to give the Chief Rabbinate final say on all conversions.
Two weeks later came word that the Chief Rabbinate had drawn up a list of some 160 foreign rabbis – including Orthodox rabbis – whose conversions would not be recognized.
Abroad, there was a tsunami. At home? A wave or two.
There’s a reason. Israel has never decided what it is: a state for the Jews or a Jewish state. Considering all the other problems it faces, the matter has been on the back burner, if it’s been on the stove at all. The result is the “status quo.”
The status quo was born 70 years ago when David Ben-Gurion, at the time head of the Jewish Agency, realized he needed to present a united front to the world on the matter of partitioning Palestine into Jewish and Arab states. The agreements he worked out with the ultra-Orthodox in the pre-state Yishuv became entrenched once Israel declared statehood and Ben-Gurion, who became prime minister, needed a stable coalition to get the country up and running.
The agreements covered several areas, most prominently that Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, would be the country’s official day of rest, with everything, save for basic utilities and emergency services, coming to a halt. Lifecycle events – especially marriage and divorce – would fall under the purview of rabbis (and other clerics for non-Jews), with absolutely no civil marriage. Soon after statehood, the ultra-Orthodox also won military deferments for several hundred of their brightest students in an effort to replenish a yeshiva world decimated by the Holocaust.
In 1950, the Law of Return was passed. It granted an automatic right to citizenship for all Jews. It was the first time the “Who is a Jew” issue seriously came up. The matter was settled when it was agreed that a Jew was either born to a Jewish mother or someone who had converted. In 1970, the law was broadened to include those with at least one Jewish grandparent or a Jewish spouse.
In the early 1950s, a rabbinical court system was established, and the Chief Rabbinate, which staffed and oversaw the courts, came to be the ultimate authority on all things Jewish. Its clout intensified when the country’s small religious parties, Zionist and non-Zionist alike, began influencing governance from within or, in the case of the ultra-Orthodox, with tacit agreements of support from without – but for a price.
One example is the way that Orthodoxy took over the Western Wall after the Six-Day War.
Those who remember the iconic photo of a bearded gentleman in uniform blowing the shofar there just hours after it was captured might know that this was General Shlomo Goren, the Israeli Defense Forces’ chief military rabbi. Goren, something of a hardliner on the Land of Israel, became the country’s chief Ashkenazi rabbi in 1973 and made the Wall a special project. He further enshrined its identity not only as a holy site, but as a full-fledged synagogue.
Has any of this mattered to non-Orthodox Israelis? Yes, but perhaps not in a way you’d think.
Non-Orthodox Jewish streams in Israel, like the local Conservative and Reform movements, can be vocal, but they’re relatively small. And many other non-Orthodox Israelis, especially those whose families came from Arab countries, prefer to think of themselves as “traditional.” Chances are that while they drive and even smoke on Shabbat, they observe kashrut and kiss mezuzot on doorposts – and even the beards of venerated rabbis, including the chief rabbis.
Now take Israel’s truly secular Jews – whom a late, great ultra-Orthodox sage liked to call “rabbit-eating kibbutzniks” (though most lived in cities) – and you have what might amount to just 30 percent of the population, perhaps less.
These Israelis shrug when most matters of religion and state arise. When it’s time to get married, for example, they either grudgingly put up with an intrusive rabbinate or fly to nearby Cyprus. (Interestingly, weddings conducted abroad – whether civil ceremonies or those overseen even by non-Orthodox rabbis – are recognized in Israel as long as they are legal and binding where they took place.)
The shrugs continue when Diaspora Jews blow their top over matters of Israeli religion and state. There’s real resentment when they’re matters of security, including the Israeli-Palestinian dispute: “You don’t send your kids to the army,” they say, “so shut up.” But on the Western Wall and conversion issues, the general sentiment here is one of befuddlement: “Why should this matter to you when you don’t even live here and probably never will?” It becomes offensive, though, when non-Israeli Jews who profess to be Zionists threaten to cut off their donations and stop coming. In the age of BDS – the Boycott, Divest, Sanction movement aimed to force Israel to surrender land to Palestinians – it’s a tactic that to a whole lot of Israelis reeks of hatred, eliciting all the accompanying disgust.
This is not to say that secular Israelis, and even traditional and Zionist-Orthodox Israelis, don’t resent the ultra-Orthodox. They do. Big time. There are two main reasons: One, ultra-Orthodox rabbis tell their followers to have many babies, yet they also stress study over work for the men. This means widespread poverty, with all other Israelis picking up the welfare tab. Two, those few hundred military deferments now run into the tens of thousands, meaning the burden of defending the country falls on everyone else.
What really riles secular Israelis, though, is when the ultra-Orthodox, among many other things, block main thoroughfares on Shabbat, harass women for so-called immodest dress, and cause a ruckus on airliners by demanding that female passengers seated next to them be moved. That will not be taken lying down, for it affects them directly. But the Western Wall? Conversions? Save for Russians and other immigrants whose Judaism is suspect or nonexistent, it’s no big deal.
Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but the lesson for the Diaspora these days is don’t look to Israelis to feel your pain.
Lawrence Rifkin is a journalist and writer living in Jerusalem.