A Jewish State For All The Jewish People

Rabbi Amitai Adler
June 7, 2013
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The greatest problem facing the State of Israel is not the one that the news agencies usually emphasize. It’s the one that’s just begun to get wider coverage over the past few weeks.

The recent stories about Women of the Wall are, as many of us know, just the tip of the iceberg.

The greatest problem facing the Jewish State is the lack of Jewish pluralism. And not just in the plaza of the Kotel, but everywhere.

When my wife Julie was in Israel as a teenager, after going on March of the Living, she made an emotional phone call from a public phone booth to her parents in America: Charedim living in the building next to the phone booth dumped dirty dishwater on her for “desecrating Shabbat in public.” Likewise, I have friends who (more recently) have had dirty diapers thrown at them for speaking on their cell phones while walking down the street on Shabbat.

When I first got to Israel for my year there as a rabbinical student, I was shopping for arba minim (the four species of the lulav and etrog for Sukkot), and the first couple of booths I looked in at the shuk arba minim (the Sukkot marketplace) refused to meet my eyes or answer direct questions. Later in the year, when my fellow American yeshiva students and I went to daven at Robinson’s Arch: when we emerged afterward, and several Charedim caught sight of us—a group of men and women, all holding tallit bags, nearly all wearing kippot, regardless of gender—they spat on the ground as we passed. I considered us fortunate that they didn’t spit directly at us, as that has happened to several of my friends (of both genders) who have gone to daven with Women of the Wall.

And every one of my non-Orthodox rabbi colleagues in Israel has spoken about how hard it is to get public funds for their synagogues and programs; how scornfully and condescendingly the representatives from the Chief Rabbinate speak to them. One friend of mine was even subjected to screaming verbal abuse from a Charedi rabbi he had encountered while trying to wrest some assistance or other from the Ministry of Religions: and this verbal abuse happened to him not in an office building during business hours, but on the street, on Shabbat, while walking with his children.

And as I have taught many students of high school and college age, and encouraged them to live in Israel for a while, to experience life as a Jew in the Jewish land, many have frankly and vehemently rejected the idea, pointing out that they would not be welcomed as non-Orthodox Jews, and asking me how I could make such a recommendation given that my own rabbinate is not accepted in Israel.

And all that is only a casual, passing encounter with the lack of Jewish pluralism in the Jewish State.

The control of religious life in Israel by Charedi institutions is massive and tight, and goes directly back to the unfortunate “status quo” agreement settled in the 1947 white letter from David Ben-Gurion to the leadership of Agudas Israel, in order to ensure Orthodox support for the Zionist lobby to the United Nations, then beginning its investigations and deliberations which resulted in the well-known UN plan to partition British Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state (which we accepted and the Arabs rejected).

It’s understandable that Ben-Gurion, as chairman of the Jewish Agency (and, no doubt, already envisioning himself as a future leader of the incipient Jewish State), wanted to present a united Jewish front to the UN, and ensure maximum political support for the establishment of the Jewish State. And, given that he and all his cohorts were secular or atheist socialists, it is understandable that he would have deemed religious institutions to be of negligible importance, or at least of minimal enough importance that it would be well worth bargaining them away.

It is understandable. But he was wrong.

A Jewish State needs to be a state for all the Jewish People. It needs to be a state where all Jews are welcome, and are supported in living their vision of Jewish lives. It needs to be a state that promotes Jews living together and coming together, and the only way to do that is to ensure that all Jews are playing with equal power on a level playing field.

I have no problem with the idea of Israel offering governmental support to Jewish institutions—funding religious schools, yeshivot (religious colleges or rabbinical schools), batei kenesiyot (synagogues), batei midrash (centers of public study and Torah learning), mikva’ot (ritual purification pools), batei din (rabbinical courts), and institutions of hashgachah (kashrut oversight), among other things. However, the same levels and ease of funding should be given to non-Orthodox institutions as to Orthodox institutions. As with the rest of the Jewish world, Jews will simply have to acquaint themselves with the operators and overseers of their local Jewish institutions, and make their own choices about whose programs, services, and ritual authority they feel inclined to accept for themselves.

This is of critical importance not only because non-Orthodox schools, yeshivot, and other institutions in Israel are consistently underfunded or unfunded, but also because non-Orthodox rabbis and batei din are consistently delegitimized and shut out of both public funding and governmental recognition.  Not only is non-Orthodox hashgachah in Israel virtually non-existent due to lack of funding and delegitimization, but even Modern Orthodox hashgachah suffers pressure from Charedi communities that do not simply refuse to accept non-Charedi hashgachah, but seek to drive it out of business altogether.

The only way to really make the Jewish State a state for all the Jews is for all the Jews to feel free and welcome there. That means that public Jewish spaces need to be inclusive not only of Charedi practices and customs, not only Modern Orthodox practices and customs, but of non-Orthodox practices and customs too.

The Chief Rabbinate, as an official arm of the Israeli government, has got to go. Oversight of public Jewish spaces has got to be removed from Charedi control, and instead handed over to a pluralistic board of overseers comprised of rabbis from all over the spectrum of Jewish movements. Hashgachah needs to be done by private groups, funded equally regardless of movement or community. And non-Orthodox rabbis need to be both funded by the government in their training and their authority respected in regard to officiating at lifecycle events acknowledged by the government as legitimate. And so on.

In the end, this will enrich and nurture and sustain the Jewish State. It will make Jews from all over the world feel more welcome, feel more invested in supporting the State of Israel, and probably promote and increase aliyah (Jewish immigration) from non-Orthodox communities.

And it will enrich and aid the chiloni and non-Orthodox communities in Israel. All too often, we hear that Israelis disdain aiding and encouraging non-Orthodox Judaism because they feel that the non-Orthodox movements are not “Israeli” enough. At the same time as they bitterly complain about Charedi dominance of marriage and divorce and other public ritual or religious institutions, they nonetheless effectively cede authenticity to Orthodoxy (as the saying goes, “The shul I don’t go to has to be Orthodox”). Even if the initial beneficiaries of dismantling Charedi control of Israeli society are Jewish movements founded outside the State of Israel, the very atmosphere of pluralism, the active flourishing of dynamic and vigorous non-Orthodox Judaism is likely to provoke chiloni Israelis to creativity and resourcefulness in devising progressive Jewish communities or movements of their own, according to their own needs and preferences.

But the way that things have been going—if they are not, in fact, beginning to change—is bad for the Jewish People, and bad for the future of the Jewish State.

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Rabbi Amitai Adler is a Conservative rabbi. He is a teacher and writer, and serves as the Rabbi of Temple B'nai Israel in Aurora, Illinois. Rabbi Adler lives in Deerfield, Illinois, with his wife, Rabbi Julie Pelc Adler and their son and daughter.

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