When we got married, in Israel, 30 years ago, we knew the ceremony would need the sanction of an Orthodox rabbi to be recognized as legitimate by the state. We didn’t give it much thought. Most of my family is Orthodox. We’d have had an Orthodox wedding whatever the case.
Ahead of the ceremony, we had to register with the Jerusalem rabbinate, which required that we prove our halachic Jewishness. Also not a problem — although it was a little discomfiting for us, full of dizzy pre-wedding joy, to be asked by a sour-faced clerk at the entrance: “Marriage or divorce?”
It was more unsettling to realize that we would have to work backwards and lie if necessary to meet the rabbinate requirement that the ceremony take place at a time of the month when my beloved was potentially fertile. Not ideal, we mused, that we would be starting along the road to a hoped-for marriage of honesty and integrity with a potential untruth imposed upon us by Orthodox rabbis. And since weddings are planned months in advance, we realized rather sadly, that must be the norm for any couple where the spouse has anything other than a Swiss watch of a fertility cycle.
It turned out that the rabbinate monopoly on weddings further extended to requiring that my wife-to-be visit a mikveh, a thoroughly dispiriting experience from which I don’t think she has entirely recovered all these decades later.
That monopoly doesn’t only cover marriage, of course. You can’t get born or dead here, either, without the official imprimatur of what has become the state’s ultra-Orthodox rabbinate. Which meant that when my father-in-law passed away, and we wanted a beloved Reform rabbi to officiate at that ceremony, he had to get Orthodox assent. And the Orthodox authorities had to be defied so that my wife and her three sisters — rather than non-next-of-kin men — could say kaddish at the funeral.
By the time my daughter’s bat mitzva came around, we were long lost to the coercive fold. The shul we don’t go to often enough is a Jerusalem Reform synagogue. I’m not distracted by sitting next to my wife; quite the reverse. Unlike many Reform services abroad, we pray in Hebrew, so no alienation there. The notion that my girl would become a Jewish adult without reading from the Torah, without the religious welcome afforded to young males — a second-class Jewish adult, in short — was unthinkable. Up she strode to the bima, and she’s read from her parsha in one shul or another every year since then.
All of which is a long and highly personal way of saying: Enough.
The modern state of Israel has for decades commendably sought to reconcile the conflicting demands of being a first-world democracy with the imperative to show fealty to the religion that sustained the Jewish people in exile for thousands of years. Somehow, we’ve managed to find the balance — imperfect, but manifestly sustainable. Woolly compromises about military service for the ultra-Orthodox. Some kind of middle ground about what stays open and what doesn’t on the Shabbat, and in which cities the buses do and don’t run, and where the streets are and aren’t open. Live and let live prevailed. More or less.
Increasingly, however, we seem to be losing our way.
David Ben-Gurion’s agreement to exclude full-time Torah scholars from IDF service transformed from a minor dispensation to a norm. And we refuse to confront it. That aspect of the ultra-Orthodox/everybody else divide could be resolved in a heartbeat — truly — simply by ensuring a sufficient array of national service programs to enable all young Israelis to make a required contribution to the state in a framework that does not contradict their legitimate lifestyle choices. Don’t want to serve in mixed-gender army? Fair enough. So teach, or provide assistance to the elderly, or sweep the streets. Just do your bit.
This easiest of our internal rifts to heal goes resolutely unhealed because ultra-Orthodox politicians hold the balance of power in most of our governments, emphatically including the current coalition. And every narrowly defined “success” that is extracted, if not extorted, from that unique position of power prompts new ambitions, and new distortions.
Powerful ultra-Orthodox politicians hold many of Israel’s purse strings — and allocate vast funds to Torah scholarship and to schools that don’t teach a full curriculum, exacerbating the outrageous situation in which so many young Israelis in the ultra-Orthodox community don’t get a proper, rounded education, the men don’t serve in the army, they can’t or won’t enter the workforce, and many subsist in near poverty.
The dozen or so ultra-Orthodox politicians had the clout last year to leverage the freezing of a compromise deal on guaranteed pluralistic prayer at the Western Wall that the Israeli government and Diaspora Jewish leaders had spent four years painstakingly negotiating. That abrogation, by the government of Israel, has horrified the Jewish world and risks alienating millions of Jews, not only because of the issue itself, but also, in part, because of the shock of the betrayal. They had worked solemnly with Israel’s government, the Jewish state’s highest elected authority, and been casually tossed aside.
Under the protection of its political representatives, the rabbinate follows intransigent policies on conversions to Judaism, oversees a nationwide kashrut network riddled with corruption, and seeks to impose ever-greater halachic constraints on Shabbat observance. If they have their way in Jerusalem, for instance, the relative flourishing of weekend activities under Mayor Nir Barkat will depart the city when he does at year’s end.
On Sunday, thousands of Israelis went on strike in support of male same-sex couples, denied the right to have children through surrogacy in a discriminatory bill passed last week — denied that right by a prime minister who said he supported them but who ultimately chose to cave to his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners, just as he had caved to them over the Western Wall deal.
Three days earlier, the relentless ascent and abuse of ultra-Orthodox power was manifested in police officers waking up a Conservative rabbi at his Haifa home predawn and dragging him off in a police car to the local station to be questioned for the “crime” of officiating at weddings outside the rabbinate’s sanction. “I am not a criminal,” a horrified Rabbi Dov Haiyun said on his release. But actually, in Israel, under the rabbinate’s monopoly, he is — and he could go to jail for two years for his crime.
Ironically, Haiyun had other plans for Thursday — participating at an event at the President’s Residence teaching Torah to secular, Reform, Conservative and Orthodox scholars. With the intervention of the attorney general, he was freed in time to attend.
Ironically, too, Haiyun’s hauling in, the passage of the surrogacy law, and the passage of the new Jewish nation-state law — which runs the risk of giving parliamentary cover for discrimination against minorities — unfolded in the run-up to Sunday’s Tisha B’Av, the fast day on which we mourn a litany of tragedies that befell the Jews through history, including the destruction of the Second Temple 2,000 years ago, and that are traced to a single cause: internal hatred.
“It is hard for me to think of a less Jewish thing on the eve of the 9th of Av,” Haiyun said of his contretemps with the cops. Quite. Israeli police, on the orders of rabbis, hauling in a rabbi, a God-fearing Jew, for the crime of following his Jewish religious teachings and principles.
On Thursday, with apologies to Harry Kemelman, the rabbis overreached. And they did so because they’ve been allowed to keep on overreaching.
The thing about coercion is that it is not sustainable. Sooner or later, those who repress are overthrown. Israel knows this full well with respect to its enemies in the neighborhood. But what about within? What about that Jewish soul we sing about in Hatikvah, yearning “to be a free nation in our land.”
Free, that is, within as well as without. For now, to quote the respected rabbi/ criminal suspect Rabbi Dov Haiyun, “the only country that discriminates between Jews in the entire Western world is Israel.” And it’s getting worse.
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