In June, my son sent round a Facebook post with the quotes from Israel’s chief rabbis debating who thought it was more of a catastrophe that non-Orthodox rabbis were now being paid a state salary – just like all Orthodox rabbis. His posting asked, “Who hates Reform Judaism more?” My posting asked, “Is this a contest I can win?”
Let’s start with the whole idea of a Chief Rabbinate. It’s funded by the government – which means from the taxes of an already-overtaxed population – but the vast majority of Israelis are not Orthodox and utterly ignore that same Chief Rabbinate, except when they have to get married (often running to Cyprus to do so) or buried (and they’re now finding loopholes even to that). The institution is so flawed, so patriarchal, so biased, so unbearably pre-modern that it’s barely salvageable.
Corrupt politicians “buy” votes by getting local rabbis to support them. Religious factions fight each other other publicly, closing down schools, after-school clubs and organizations that don’t please them. Religious councils grant seats to favourites, give grants to favourites, and ignore the others. Local mashgichim are appointed to hotels and restaurants without these establishments having any say as to whom they get. And of course thousands of Israelis – both secular and haredi – completely ignore everything these rabbis say.
And let’s not ignore the fact that the new state salaries for these Reform and Conservative rabbis is going to come not from the budget of the Chief Rabbinate but from the Ministry of Sports and Culture. (Thank goodness I am not paid by the Canadian ministry. I don’t play hockey and I’m a pretty poor curler. I’m terrible at art and I don’t play a instrument, either. Yikes. Well maybe I’m cultural enough to get a paycheque.) And these salaries go only to rural rabbis (don’t you dare dream of being paid to serve in Jerusalem, for example.)
But we accept small victories, because we know the road is long and hard, and we know how much we worked just for this “bone” from a religious ministry that often spews venom and places all manner of obstacles when it comes to their fellow, non-Orthodox Jews.
Now I know people will accuse me of Orthodox-bashing. Let’s get real: just who is bashing whom? Rabbi Shlomo Amar, the Sephardi chief rabbi, called Reform and Conservative Jews “destroyers and saboteurs of Judaism,” noting that the non-Orthodox movements “are poisoning the well of holiness and taking people to a nethermost pit.” Most remarkable was his assertion that paying non-Orthodox rabbis from government money was more serious than the Palestinan threat.
Gil Kariv, director of the Israeli Movement for Progressive Judaism, wrote in response: “We will continue to build communities and to establish centres of education, convert immigrants from the former Soviet Union and to work toward social justice and tolerance.”
In an opinion piece published in Ha’aretz, Kariv writes, “The attorney general’s decision will not end discrimination in marriages and divorces; it will not provide relief from the outrageous lack of justice in the ultra-Orthodox community’s evasion of military service. Nor will it ease the distress of the new immigrants who lack a religious classification. It does not provide an answer to religious radicalization, racism or the exclusion of women, which are part of some rabbis’ daily routine.
“These issues and others are still waiting for the people to come to their senses and say that enough is enough. But this underscores the importance of the decision – the future of democracy depends on the diversity of the faces of Judaism in Israel and on the establishment of a moderate, humane and tolerant Jewish voice.”
The chief rabbis and their friends in high places can cry foul all they like. They can, and likely will, try to thwart this measure in any way available to them. But time marches on, and the modern State of Israel is getting more and more impatient with medieval theocracies. The only way that the Jewish state can stay Jewish and also democratic, egalitarian, diverse and modern is to disable the whole structure and purpose of the Chief Rabbinate and let all Jews in the Jewish state freely choose the form and manner in which they will practise Judaism, as their Jewish brothers and sisters all over the Diaspora can do.
This column appears in the August 30 print issue of The CJN