Culture, Israel, Politics, Religion

Nothing in the streets looks any different to me

As Israel prepares to celebrate 60 years of ambiguity in this department, it’s been a big week for issues of religion and state. And here’s the latest news:

Israel’s Reform Jews dedicated the first non-Orthodox synagogue to receive state funding on Monday, after a long court battle that accented the rift among streams of Judaism in Israel.
The Reform Yozma congregation fought for the better part of a decade for state funding equivalent to what Orthodox congregations receive. After arguing their case twice before the Supreme Court, they got what they wanted: a prefabricated, two-room building on a plot of land in the center of Modiin, a new town between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
“This is a substantial step in recognizing different streams of Judaism in the state of Israel,” said Rabbi Kinneret Shiryon, who leads the 240-family congregation. The government has long funded Orthodox synagogues, even paying rabbi’s salaries.

The Reform movement is trumpeting this as a huge victory. And I can see why it would feel good to finally get a piece of the pie. But I’m not feeling so great about it. I want to see a thriving liberal Jewish culture in Israel, but I fear that this development, insofar as it sets a precedent, is dangerous for liberal Judaism in the long run. (And if it doesn’t set a precedent, then it’s an insignificant anomaly.)

Yes, there are some potential positive results, even for those of us who want to see separation of church and state in Israel. The Supreme Court ruling could set a legal precedent that leads to other rulings weakening the Orthodox monopoly over government functions (e.g. government recognition of non-Orthodox Jewish marriages, or even better, establishment of civil marriage), and could sow seeds of chaos among the Orthodox factions (e.g. if they can’t countenance being part of an apparatus that funds Reform Jewish institutions, and decide to take their ball and go home) leading also to the weakening of state-sponsored religion. But these outcomes seem indirect and unlikely.
Suppose this ruling isn’t a freak occurrence, but rather leads to further funding of liberal Jewish institutions. Then a more likely outcome is, at best, that the Reform movement will find itself in the role of propping up a corrupt system. Yes, the Reform movement might continue to pay lip service to separation of church and state, but deep down, it’s going to have a vested interest in the continued existence of the institution that gives it its funding, so the Reform movement will wake up one morning and find itself allied with the forces of antidisestablishmentarianism.
At worst, the Reform movement itself will become part of the corruption. As liberal Jews, we can read every day in the newspaper about the unethical activities of the Orthodox establishment, and pat ourselves on the back for being untainted by these transgressions. But the real reason that liberal Judaism has steered clear of this rampant corruption isn’t because liberal Jews are congenitally predisposed to be better human beings, but simply because we haven’t been in power. The purpose of laws and governments is to protect us from the darker side of our human nature, and likewise, one purpose of separation of church and state is to protect us from the perversion of religion that inevitably occurs when religious authority is entangled with political authority.
Our tradition is full of warnings about the dangers of mixing religion and state. In the ancient Israelite monarchy, the king was NOT the religious authority; the prophets (who transmitted the words of God) were independent from the king, and were free to criticize the king openly when he went off the right path. One reason the rabbis of the Talmud couldn’t stand the Hasmoneans was because they combined the priesthood with the monarchy, leading to corruption in both religion and government. And it is the prophets and rabbis who are our models today, not the kings.
And now in our time, the Israeli rabbanut has become a latter-day Hasmonean dynasty. If the Reform movement wants to maintain its moral authority, it has to steer clear of this system. A great and knowledgeable prophet (in another tradition) once warned that “all knowledge seeming innocent and pure becomes a deadly weapon in the hands of avarice and greed”. The motive of promoting liberal Judaism in Israel may seem innocent and pure today, but if it becomes entangled with the political authority that has thus far been under Orthodox monopoly, it will become just another deadly weapon.
Taking the high road and avoiding getting mixed up in the mess of established religion seems to me not only to be more moral, but also more convenient. Despite this groundbreaking ruling, the Reform movement’s quest to get government funding for more synagogues is going to be an uphill battle. Instead of starting this fight for funding, wouldn’t it have been a lot easier to just declare victory and go home, and score points with the public by saying “We don’t want any of your dirty money”?
It is no coincidence that liberal Judaism has prospered the most in the United States, where separation of church and state is enshrined in the Constitution. And it is no coincidence that the US is one of the most religious countries in the world, while European countries with established churches have populations that are apathetic to religion, and most Israelis are more interested in New-Age spirituality than in Judaism. Religion is most successful as a moral voice when it is decoupled from coercive governmental authority and patronage machines, and the liberal movements in Israel should be leading the fight to make that a reality, rather than simply trying to be admitted to the club.
As Israel celebrates 60 years, we can dream about what Israel can and should be. I want to see an Israel where Jewish culture is the majority culture (Jewish holidays are national holidays, Hebrew is spoken, etc.) and Jewish values are actualized (society doesn’t stand by while its members are living in poverty), but religion is not legislated or funded by the state, and people are equally free to pursue any religion (or no religion) and any religious stream without government interference.

11 thoughts on “Nothing in the streets looks any different to me

  1. You have no idea how happy it makes me that you used the word “antidisestablishmentarianism” in this post.

  2. You are entirely correct. It always strikes me as pathetic when Liberal Jews complain about the lack of government funding for their institutions. Liberal Jews do quite well in the West without any government subsidies. Modern Orthodoxy is the greatest victim of the Israeli religious bureaucracy. With the shemittah fight and now the conversion fight, many in the Religious Zionist and Modern Orthodox communities in Israel are beginning to see this. Tzohar, originally a sort of support for the rabbanut, is turning into the greatest opposition to the rabbanut. It will be interesting to see what will finally be the final straw…

  3. A comment on the Haaretz website:

    #5 you are in LA. you`re not serving in the army (even if you ever did), you don`t suffer terror attacks, you don`t live with Arabs, you don`t suffer from socialized medicine, you don`t have the right to any say in how we live our lives here. When you want to come and put your life on the line and go out to a restaraunt the day after a bomber hits the place next door.
    the arrogance of (wannabe) Jews in the States is simply amazing. Go celebrate at your reformed temple and enjoy the pork dinner afterwards.
    Oh – i`m completely secular.

  4. (and just to clarify, the comment was posted in the interest of humor, I agree with nothing in it, especially the part about socialized medicine and the Arabs.)

  5. This somewhat defeats my suspicion that Rabbi Yoffie was pitching Reform to Israelis less in terms of specifically Reform ritual, but more in terms of a general Ethical Monotheism.
    Never the less, congrats. I predicted on my own blog that a haredi leader will one day blame a future tragedy on the state’s support of this synagogue, and that an attempt(s) at vandalism might follow. I hope I am wrong.
    I personally wouldn’t worry so much about corruption, as long as Rabbi Yoffie is truly holding the reigns of power. He’s for real.

  6. Rabbi Yoffie is president of the URJ, which operates in North America. The Israeli Reform movement is a separate organization.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

The reCAPTCHA verification period has expired. Please reload the page.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.