JERUSALEM — The two new chief rabbis, David Lau and Yitzhak Yosef, have promised that they will be the spiritual representatives of all Jewish Israelis. I can’t speak for my fellow Jewish Israelis, but I can unequivocally say to the two honorable rabbis: You don’t represent me. I have no chief rabbi.
Marked in recent years by shameless politicking, financial scandal and religious fundamentalism, the chief rabbinate has become a hilul Hashem, a desecration of God’s Name, and of the good name of Judaism and the State of Israel. Almost immediately after his election as Ashkenazi chief rabbi, Lau delivered his first hilul Hashem, a racial slur reported in the media.
The absurdity of xenophobic haredi rabbis representing the modern State of Israel ensures an ongoing clash of values and perceptions between the Israeli majority and its supposed spiritual leaders.
Polls confirm that, for growing numbers of Israelis, including many of us who are traditional Jews, the very institution of chief rabbi has become irrelevant. Worse: a chief rabbinate dominated by one stream of Judaism — and the most stringent version of that stream — is an affront to Zionism.
Zionism is the ideology of Jewish peoplehood, the move to reconstitute fragmented communities back into a people. The state created by Zionism must accommodate the varied religious streams and competing cultural values, which we have brought home from our various wanderings. For Israel to remain the spiritual focus of the Jewish people around the world, it needs to reflect Jewish diversity.
The ongoing denial of the right of liberal rabbis to officially preside over matters of personal status sends a devastating message of exclusion to the majority of Diaspora Jews. This exclusion has practical consequences. It is intensifying the growing alienation toward Israel among many Diaspora Jews. And that, in turn, poses a potential security threat to the Jewish state, undermining the motivation of American Jews to defend Israel.
One rationale for the creation of an Orthodox chief rabbinate was to preserve Jewish unity within the land of Israel. Granting one stream monopoly over matters of personal status, the argument went, ensured that Israeli Jews from across the spectrum would be able to continue marrying each other.
Perhaps the arrangement made a certain sense in the old Israel, where the overwhelming majority of citizens were halachically Jewish. But the logic of that arrangement has since collapsed. The Orthodox rabbinate has presided over one of this generation’s greatest spiritual failures: the inability to incorporate into the Jewish people hundreds of thousands of emigrants from the former Soviet Union who aren’t halachically Jewish. By insisting that only those willing to become strictly Orthodox would be eligible for conversion, the chief rabbinate has placed the most uncompromising interpretation of halacha over Jewish unity.
A handful of courageous Orthodox rabbis have challenged that approach, but they have been marginalized. The result is a threat to the intactness of the Jewish people. The children of rabbis, Lau and Yosef will probably not fall in love with a Russian Israeli of questionable Jewish status, but that is hardly true for the children of mainstream Israelis. In the current situation, then, the official rabbinate endangers the Jewish continuity of many Israeli families.
Some advocates of religious pluralism greeted the election of Lau and Yosef as a hidden blessing. Perhaps, they argued, that if the moderate candidate for Ashkenazi chief rabbi, David Stav, had been elected instead of Lau, his modest changes might have deflected growing resentment against the chief rabbinate and restored public support for an archaic institution.
That kind of cynical, Leninist-style argument — that the worse things get, the better for the revolution — is unworthy. The health of Israeli society depends on empowering the moderate elements within each camp. In the often painful process of learning to live together again as a sovereign people, we need, when possible, to spare ourselves traumatic ruptures. Moderates within the religious Zionist community are potential allies for those Israelis beginning to embrace Judaism on their own, non-Orthodox terms.
For the next 10 years — the term alloted a chief rabbi — we will live with the ongoing frustration and embarrassment of the most exclusionary sector of the Jewish people speaking in the name of Judaism and the State of Israel.
In the end, though, the future of religious pluralism will be determined outside the reach of establishment faith — on the spiritual periphery, where true religious change historically occurs.
The change is already happening. In recent years thousands of secular Israelis — more accurately described as post-secular — have begun creating new expressions of Judaism. Egalitarian prayer groups, drawing on Israeli poetry and song, as well as on traditional prayer, are emerging around the country. Perhaps the most successful of those efforts is Beit Tefilah Yisraeli (Israeli House of Prayer), which meets in the summer months at the Tel Aviv Port. Hundreds gather every Friday night to welcome the Shabbat with prayer and song. Significantly, the Tel Aviv municipality has endorsed — and funded — the outdoor synagogue. Municipality-sponsored banners hanging at the port urge passersby to join the services. Other municipalities are now funding liberal synagogues, too.
Change may even be imminent at the highest state level. The government appears committed to implementing the Sharansky Plan — devised by Jewish Agency head Natan Sharansky — which would create a space for egalitarian prayer along a stretch of the Western Wall near the archeology garden. That would mark the first time the State of Israel officially sponsors a liberal synagogue — and at the religious site most beloved by Jews today.
In fact, religious pluralism has long been part of the educational system, where schools sponsored by the Conservative and Reform movements are fully recognized and funded. That revolutionary change was quietly implemented by the late Orthodox education minister, Zevulun Hammer, leader of the old National Religious Party. Hammer understood that allowing a measure of religious pluralism was healthier for Israeli society than maintaining a secular-Orthodox divide that left little room for varieties of Jewish identity. Hammer’s visionary policy offers compelling proof that significant parts of the religious Zionist community are prepared, under certain conditions, to side with religious pluralists against fundamentalists.
As usual in the state of the Jews, paradoxical trends are happening simultaneously. Even as fundamentalism is entrenched in one part of Israel, pluralism is rising elsewhere. Rather than despair over fundamentalist victories, pluralists need to focus on deepening the spiritual vitality of the new forms of Israeli Judaism. And one day we may discover that the balance of religious authority has quietly shifted, and the revolution has already happened.
(Yossi Klein Halevi is a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute, a member of the Institute’s iEngage Project, and a contributing editor to The New Republic. The Shalom Hartmon Institute previously posted this column.)