Since Israel’s founding, the Orthodox movement has had a monopoly on the official practice of Judaism in the state. Gershom Gorenberg’s superb book The Unmaking of Israel goes into the way this came about and the problems with it in great detail, but the short summary is that the Orthodox chief rabbinate controls marriage, divorce, and conversion, giving it absolute power over who is considered a Jew and of the largest personal milestones in the Jewish life cycle. The monopoly that Orthodox Judaism has is so absolute that Israel does not even recognize Conservative and Reform rabbis as being rabbis, and instead categorizes them as community leaders. This would not matter in practice except for the fact that the state pays the salaries of Orthodox rabbis to provide religious services to municipalities and communities, and does not do so for non-Orthodox leaders as they are not recognized as having rabbinical authority.
In May, the Israeli government announced that it was going to correct this imbalance and begin recognizing Conservative and Reform rabbis and pay their salaries as well. The financing is slated to come from the Culture and Sports Ministry rather than the Religious Services Ministry, and the Conservative and Reform leaders are to be called “rabbis of non-Orthodox communities” so as to effectively put an asterisk by their names, but this is undoubtedly an important progressive step nonetheless, especially given the fact that the majority of Israelis are not Orthodox and this in no way infringes upon Orthodox Judaism’s own practices and strictures that it sets up for itself.
Sadly predictably, however, there has been a huge backlash from Orthodox rabbis against the government’s plan. This week, Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar sent a letter to hundreds of Orthodox rabbis in which he called for them to fight the government’s plan and reimpose the absolute religious monopoly that he and his compatriots have enjoyed. He also made his pernicious views on non-Orthodox rabbis crystal clear, expressing his “sorrow and terrible pain” over the recognition of “uprooters and destroyers of Judaism who have already wrought horrible destruction upon the People of Israel in the Diaspora.” Rabbi Amar and the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger have called a strategy meeting for Tuesday and declared rabbinical attendance to be mandatory, and no doubt both of them will have some more unpleasant words for those with whom they disagree. Israel now faces the specter of one arm of the state – the Chief Rabbinate, which is an official state office – actively working to subvert the government and the High Court, and having its chief rabbis openly call for the attorney-general to consult with them before issuing legal directives. This is, of course, completely outrageous, particularly since the decision to recognize Conservative and Reform rabbis does not affect the Orthodox in any meaningful way other than diluting their political power and hold over the 70% of Israeli Jews who are not Orthodox, and the Chief Rabbinate is marshaling all of its resources in an effort to maintain rank state discrimination in an area in which the state should not be choosing sides. All of this is a sad consequence of the religious monopoly that Orthodoxy was granted at the state’s founding, since over decades this monopoly over religious ceremony has been internalized in a way that has led many Orthodox rabbis in Israel to believe that no other branch of Judaism is even legitimate.
One of my closest friends and college roommate, Ephraim Pelcovits, is the rabbi of the East 55th Street Conservative Synagogue in New York. Ephraim is an astoundingly deep thinker on all issues under the sun but particularly on the role of religion in Israel and Jewish communal issues more broadly. Over too many hours-long conversations throughout the past 15 years to even count, he has been a major influence on my thinking on Israel, Israeli politics, and Judaism. Since this appears to be guest posting week on O&Z, and since he is uniquely qualified to speak on this topic having grown up in the Orthodox community in the U.S. and spent a year of his rabbinical training in Israel, I present to you Ephraim’s thoughts on Rabbi Amar:
This Saturday, Jews all over the world will read the Bible portion dealing with the rebellion against Moses’ leadership, led by a party so uninterested in dialogue or reconciliation that it was designated as “evil” by God for its constancy in conflict, and was later held up by the Jewish tradition as the paradigm of senseless infighting.
Earlier this week – just as world Jewry was about to get its annual reminder about the dangers of senseless conflict – Rabbi Shlomo Amar, the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel, decided to designate me – and all my colleagues in the liberal rabbinate– with that same moniker in a letter he distributed on his official government stationary. We – Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist Rabbis – were disparaged as “…enemies of God, wicked people who are like the turbulent sea that cannot be quieted, their entire aim being to do harm to the sanctity and purity of the Torah in our Holy Land…”
The cause of this vituperative rant? A decision by the Attorney General of Israel’s Office to begin paying the salaries of non-Orthodox rabbis who serve in Regional Councils or in Agricultural Settlements, just as it has always done for their Orthodox counterparts.
Obviously it is inappropriate for a State employee – like Rabbi Amar – to use the trappings of his office to lobby for a personal initiative – in this case the overturning of a new State Law which begins to allow for religious pluralism in Israel. Yet what really terrified me as a religious leader was reading the fierce and dehumanizing tone of his letter, including the highly incendiary language Amar uses to describe the non-Orthodox movements and their leadership.
For the rabbis of the classical period, God’s designation of the rebels against Moses as evil opens a broader discussion of other villains marked with the same moniker, a list which includes those who seeks to do physical harm to their peers as well as those who borrow money and refuse to repay their loans.
It seems to me that Rabbi Amar misses the entire point of the classical rabbinic teaching on this week’s Torah portion. What I believe the ancient rabbis were teaching by connecting the ills of physical violence and shirking loans with the theme of provoking conflict is that all three will lead to the crumbling of society.
Let me explain that connection. In a culture like that of Traditional Judaism, which forbids interest paying loans between community members, the presence of even one shirking borrower threatens the ability of all those in need from receiving money from their more fortunate brethren. The resulting freezing of credit parallels the power of the violent and of the provocateur to rip apart a tight knit community. All of these actions – which tear tenuous human connections apart – are designated as evil.
This Saturday, in my synagogue, we’ll take a stand for community and join together with our brethren the world over to hear the traditional narrative read from them Bible. When we finish hearing the story of a rabble rouser from Biblical history, I will tell my congregants about a contemporary thug – Rabbi Shlomo Amar – who is using his government office and it’s powers to tear our people apart, and to label us – members of a Conservative Synagogue – as “uprooters of the faith.” I will then encourage those in attendance to take a stand against incendiary speech, and to make connections and open dialogue with people – Jews and non-Jews – who live religious lives that look different than ours. Israeli society and democracy is too precious – and too precariously held together – for Rabbi Amar’s fear driven brand of Judaism to hold a monopoly on Israeli religious expression!
First, I would note that the Orthodox have always thought of Conservative and Reform Judaism as being illegitimate, so this is by no means a new or quasi-new development due to their monopoly in the Jewish state, which seemed to be what you’re implying (I apologize if I misread). Orthodox rabbis in the United States and throughout the Diaspora think the same thing; they’re just savvy enough (and not important enough to the native media) to go picking fights with inflammatory rhetoric.
Second, although 70% of Israelis Jews may not be “Orthodox,” I don’t think this means they are Conservative or Reform. I’m sure this is partly due to their kind-of unrecognized and unsupported status in Israel, but my understanding is that the Conservative and Reform communities in Israel number no more than in the tens of thousands. Right now, I think most non-Orthodox Jews think of themselves as “traditional” and when they think of rabbis and Judaism, think of Orthodox rabbis and Orthodox Judaism. In an Israel where Conservative and Reform rabbis were their official equals, it’s not hard to understand why the Orthodox rabbinate would find this a threat to Orthodoxy in Israel.
You are right to note that the 70% or non-Orthodox Jews are unaffiliated rather than Conservative or Reform, but also right to note that this is largely due to the Orthodoxy’s marginalization of the Conservative and Reform movements in Israel to the point that they are nearly extinct. Many chiloni Jews in Israel think of themselves as traditional, but they have also never been presented with an alternative. The growing number of Israelis going to Cyprus to get married in order to escape the tyranny of the Orthodox Rabbinate demonstrates that there is plenty of a constituency for something else. So yes, if people have an actual choice and decide to abandon Orthodox rabbis, it is a threat, but it is not a threat to Orthodoxy; it is a threat to the power of the Orthodox rabbinate. Nobody is alleging that those who choose to be Orthodox are going to flee the movement. I fail to see why the Chief Rabbinate maintaining an involuntary stranglehold on the majority of Israelis who are not in any visible way Orthodox is a cause worthy of such panic and over the top rhetoric, and I also don’t see how the cessation of this is a threat to Orthodoxy in Israel. The 30% who are Orthodox will remain Orthodox, and the Orthodox rabbis can tend to the spiritual needs of those who actually want their help rather than imposing their own standards for marriage and divorce on people who reject their teachings in nearly every other facet of life.
I think they have two (non-political) fears. (The political fear is obvious.) One, the threat to Orthodoxy in Israel. I think this stems from basically two things. First is their general and historic fear of Conservative and Reform Judaism that they feel destroyed traditional Jewish observance among Ashkenazim in Europe and North America just by being present. To that extent, they feel that strengthening Reform Judaism anywhere, weakens Orthodoxy everywhere, and especially in Israel, where so far they have managed to keep them down. Second is the particular threat a strengthened Israeli Reform Judaism would pose to their current monopoly on Jewish-ness in Israel. As it stands now, they represent the rabbinic ideal. If a chiloni wants some religion in his life, it’s pretty much Orthodoxy he must turn to. If a traditional Jew wishes to consult a rabbi, he must turn to his Orthodox rabbi. When politicians “consult” rabbis, they talk to Orthodox rabbis. When a talk show needs someone to represent the religious perspective, they have on an Orthodox rabbi. In this way, even if these Jews are not Orthodox, a connection to Orthodoxy is maintained. I think one manifestation of this is the way that Sephardim and Mizrachim, who historically did not describe themselves as Orthodox or not, pretty much have adopted much of the institutions and strappings of the Asheknazi Orthodox system, which came to dominate in Israel. In this way, many Sephardi rabbis went through Asheknazi yeshivot, and even though Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef has mitigated this somewhat with his Sephardic system, the Ashkenazi Orthodox influence remains.
The second threat they fear is the Who is a Jew thing, which they see as a big problem. If they don’t control conversions or marriages or divorces, they have no idea who is Jewish, which subjectively speaking, is a huge deal for them.
Did you know there’s a large literature on how religious monopolies affect religious markets? It’s rational-choice based and a find a lot of it rather boring, but it was pretty dominant for a while in the sociology of religion, though it seems to not be attracting tons of young acolytes these days. Check out people like Rodney Stark, William Sims Bainbridge, and Laurence Iannaccone, There’s even a wikipedia page about it: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theory_of_religious_economy
I honestly thought you were going to compare the religious monopolies in Israel and Turkey (where Alevis and tarikats don’t receive money from the Diyanet), which is a really interesting comparison that I’d never thought of.