May 20, 2009

Rabbi Andy Sacks on "No Ayatollahs for Israel""

Wednesday May 20, 2009 "No Ayatollahs for Israel"

Rabbi Andrew Sacks

Many years ago, shortly after the first McDonald's restaurant opened in Jerusalem, I spoke with a group of Jewish youth visiting from the States. They lamented the fact that the restaurant was not Kosher. This led to a discussion where over half of the participants felt that Israeli law should require restaurants - at least in western Jerusalem - to be Kosher. No Big Macs with cheese. "This is a Jewish State and the laws should reflect Jewish values and traditions," one opined. 

"If this is how you feel," I asked, "do you feel the laws ought to prohibit women from wearing pants in public, require married women to cover their hair, outlaw couples from holding hands in public, and punish homosexuality?"
"I am not a fanatic," he responded.
"So where would you like to draw the line?" I asked. 

This is a real dilemma we face in Israel. Israel is a State for the Jewish people (of course it must also provide for the needs of all of its citizens) but what should be the color of Judaism in our State. Should it be the monochrome black of the Haredim (Ultra-Orthodox) or as multi-colored as the rainbow? Should it be frozen in the image of ages gone by, or reflect the dynamic development that has been central to Judaism since Wissenschaft scholars became the heirs to Jewish study and creativity? Shall Israel allow the official religious establishment, stuck as it is in its anachronistic backward thinking, to exclude Masorti, Reform, New-Age, and other movements that attract serious Jews? Will the modern-Orthodox Zionists be relegated to the dust heap of Jewish history as our Torah is hijacked by those hell-bent on creating a theocratic society? 
Iran is a theocracy with some signs - however ersatz - of democracy. Israel (L'Havdil, as we say in Hebrew) is a democracy with theocratic elements. Striking the balance in day to day life can be a challenge.
In the past few days we were witness to Supreme Court decisions that moved toward clarifying this dilemma.
Israel's Supreme Court unanimously ordered the government to stop discriminating against Reform and Conservative conversion institutes in favor of Orthodox ones with regard to funding. The government was not obligated to fund conversion classes, the court stated, but as long as they did so, Masorti and Reform conversion classes could not be denied.
Now I can already hear the vicious talkbacks that will follow this blog claiming the fallacious, and deceitful, nature of these non-Orthodox movements. But Israel is a democracy and it is the norm in democratic countries that the civil courts protect the rights of minorities. Funding must be color-blind. It must be allocated to groups who meet established criteria.  
In addition, Israelis are voting with their feet. Although they have no material advantage to gain by converting with the liberal Movements - many are choosing to do so. This is all the more so as the Orthodox establishment (which also excludes the modern Zionist Orthodox rabbis) keeps its doors all but locked to those who seriously seek to enter.
"The declared intention of these conversion institutions is to integrate the new immigrants who want it, into the ranks of the Jewish people, while learning and becoming familiar with the Jewish religion, its principles and customs, while taking an active part in the life of the Jewish community," Judge Beinisch wrote, quoting from the petition to the court. Beinisch opined, "the exclusion of the Reform and Conservative movements violated fundamental principles of the democratic system, that is, freedom of speech and pluralism."
The Supreme Court will soon decide about funding for Brit Milah (ritual circumcision) of non-Orthodox converts, the use of Mikvaot for conversion and brides (ritual immersion baths) by the non-Orthodox, and funding for non-Orthodox rabbis to serve as municipal employees.
The Masorti Movement opposes the continued financing of an official Chief Rabbinate, along with its thousands of State funded employees. But as long as the institution continues to exist we will insist on funding that is fair and equitable.
The court noted that the majority of Jews in Israel and in the world are not identified with the Orthodox Movement. It is high time our Rabbinate took note.
This decision came only days after the Supreme Court called upon the Rabbinic courts to show cause why they should be allowed to retroactively annul  the status, as Jews, of those who long ago entered the faith.
Yesterday I joined in a demonstration held opposite the home of Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman. The news has reported that he was planning to increase the powers of the rabbinical courts to let them rule on matters relating to money and children in divorce cases. This would be a tragic step toward the already ugly discrimination these rabbinic courts demonstrate toward women.
But, I am grateful that we indeed live in a country where the civil courts may keep the religious institutions from overstepping their authority and violating citizen rights. We may be witnessing the dawn of an era of religious pluralism where Masorti and other streams will be granted their rightful places. 
So, in the end Israel is not Iran. Women may choose to wear pants or a dress, to cover their hair, or not. 
Halacha [Jewish law] must be respected in Israel. The rights of those who live by Halacha must be protected. But the Judaism that I see emerging will be as colorful as the rainbow.

Rabbi Menachem Creditor

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