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Jewish Journal

Common Sense and Common Ground

by Rabbi Avi Shafran

February 11, 1999 | 7:00 pm

If one didn't know better (and many, unfortunately, don't), one might have thought that the new millennium had dawned 11 months early, and had heralded an entirely unexpected second coming in Israel -- that of Jim Crow, with non-Orthodox Jews as his victims.

Knesset member Yossi Sarid (Meretz) raged over what he called an "anti-Semitic" act and inveighed against what he characterized as "discriminat[ion] against Jews for being Reform or Conservative." Reform leaders Rabbis Eric Yoffie and Ammiel Hirsch invoked the memory and words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

The president and executive director of MERCAZ USA, the Zionist organization of the Conservative movement, protested what they termed an attempt "to prevent our co-religionists in Israel from enjoying full religious and civil rights."

Taking the offensive (in both senses of the word), Rabbi Uri Regev, who heads the Reform movement's Israel Religious Action Center, was reported in the Israeli press as having warned certain Knesset members that they "would get theirs" and would be boycotted by Diaspora communities.

Rabbi Hirsch singled out former Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai -- a recently declared candidate for prime minister -- saying it would be "very hard" for Mordechai's fledgling centrist political party "to raise funds in the North American Jewish community."

What has inspired all the ire is the new law, recently passed by the Knesset, that is designed to restore an essential element of Israel's "religious status quo" -- the state's long-standing but uncodified modus vivendi with the country's observant population -- an element that had been undermined by recent court rulings.

Israeli municipalities appoint "religious councils," which are charged with maintaining synagogues, mikvot and the like. They help ensure that kosher restaurants are indeed kosher, and oversee things such as marriage bureaus and burial societies.

Since the founding of the Jewish state half a century ago, such councils have been composed exclusively of Orthodox Jews, who subscribe to the binding nature of the Jewish religious laws that govern the areas of the council's purview. Several months ago, however, Israel's Supreme Court -- as a result of a lawsuit filed by Reform representatives -- ruled that, in the absence of legislation which explicitly codifies the long-standing practice, non-Orthodox representatives had to be seated on religious councils. The Knesset has now responded to the court's ruling by enacting the necessary underlying legislation -- a law designed to ensure the councils' commitment to Jewish religious law, or halacha.

Despite all the intemperate reaction and despite how the law might be regarded by many American Jews at first glance, the legislation is, in truth, not only a model of reason but an important step toward ensuring true Jewish unity.

For first glances can be misleading. We Americans live in a proudly nonsectarian country; the idea of a government-sponsored "religious council" on our shores would turn up only in a work of imaginative horror fiction.

Israel, however, is a Jewish state; and while some may wish to limit the import of that term to "a refuge for Jews," most Israelis -- the majority of whom are religiously traditional if not fully observant -- believe that the Jewish religion, in the form it has taken for 3,000 years, must be an inherent part of the Jewish state's very essence.

Which is a large part of why the American-based non-Orthodox movements -- which have abandoned halacha, either unabashedly or subtly -- have made so few and so limited inroads among Israel's Jews, even though they have always been, and remain, free to seek adherents in Israel's free and open society.

One thing is certain: The furious response to the religious-councils law is more than a bit silly. After all, can it be characterized as anything short of bizarre to appoint men and women who do not subscribe to Jewish dietary laws to oversee supervision of establishments that claim to observe those laws? Or people for whom a mikvah is essentially a symbol rather than a sacred space to supervise the details of constructing one according to the complex rules of halacha?

Would a reasonable person ever consider a law granting only scientists the right to sit on a "science council" to be "anti-laymen"? Would it be in any way accurate to say that it "discriminates" against non-scientists?

Most important of all, and though some may choose to loudly contend the very opposite, the truth of the matter is that a multitude of standards -- what the Reform, Conservative and Israeli secularist movements are actively (and angrily) promoting -- is what really threatens Jewish unity.

As we have seen in the United States, when there are a menu of "Judaisms," each with its own independent attitude not only toward who is a Jew but toward what constitutes Judaism, only disunity and strife result. A single standard -- that of halacha -- has always been, and continues to be, the only effective guarantor of meaningful Jewish unity, whether community religious needs, marriage and divorce, or conversions are at issue.

As the only religious standard that can possibly be common ground for all Jews, regardless of their personal level of Jewish observance, that single and historically validated touchstone is the precious key to keeping our fractious people one. It should certainly be embraced and protected, and not angrily assailed, in the Jewish state.


Rabbi Avi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel America.

Read Gene Lichtenstein's response to Rabbi Avi Shafran's piece.

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