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Toronto Notes: Israel’s Judaism- Circumvention, Not Revolution

by Shmuel Rosner

November 4, 2013 | 7:05 am


Ultra-Orthodox Jews attend a celebration for Tu Bishvat, the Jewish arbor day, at the Vizhnitz community main synagogue in Bnei Brak near Tel Aviv February 8, 2012. Credit: Reuters/Nir Elias

There are two essential ways to try to solve the many problems that Israel's dogmatic and stubborn rabbinate (and law) burden Israel with. One way is the radical revolutionary way: dismantle institutions, create new laws, let Israelis do as they please. You can let them, for example, get married outside the rabbinate by establishing civil marriage, as proposed by Avishalom Westreich and Pinhas Shifman in a detailed paper they authored for Metzilah (I assisted in the editing of this paper). "Our proposal", they wrote, "a civil legal framework for marriage and divorce for everyone – may appear to be a radical idea. However, in light of the continuous and widening erosion of the legally sanctioned religious monopoly, the changes our proposal brings are not so dramatic". It is reasonable to debate whether the change such legislation would bring about would be dramatic or not. But as the authors admit: most Israelis would consider it dramatic, at least at first glance.

A different approach to making marriage in Israel friendlier is the one proposed and advocated by the rabbis of Tzohar - an agenda that got its fair share of headlines during rabbi David Stav's failed candidacy for the position of chief rabbi. When Israel passed new legislation last week enabling Israelis to register for marriage with the rabbinate of their choice, it was not passing a "revolutionary" legislation - as some media outlets argued. As Haviv Rettig Gur explained: "The so-called Tzohar law, named for an organization of Orthodox rabbis that seeks to streamline and improve rabbinic services, will allow Israeli Jews to register their marriage outside the city or town in which they live, and choose their rabbi or marriage registrar". This is not revolution, it is circumvention. Since not all rabbis are welcoming and accommodating, we are giving Israelis a choice. Rabbis that can't properly communicate with their constituency, will see the constituency disappear to shop elsewhere. But the "elsewhere" will still be the rabbinate. The system will still be the same system.

When the new conversion bill passed the ministerial committee on legislation yesterday, the deal was similar. "The bill decentralizes the conversion process, which currently can only be conducted by a central Rabbinate court, to allow local Rabbinates - which may be more lenient than the national body - to establish their own conversion courts based on municipal Rabbinate policies". For those of you with longer memories, this bill would rightly remind the infamous Rotem bill from a couple of years ago. It is similar, only better. It follows the same concept, without attempting to change the status quo on the "who is a Jew" parameters.

When the Rotem bill was introduced, I wrote about the practical nature of the initial idea. MK Rotem wanted to solve a problem for some immigrants who find it difficult to go through the unfriendly process of rabbinical conversion. He wanted to enable friendlier rabbis to take upon themselves the task of converting those Israelis. Here's how I presented it: "In a schematic description, this is the model: If the Rotem bill intends to solve a problem that requires an urgent solution (the conversion of hundreds of thousands of Israeli residents); and if it is possible to suggest a practical solution that would help alleviate the problem (privatized conversion by community rabbis, for instance); and if it is possible to arrive at a skeletal version of a solution that does not touch upon the fundamental issues (in this, the Rotem bill, in its final and tabled version, ultimately failed); then the skeletal, limited solution must be chosen".

The new conversion bill - by MK Elazar Stern, a scarred warrior of conversion battles - does the same thing.

These latest attempts to make Israeli religious life more tolerable all fall under the same category: solutions which Israelis would describe as "Mapainic", after the Mapai Party, famous for its ideologically flexible pragmatism. A Mapainic solution would not seek to revolutionize a system, or to force new principles on a system - it always seeks to solve a problem by finding the compromise that will cause the least amount of friction. The Natan Sharansky solution to the Kotel wars might fall under a similar category: while a more "just" and more philosophically coherent solution to the Kotel problem would be a division of the current plaza into three (instead of two), a more pragmatic and less confrontational arrangement would strive to add the third plaza without having to take away from the current two.

As I was sitting on a panel about Israel's religiosity, my main goal was to communicate this sense of Israeli pragmatism to the attendees. When available, Israelis seem to prefer to opt for the practical remedy for their religious grievances. Thus, when young Israelis got sick and tired of an Orthodox rabbinical establishment, they started voting against it with their feet - choosing to get married elsewhere, or not at all. Thus, when there's a problem with rabbinate conversions, the proposed solution does not include the removal of radical rabbis who make conversions impossible, but rather to find a way around them.

Israelis, as I wrote two weeks ago in my article about Daylight Saving Time, win every battle that they choose to seriously wage against the rule of Haredi politicians and rabbis. But they only wage such battles when there's no easier way out, such as proving the rabbis irrelevant.

Is that an admirable approach? At times it is, at times it isn't. The pragmatic compromise is the enemy of real change. It is the enemy of reinvention. It is putting makeup on a problem instead of looking for ways of eliminating the root cause. Hence, the result of the new marriage and conversion legislation might be a perpetuation of the rabbinate, a body that should have been radically revolutionized or possibly even dismantled long ago. The friendly Orthodox rabbinate is the most dangerous enemy of all those who want to see more far reaching alterations in Israel's state-religion relations. Yet complaining about improvements such as the new conversion bill doesn't feel right. If the pressing problem of a dozen prospective converts was solved this week, that's an achievement that should not be overlooked or dismissed.

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