Only One Path to One Jewish People

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In Haaretz, Reform Rabbi Eric H, Yoffie, past president of the Union for Reform Judaism, conceded the main point of a recent piece I wrote for that paper – that there cannot be an American-style church-state divide in Israel.  He takes issue, though, with my claim, which he labels “outrageous,” that the haredi community seeks only to preserve the religious status quo ante established at the founding of the Jewish state.  Much has changed, he argues, demographically since then.

I did not, however, assert that demographics haven’t changed, a self-evident falsehood.   The status quo ante I cited is the legal/social agreement reached between David Ben-Gurion and the haredi community (Agudath Israel at its head) shortly before the state’s birth (along with other norms put in place shortly thereafter).

Yes, as Rabbi Yoffie points out, Ben-Gurion probably couldn’t know that the haredi community would grow to the point where it represents a sizable portion of the Israeli populace; and Israel’s first Prime Minister indeed likely hoped for a Hertzlian “Jewish culture rooted in atheism, socialism, and Biblical teachings.”  And yes, that didn’t happen.  (Whether Ben-Gurion’s spirit presently is perturbed or pleased by the current state of affairs is unknown.)  But the fact remains that all the clashes between “progressive” forces in Israel and the state’s haredi community have seen the former agitating for change, and the latter trying to maintain the balance struck at Israel’s birth.

Rabbi Yoffie is welcome to assert that changed demographics argue for a change in the status quo ante.  But he must admit that abandoning the modus vivendi of decades is what he, not the haredi community, wants to effect.

Intriguingly, Rabbi Yoffie himself explains that there has always been an assumption “that the nature of Israel’s Jewish character would evolve over time.”  Well, yes.  Israel’s populace and hence religious identity have become more haredi. What seems to bother the rabbi is that the particulars of the evolution have yielded a different result from the one he would have wished for.

Yet – and this was precisely my point – despite the great growth of the haredi community, it has not sought to in any way change the agreed-upon understandings that, for instance, full-time Torah-students be deferred from military service, that public prayers at the Western Wall be conducted according to long-standing Jewish tradition (a norm established, of course, in 1967, not 1948) and that a halacha-respecting official rabbinate determine issues of Jewish personal status.

Those things, according to Rabbi Yoffie, constitute a religious “coercive… religious monopoly.”  Unlike England, he explains, where “legal recognition” is assured not only for the Church of England but for “other religious faiths,” in Israel, Reform and Conservative conversions and marriages are not recognized by the state Rabbinate.

What Rabbi Yoffie overlooks is that, as Ben-Gurion himself said in 1947, a multitude of “Judaisms” in a state that aspires to be a Jewish one is a recipe for disaster.  Were there several standards for, say, conversion, then what would emerge in short order would be several “Jewish peoples” in the land.

Israel, too, of course, offers “legal recognition” to “other religious faiths.”  Presumably, though, the Reform movement isn’t interested in registering as a new religion.  If, however, there is to be only one Jewish people in Israel, there needs to be only one Jewish standard there.  And, to be meaningful, it must be the “highest common denominator” whose decisions can be (if begrudgingly to some) accepted by all Jews

Ben-Gurion realized that fact, and it is recognized today, too, not only by Israel’s haredi and national religious communities but by the large number of “traditional” Jewish Israelis, who, while not strictly observant, understand and accept that halacha defines Judaism.

“Follow the path of Herzl,” admonishes Rabbi Yoffie.  What alone can preserve the unity of the Jewish people in Israel, though, is the path of Moses.

© 2014 Rabbi Avi Shafran

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