Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Pluralism in Israel: Media Reactions

For the first time, Israel will begin funding rabbis from the Reform and Conservative movements, which have long been shut out in a country dominated by Orthodox Judaism.

This major turning point has received significant coverage in the press, including the mainstream media, which increasingly is turning its attention to this issue.  Here are some recent examples from mainstream and Jewish outlets:

Christian Science Monitor: Israel moves to improve religious freedom - for Jews

Alienating Americans?

At stake is not just competition for the hearts and minds of the Jewish faithful in Israel, but also efforts to shore up US-Israeli ties. The unequal treatment of Jewish denominations could help erode Israel’s relationship with US by spurring alienation among American Jews, many of whom identify with Reform and Conservative denominations, say experts and Jewish groups.
"This is causing strain within the Diaspora," says Yossi Klein Halevi, a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. "The danger is that American Jewry is our most important source of support, and the lack of full religious pluralism could become a security threat to Israel if it undermines our relationship with American Jewish community."

A.P: Non-Orthodox Jews Start Making Inroads in Israel

Following a landmark Supreme Court ruling, Israel's attorney general recently announced that a limited group of 15 non-Orthodox rabbis will begin to receive government funding like some 2,000 of their Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox counterparts.

The Reform and Conservative movements in Israel are celebrating the decision as a watershed. While the two movements dominate American Jewish life, they are largely sidelined in Israel, where they are derided by the Orthodox religious establishment as second-class Jews who ordain women and gays and are overly inclusive toward converts and interfaith marriages. The generous government support for the Orthodox rabbis over the years has added to the marginalization.

The debate boils down to the core of religious life in Israel, and the tenuous relationship between state and religion. It also touches on the essence of the Zionist vision of creating a state that can be both Jewish and democratic.

Forward: Separate Synagogue and State Funding (Leonard Fein) 

Victory? Here is what the Reform and Conservative movements have achieved, pending approval by Israel’s Supreme Court: Fifteen of their rabbis may serve rural and farming communities in Israel. These will be funded by the State (as are 4,000 Orthodox rabbis) — but not, mind you, by the Minister of Religious Services, who threatened to resign were he required to pay the requisite salaries, but by the Minister of Culture and Sport. There was a big flap about whether these newly subsidized rabbis would be called “rabbis” or would be designated as “community leaders,” resolved by calling them “rabbis of non-Orthodox communities.” But calling them rabbis doesn’t give them rabbinic authority. They are explicitly denied any authority over religious and halachic matters, such as, inter much alia, marriage and divorce.

In one view, this is nonetheless an auspicious, even historic, decision. But if you take the time to think about what may follow this “first step,” what the second and twenty-second step might be, another assessment seems more than merely plausible: The Reform and Conservative rabbinate in Israel will end up complicit in the web of corruption that now infects the Orthodox rabbinate. The moment that government becomes the fiscal sponsor of religion, such an outcome is inevitable. Questions of accountability and transparency, questions of authority and probity are all set aside as political arrangements are hammered out.

This would likely be so whether the Knesset were composed of university professors or a random selection from the Voter Registry. In fact, it is composed of a motley crew, motlier perhaps than any in Israel’s parliamentary history. Take, for one example, Yulia Shamalov-Berkovich, an MK of the Kadima party. Ranting the other day about human rights organizations that support African immigrants in Israel, she called them phonies and said she “would jail them all for incitement of Jews against Jews. “This,” she went on, “is solution number one: to jail all human rights [activists].” Or, back to the matter of recognizing a few “non-Orthodox rabbis,” take Moshe Gafni, MK from the United Torah Judaism party and the powerful chair of the Knesset Finance Committee: “Suddenly there’s money for reform and conservative clowns that see Judaism as a joke.” To such as he, the State has until now entrusted the definition and management of Judaism. Now, the State has dented the exclusivity Orthodoxy has enjoyed. Time will tell whether the dent is meaningful.

But time will not address the underlying question. What business is all this of the State? How can Israel begin to navigate the disentanglement of synagogue and state? How, bluntly, can Israel move towards American-style separation of synagogue and state?

Times of Israel: A Landmark Baby Step to Religious Pluralism 

What the landmark Supreme Court decision means is not yet 100 percent clear. On the face of it, Gold, as the rabbi of her community, will finally be remunerated from the section of the government coffers that are earmarked for religious leaders. In this win, one could say that de facto, the state is acknowledging Liberal Judaism as a legitimate stream of worship that should be supported by tax-paying citizens.
Gold, however, will not be paid “like the other rabbis.” Her salary will come (after she overcomes other innumerable bureaucratic hurdles) from the Culture Ministry, not from the same religious council budgets that pay her Orthodox brethren. Neither is she called “rabbi,” nor the Hebrew feminine equivalent, “rabba,” in the decision; she is called a “community leader.”
As Rabbi Chaim Druckman, this year’s winner of the Israel Prize for Lifetime Achievement and a leading voice of Religious Zionism, said this week to The Jewish Week, “I have nothing against the state giving pay to people who do something for other people. But you don’t speak here about rabbis — they are not rabbis and the state realizes they are not rabbis because they will get their salary through the Culture Office and not the Minister of Religious Services.”
Rabbi? Rabba? HaRav? Rabina? 'I've never been one for labels; just call me Miri.' (photo credit: Amanda Borschel-Dan)
Rabbi? Rabba? HaRav? Rabina? 'I've never been one for labels; just call me Miri.' (photo credit: Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)
Regardless of the semantics — “I’ve never been one for labels; call me Miri,” she smiled — there was doubtless a celebratory air in the household Gold shares with her husband David Leichman this week. For the couple, longtime members of Kibbutz Gezer who arrived with their respective garinim in the mid-seventies and met in the kibbutz kitchen, this decision is cause for a cautious optimism that “Israel is taking steps toward being worthy of being called a democracy.”
“We are not at this point pushing for separation of Church and State,” added Gold. “We are asking for parity.”

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