I have expended billions, perhaps hundreds of billions, of electrons attacking liberal strains of Judaism, particularly in the US but also in Israel, for what I perceive as a conflation of Judaism and Jewish ethics with liberal politics.
Today it’s time to turn my critical keyboard in the opposite direction, at the cult-like extremist Haredi factions and their institutional arm, the Israeli Chief Rabbinate (the Rabbinut).
Recently, an El Al plane with hundreds of passengers aboard was delayed for 75 minutes while four Haredim refused to sit in their assigned seats because this would place them next to women. One of them reportedly tried to keep his eyes closed during the boarding process, apparently so that he would not have to see any women.
There is also vandalism of likenesses of women in advertisements in public places, as well as rudeness and even assault of women (and young girls!) who find themselves in Haredi neighborhoods dressed in ways that the local residents find immodest.
These actions do not conform to normative Orthodox Judaism. Even many who would classify themselves as Haredim (often called “ultra-Orthodox”) do not sympathize with this misogyny. Yes, it is woman-hatred, no matter how it is explained.
It should be clearly understood that the perpetrators are not somehow “better Jews” than anyone else because of their extreme and arguably distorted interpretations of Jewish law. Indeed, they violate basic principles of derech eretz, which are essential to living an observant Jewish life.
This behavior does not have to be tolerated, and should not be. Not unlike the case of the Muslims on the Temple Mount, or Hamas at the border with Gaza, when illegal or otherwise unacceptable behavior is allowed to continue, a message is sent that we will allow even more of the same. It should be made clear that misogyny will not fly (so to speak) on Israel’s national airline, and prospective passengers may be required to sit next to women. If that’s a problem, they can fly on another airline. Or swim.
The quasi-governmental Rabbinut also has a strict Haredi viewpoint. Although it doesn’t usually take positions on issues like whom to sit next to on airplanes, it presents its own problems, probably more damaging to the State of Israel than the outrages of Haredi zealots.
By a process of political blackmail, the Rabbinut maintains a stranglehold on one of the most important institutions of communal life, marriage (and of course, divorce as well), as well as holding a monopoly on conversions to Judaism, kashrut supervision, and Jewish burial. The horror stories about the Rabbinut could fill more than one blog, and I’m not going to repeat them. Suffice to say that it acts in an arbitrary and sometimes cruel way, and takes a long time to do it. There have been numerous cases in which officials were found to have received bribes, including a recent high-profile one involving the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi.
Many of the 2 million Russian immigrants have been unable to marry in Israel because their status as Jews is questionable, since documentation was destroyed or never existed in the Soviet Union. They can’t be married in a Jewish ceremony without approval from the Rabbinut, and conversion to Judaism under its auspices is long, difficult, often demeaning, and sometimes revoked after the fact. And of course, some people are simply not religious and do not want a religious ceremony. Some 20,000 Israelis a year circumvent the law by getting married in another country (usually nearby Cyprus)!
The Rabbinut’s power is based on laws which have been passed because religious parties almost always are an essential part of coalition governments. This has been true for coalitions of the Left and Right since the founding of the state (I believe there has only been one coalition that did not include religious parties). As a result, there is no civil marriage in Israel, it is illegal for a restaurant to say that it is a kosher establishment unless it has a paid-up certificate from the Rabbinut, and there is no public transport in most of Israel on Shabbat. Every few years the “Who is a Jew?” controversy flares up, in which the Haredi parties want to make the criteria for application of the Law of Return stricter. Recently there has even been an attempt to bring rabbinical courts in the Diaspora under the control of the Israeli Rabbinut.
There is a simple solution to the problems created by the Rabbinut: abolish it. It serves no useful function and does significant damage. The state should offer civil marriage and divorce for those who want it, and individual rabbis could perform Jewish marriages (actually, in Jewish law, a rabbi is not even required for a marriage to be legal). Groups of rabbis and religious organizations could constitute rabbinical courts which could issue conversions and religious divorces, just as is done today in the Diaspora.
Kashrut supervision could be offered by any rabbi or organization that wanted to. The certificate granted would be required to be placed in a visible location and anyone who wanted to could inspect it and decide for himself whether that rabbi or agency was known and trustworthy.
The argument is made that without a central agency that has governmental authority, it would be impossible to maintain the integrity of the Jewish people. They point to the Reform Movement in the US, which allows patrilineal descent and which espouses the view that an individual can decide what parts, if any, of Jewish law he or she is obligated to follow. Look at what has happened there, it is argued, where the majority of Reform Jews are intermarried. Who can tell who is a Jew and who isn’t?
But Jews in the US make up less than 2% of the population, and most are ignorant of the Hebrew language, Jewish history, Jewish culture, and Judaism. An outsider coming into Jewish Israel (I am putting it this way because there are parallel societies in Israel of Jews and Arabs who mostly do not mix socially) will absorb these things even without formal study, and certainly his or her children will learn about them from their earliest days. In ancient times, new blood (like the biblical Tziporah or Ruth) came into the Jewish people on a regular basis, by assimilation since there was no such thing as religious “conversion.” Perhaps the ancient Jewish kingdoms are more analogous to today’s Israel than the Diaspora.
The present “system,” if you can call it that, is a failure by Orthodox principles. I lived on a kibbutz in the 1980s, and there were a number of non-Jewish women who came to the kibbutz as volunteers and ended up marrying a kibbutznik. They went through an Orthodox conversion, which required them to live for some months in a seminary, where they learned the principles of keeping a Jewish home, family purity, kashrut, Shabbat, modest dress – everything that a frum young woman should know. When they returned to the kibbutz they immediately assimilated to the kibbutz culture and did not practice any of what they had learned (OK, I don’t know about the family purity). Had they married Orthodox men, I presume they would have assimilated differently. One effect of the process, however, was to create in them a strong dislike for anything that smacked of traditional Judaism. I wonder how the young people forced to marry in Cyprus feel about Judaism, and about their state.
Israel is the state of the Jewish people, and I think most Israelis – even some who live a secular life – will agree that Judaism (and for Israelis, that means Orthodox Judaism) has a central place in Israeli culture.
But most will probably also say that we would be far better off without the Rabbinut.