Every once in a while something occurs to remind us that we are living in a Jewish country.
Currently there are two moderate flaps, and one minor curiosity. Never a major flap that I can recall. Religion is not that important for most Israeli Jews.
The qualifier is important. For some, religion is the center of life, and the reason for being here. It is also important to note that for many Israelis, not being religious does not detract from the importance of being Jews. Among the appeals of Israel is that it allows a Jew to enjoy a cultural identity without prolonged rituals.
The borders between religion and culture are imprecise. While only about 10 percent of the Jewish population defines itself as religious (i.e., Orthodox) and another 10 percent ultra-Orthodox (Haredi), research has found that a majority think of Friday evening as a special time for a family dinner, participate in a Passover Seder, and fast on Yom Kippur.
Currently the media is covering the halachic (religious law) ruling endorsed by a number of rabbis forbidding the sale or renting of property to non-Jews, and parliamentary struggles over conversions to Judaism associated with an IDF program for soldiers who wish to convert, and another proposal to give the State Rabbinate a monopoly of conversion. Each of these items is complex, arcane, and touches on organizational jealousies as well as controversial readings of religious law.
Each of these also qualifies as a tempest, but in a teapot. The prominent participants are rabbis, Knesset members of religious parties, secular politicians and media personalities who defend their own turf, or their sense of what is right against the rabbis.
Arab politicians speak up against the rabbis who would forbid sales or rentals of apartments to non-Jews.
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, the head of Israel Beiteinu (Israel Our Home) Party with a sizable number of constituents from the former Soviet Union not recognized as halachic Jews, campaigns to facilitate conversions against rabbis who are intensely suspicious of outsiders.
The small number of Reform and Conservative rabbis living in Israel, along with their overseas colleagues weigh in against anything that would add further language that smacks of discrimination against their kinds of Judaism.
There are also Orthodox rabbis against each of these initiatives. Some argue with their colleagues' reading of religious doctrine, or emphasize those portions of doctrine that forbid the incitement of divisions among Jews or between Jews and Gentiles.
One can view all of these proposals and counter proposals, and just about everything that appears to be religious restrictions, as having no tangible impact on anyone who does not choose to ascribe to them. That is, Israeli Jews who wish to live according to religious law and rabbinical interpretations may be constrained and inconvenienced in major ways by laws enacted at the behest of religious parties and the rulings of rabbis. Those who object to religious provisions can live as they wish.
The minor curiosity is a squabble involving a senior rabbi of a Breslev congregation, his son and grandson, over who should be ruling the congregation and controlling its assets. Leadership struggles erupt occasionally in ultra-Orthodox congregations, and provide commentators an opportunity to say what they think they know about a community as closed to outsiders as a distant tribe on a small tropic island.
Part of the distance between insiders and the rest of us results from aged rabbis who do not speak clearly, and whose allusions are to concepts foreign to those without considerable religious education. Whenever their comments are recorded and broadcast, it may be necessary to run a script of their Hebrew along the bottom of the screen, and to allow one of their aides to explain what the revered sage meant to say in language that is intelligible and inoffensive.
A Jew cannot marry a non-Jew in Israel. However, Cyprus is only 35 minutes away, and the State of Israel recognizes marriages performed elsewhere. A couple can live together without the formal endorsement of any religious or secular authorities. The State recognizes informal relationships, protects the rights of each partner and their children. The State recognizes divorces conducted elsewhere, and secular courts offer their services in the case of disputes over assets.
Some claim that a third or more of immigrants from the former Soviet Union are not halachic Jews, mostly on account of lacking a Jewish mother. Who cares? Some of the immigrants or their children do care, and pursue a conversion. In that case they enter the domain supervised by rabbis and religious politicians, and may be caught up in the competition between rabbis who will not recognize conversions that they consider inadequate.
For those non-halachic Jews who do not care to convert (perhaps the majority of those not recognized as halachic Jews), they can live as Israelis without being designated officially as Jews. Most people will not know or care about their status. Cyprus or and other foreign sites provide options for marriage or divorce. Religious Jews would have trouble accepting non-halachic Jews as family members, but religious Jews would have trouble accepting as son- or daughter-in-law any Jew with halachic criteria who is not religious in the same way as they are. Ultra-Orthodox families would also have trouble accepting an Orthodox Jew who is not a member of their ultra-Orthodox congregation. And most Israeli Jews who are not ultra-Orthodox would not look for marriage partners among the ultra-Orthodox.
The status of individuals converted to Judaism by Reform or Conservative rabbis outside of Israel is similar. They may suffer a feeling of being second class Jews in Israel, or not recognized as Jews at all. But their status is hardly different from secular Jews who seek acceptance by Orthodox or ultra-Orthodox families for whom religious lineage is important for any close association. Jews who become religious and join an ultra-Orthodox congregation, dress and pray according to the congregation's custom, are likely to feel themselves treated as different, and not worthy of close association or access to a marriage partner from within the inner circle.
Again, the constraints of religious law and custom are avoidable for those who are not religious.
One reads proclamations of banishment directed against individuals on the placards posted in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods. The punishment of banishment is severe, but only for those who wish to be part of the community that has expelled them.
Judaic doctrine is prominent in the lineage of Christian concerns with abortion and homosexuality, and a story of Noah stands somewhere among the reasons for Protestant opposition to alcohol. Here it is not difficult for an Israeli woman to arrange an abortion in a public hospital, the IDF's posture on homosexuals is "None of our business," and it is conventional to begin a festive meal by blessing the fruit of the vine.
If we wish to provoke a religious friend we may quote that passage where David says of his deceased friend Jonathan, "Your love for me was wonderful, more wonderful than that of women." (2 Samuel 1:25-27)
The response from a religious Jew is likely to be that David was not talking about romantic love, but the love of brothers.
Judaism is many things, with an inclination to argument being one of them. A Jew should not be surprised at challenges to any of the above. The advantage to a tribal community is that membership is not dependent on belief, or holding a particular posture. Antagonists can accuse one another of not being proper Jews, but any statement that a Jew is not a Jew lacks significance. And rest assured that I will not question the halachic status of any who choose to quarrel.
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem