December 25, 2012
This isn't America

Twice in recent days I've run afoul of American parochialism. You've already read more than enough about my encounter with gun control enthusiasts. The second is with Reform and Conservative Jews, brought about by an article in the New York Times that bemoans the inability of Reform and Conservative women to pray as they want, where they want, alongside the Western Wall.

The article is far below the NYT's usual level of journalism, with virtually no probing of Orthodox and non-Orthodox Judaisms' standing in Israel, or the history that lies behind several detailed controversies.

The NYT article, and the notes I have received about it, treat this as an Israeli abomination dictated by the power of the Orthodox, and reinforced by a Supreme Court insensitive to the rights of non-Orthodox Jews.

Alas, the reality clashes with the parochialism of that article. That Israel is not the United States should be clear to one and all, but not to Americans who expect to be treated here as there. Not only this country, but all others have their own histories, politics, laws, definitions of rights, privileges, and obligations, and practices employed in the actual observance of what is written in official documents.

No doubt I'm sensitive to such things by being a student of government and society, and having worked and lived for extensive periods of time in different kinds of countries (Kenya and Australia as well as the US and Israel), with prolonged visits for professional purposes in a sizable number of others. Religiously motivated Reform and Conservative women who fly here from American and expect to be treated as at home need more than a few lessons in history, sociology, government, politics, and law.

American Judaism took root in an overwhelmingly Christian country. The mass of Jews who migrated from Eastern Europe from the late 19th century left the Orthodoxy they brought with them after a generation. They either assimilated completely or adopted the Reform Judaism brought earlier by German Jews or its Conservative or Reconstructionist spin-offs. American Jews have absorbed American religiosity, their styles of worship are those of orderly Christian congregations, and the norms learned in their schools are those of equality of sexes and freedom of religion with a minimum interference by the state.

In contrast, the early modern Jewish migration to Palestine included a large number of young people rebelling against religion as well as families. They established varieties of secular Zionism that laid the roots for what long has been the Israeli condition of a secular majority, along with Orthodox communities that never assimilated to Christian styles of worship or the political norms written into the US Constitution.. There were few non-Orthodox observant Jews among the immigrants to Palestine/Israel.

The political groupings given responsibility for Jewish governance in the pre-state period included Orthodox, ultra-Orthodox, and secular parties. There have been Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox parties in the Knesset since the establishment of the state. Individual Knesset members may have affiliated with non-Orthodox synagogues, but none overtly so to my knowledge, and there is never been a party in the Knesset representing non-Orthodox religious Jews. Among the 42 parties that talked about running in this election campaign, and the 34 that actually registered, there is no sign of a concern for non-Orthodox Judaism among what they have claimed as their intentions.

In contrast to what is written in the NYT article, Israel's Supreme Court is widely regarded as a bastion of democracy and civil rights. It has stood apart from the government and Knesset with expansive readings of existing laws, and is often charged--as was the Warren Court in the US--for improper judicial enactments in the direction of too much liberalism.

The Supreme Court's decision about non-Orthodox women who wish to read from the Torah and pray at the Western Wall with kipot, tallitot, and tfillim, is to forbid that on the grounds of avoiding civil unrest. There is a portion of the Wall, south of the main plaza, set aside for the women to do as they want. However, activist women view that as intolerable segregation, and a denial of their inherent freedom to observe their religion as they think proper.

What they come up against are long established Orthodox principles dealing with the segregation of the sexes and a Biblical norm that women should not dress as men (Deuteronomy 22:5). One can quarrel with the origins, the consistency over time, and interpretation of sacred text and religious practices, but the prevailing view among Orthodox rabbis--and that of the official body given responsibility for management of the Western Wall--is against the demands of non-Orthodox women. Indeed, Orthodox rabbis tend to view Reform and Conservative practices as something other than Judaism.

Israel does not shy away from the involvement of the state in matters of religion. Quite the opposite. The state identifies and registers individuals as members of religious communities, and assigns to religious functionaries a substantial share of the state's authority in matters of marriage, divorce, burial, conversion, kashrut, and education.

Non-Orthodox Judaisms have acquired partial recognition by Israeli authorities. Congregations get money from governmental and quasi-governmental sources, and have established synagogues as well as primary and secondary schools in numerous locales. The language of conversation in non-Orthodox congregations tends to be American English, but there are Israelis from a variety of backgrounds attracted to the synagogues and schools. Overall, however, non-Orthodox Judaism has not made much of a dent on the country's demography.

There remains official opposition to giving non-Orthodox rabbis authority to perform marriages in Israel, or to recognize conversions to Judaism performed outside of Orthodox institutions.

One can argue about the history of the Western Wall. The Palestinian and Muslim narrative is that it is not and never has been Jewish. However, it is the principal iconic site of the Orthodox Rabbinate, and there its rabbis dig in their heels against women dressing and praying in violation of what they view as rabbinical norms.

One can disagree with all of this, or look askance at the disputes as do many secular Israelis, but that is the way religion operates in this country.

Non-Orthodox Jews often express their disappointment at their lack of support by secular Israeli Jews, but they should not be surprised. The attitude of secular Israelis toward religion varies from occasional participation in the rituals through apathy, to mild or intense antipathy to religion, religious leaders and activists, and their demands on the society.

Few secular Israelis are inclined to support one religious community in the Jewish firmament against others. Secular political activists may be moved to oppose the Orthodox on settlements in the West Bank, and to oppose the privileges of the ultra-Orthodox concerned with avoiding military service, work, equal kinds of taxation, water bills and mortgages. Secular Israelis may ridicule or ignore the Haifa Rabbinate's threat to remove the Certificate of Kashrut from any hotel that hosts a New Year's party on December 31st, without thinking it's a topic worthy of a demonstration. Likewise, the topic of non-Orthodox women who dress like rabbis is a curiosity, and may provoke a smile of wonder, if it is noticed at all, but it is not much of an issue.

Non-Orrhodox peoteats are not without consequences. One can regret whatever friction they cause with American friends and relatives, and how they may add to the latter-day anti-Zionism of liberal American Jews. They also reflect the self-centeredness of Americans who think that their rights should transfer elsewhere without regard to the nature of other societies. As in my debate with American gun lovers, I have no doubt that the tendency among Reform and Conservative activists is to think that everyone else is wrong.

--

Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Tel: +972-2-532-2725

Cell: +972-54-683-5325
Fax +972-2-582-9144
irashark@gmail.com

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at December 25, 2012 04:21 AM