Time for Israel to separate religion from politics

The office of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate is established in law. The need for such an office is altogether another question.

Only the state and four cities are obligated under law to have a chief rabbi. Since there is no agreement as to who should hold the position, we have two: one Ashkenazi and one Sephardi. The exception is Tel Aviv where the city council refused to allocate funds for two rabbis, so there is one.

Jerusalem has gone years without a chief rabbi because of lack of agreement as to whether at least one of them must be a Zionist.

All told there are thousands of employees “working” for the rabbinate and for the Ministry of Religious Services. Hundreds of millions of shekels are allocated to them each year.

A few weeks ago, for the first time, a decision was reached that will enable regional councils that wish to do so to employ non-Orthodox rabbis. This is a historic breakthrough in a country that in the past has employed only Orthodox rabbis. As many as 15 such positions for non-Orthodox rabbis may be filled.

While the matter is currently pending, the courts have yet to determine if the state is obligated to recognize and pay non-Orthodox municipal rabbis. It is difficult to find any legal basis for the state not doing so.

Is there a need for state rabbis? No. The zealously Orthodox communities have their own rabbinic authorities, and secular Jews, by and large, have a strong distaste for the official rabbinate.

Hiddush, an organization supporting religious pluralism, has pointed out that the majority of Israelis support freedom of choice in marriage: 62 percent of Israeli Jews support recognition of all forms of marriage, including Conservative, Reform and civil; 91 percent of the secular population supports this right. This stands in stark contrast to the existing situation in Israel where only Orthodox marriages can be legally performed for Jews, and civil marriage is not a legal option.

The official position of the Masorti movement — Israel’s Conservative stream — calls for the privatization of the rabbinate. We would like to see an end to a government-funded rabbinate, which has resulted in corrupt practices in the field of kashrut, religious exemptions from the military, racist policies toward non-Jews, and vile descriptions of the non-Orthodox movements.

The Masorti movement has never called for the separation of religion and state. Rather, it is the separation of religion and politics that we desire.

The public is with us. The average so-called secular Israeli is not anti-tradition. But many have a bitter taste in their mouths as a result of the official state religious establishment. When exposed to our Masorti experience, they like it and relate to it.

The stranglehold of the religious establishment is to blame in some measure for turning off parts of diaspora Jewry. It has created, in too many cases, a view that the rights of minorities need not be honored.

The voices of our chief rabbis have been virtually silent at the recent ugly show of racism in Israel. They have been silent as the lands of others are illegally appropriated. They have been silent as court rulings are ignored.

So, will the entry of a few Masorti and Reform rabbis into the system bring about change? Maybe it will. Those living in areas served by regional councils will now be able to call upon a rabbi who may be able to present Judaism in a light that draws a person close to tradition.

The door may now be opened a crack more for our rabbis to serve in cities and neighborhoods. Already we have had rabbis take the exam to serve as army rabbis (although they have not been accepted).

I would be happy to see religion and politics separated. I would give up these new rabbinic positions if a free marketplace of ideas were to exist. But that day is not yet upon us.

While the funding for the new positions to be filled will not be channeled through the Ministry of Religious Services, the bottom line is that it is government funding. The head of this ministry and prominent rabbis have threatened to quit if the funding is directed through the ministry. I say, “Gay Gezunt!” (Go in good health).

Rabbi Andrew Sacks directs the Religious Affairs Bureau of the Masorti movement in Israel and is also director of the Rabbinical Assembly in Israel.