Sunday, March 29, 2015

Keeping the State Jewish

What does it mean to be a Jewish State? To answer that question, we must first define what it means to be a Jew. For Orthodox Jews (leaving aside biological and conversion issues) it means following Halacha – the Code of Jewish Law as derived from the Torah. For me that defines Judaism. The culture that has evolved over the millennia is secondary to that and is not definitive of  Judaism. Culture can change with time. But the Torah is immutable.  So how do we apply this to the modern State of Israel where the majority of Jews are not Orthodox?

The Jewish state was founded by non Orthodox Jews. They did not, generally speaking, follow Halacha and in some instances - fought it. But the non observant David Ben Gurion, one of the founding pioneers of the Jewish State felt otherwise. He understood that in order to maintain the Jewish character of the state, there had to be some religion injected into it. So an agreement was reached between Ben Gurion and the Charedi Leaders of the Yishuv HaYashon (the older religious settlements in Israel that predated Zionism) which came to be called the status quo agreement. (In exchange the Charedi leadership agreed to approve the UN partition plan.)

That gave rights to both religious and secular Jews. Among other  things it was decided that:  the laws of Kashruth would be observed in all government agencies – such as the armed services; that Shabbos would be the official day of rest; and that matters of personal status (marriage, divorce; conversions, etc.) would be under the sole jurisdiction of the Chief Rabbinate. And that the rabbinate was to be exclusively Orthodox.

Most Israelis understand that being a Jew means that Halachic observance is at least a major component of that -if not the only one. Most Israelis are traditional and do things like fast on Yom Kippur and observe the Jewish holidays in traditional ways. It has been said that for those who are not observant, the Shul to which  do not go – is the Orthodox one. Conservative and Reform was not even on their radar. That is beginning to change.

The Reform and Conservative movements have begun to agitate for acceptance. They call it pluralism. I understand their desire to be legitimized in the Jewish State. But if one is Orthodox one cannot accept that their versions of Judaism are legitimate. That goes without saying about Reform which rejects the binding nature of the Torah.

The Conservative movement does recognize the binding nature of Halacha, but has so distorted what that means - it is hard to see the difference between a Conservative Jew and a Reform Jew. The vast majority of Conservative Jews are not observant of even those Halachos that the Conservative movement has ‘conserved’. And their leadership does little to nothing to change that.

The failure of these approaches was demonstrated in the much discussed Pew Report that has shown a serious decline in numbers as 70% of non Orthodox American Jews marry out. Not to mention the fact that as their numbers dwindle their synagogues are closing down or merging with others just to stay alive. All while Orthodoxy is growing.

I do not revel in their demise and see their failure as a blow to the future of secular Jews maintaining their Judaism. A lot of now Orthodox Jews come from families that were Conservative or Reform. They were recruited from those movements - sometimes even with their encouragement and help - by Kiruv organizations like NCSY. But the dismal facts speak for themselves.

Both of these movements have scrambled to find ways to stop the hemorrhaging. One of those ways has been to insert themselves into Israeli life and to try and get recognized. Thus far they have not succeeded. But that is not for a lack of trying. For one thing they want to abolish the Chief Rabbinate which does not recognize their marriages, divorces, or conversions.

Much as I have had some issues with the Rabbinate of late, eliminating them is something I strongly oppose. If Halacha is what defines Judaism, then we must do whatever we can to not allow the status qou to be undermined by movements that advocate  pluralism. Which could easily be followed by legitimization from the State.

Not that I like shoving religion down people’s throats. That is not the way to win friends and influence people. But at the same time, eliminating Halacha entirely or accepting the Conservative version of it - and even legitimizing the non Halachic Reform  movement - is the wrong way to go.

Which finally brings me to the point of this post.  In what has to be a first, the Charedi world is now advocating joining the World Zionist Congress (WZC). By joining them one can ‘Vote Torah’. Voting Torah means voting for the Religious Zionist slate of candidates.  In  two separate articles – one by Jonathan Rosenblum - Mishpacha Magazine all but endorsed the the idea of the Charedi world doing that.

Unfortunately their leadership has not. They are opposed in principle to any form of Zionism and claim that Religious Zionism as an attempt bastardize Judaism by merging it with the devil. If only they would listen to the words Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi, David Lau - the man they supported for that position: Tofasta Merubah Lo Tofasta. If you try to grab it all, you grab nothing.

How will voting for the Religious Zionist slate help things? It’s all about what kind of influence will emanate from a very powerful group of Diaspora Jews that are proven supporters of the Jewish state. Both the Reform and Conservative movement are pouring tons of resources – financial and otherwise to change Israel’s religious character by exchanging Halacha for pluralism.That includes urging their own members to vote for their non Halachic list of candidates. 

Bottom line is that whoever gets the most votes – gets the most say on how the considerable funds amassed by the WJC are allocated. Voting for the religious Zionist slate would help protect the status quo. The more votes that slate gets, the more of its delegate’s will represent the WJC

As someone who advocates Achdus among observant Jews (and laments the fact that it has been replaced by increased divisiveness) I see this is a good sign. It’s nice to see the Charedi world at least tacitly supporting the Religious Zionist list. A list that includes Rav Hershel Shachter and Rav Gedalia Dov Schwartz.   

A word about the poll tax. That is what I call the fee that the WZC charges to vote. It goes against my grain to require people to pay a fee for the privilege of voting. You will have to pay $10 to cast your vote. The claim is that charging people for a version of membership to the organization keeps the voters honest. I’m not sure I buy that.  In my view they should not be charging a dime for this type of membership. It is regressive and probably even counterproductive. It is off-putting to some voters who might otherwise vote but will instead just skip it. I am opposed to it in principle. But I am not in charge.

The bottom line for me is we must do everything we can to preserve the Jewish character of the state as intended by the status quo agreement. And counter all attempts to undermine it. So if you can afford the $10 – Vote Torah. It will be money well spent. Just follow the link.