Monday, March 05, 2018

An Orthodox Response to Pluralism in Israel

Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi David Lau, addressing Am Echad (Agudah)
Pluralism. What better goal for a democratic society than to allow everyone a say in how it should conduct itself. That may work for a society whose only goal is to be a democracy. But it cannot work for a society that also defines itself as Jewish. That is in fact what Israel is. A Jewish Democracy. That means that while Israel is run on democratic principles, it is first and foremost a Jewish State.

Obviously the very adjective ‘Jewish’ limits the the word ‘democracy’. A Jewish State cannot be entirely democratic and remain Jewish at the same time. But it can be Jewish and apply democratic principles whenever it does not negatively impact its Jewish character.  Of course the devil – as always - is in the details. Who gets to decide what defines Judaism?

Even though many of Israel’s pioneers were not observant, (and in some cases might have been anti religious) - since its very beginnings the religious aspect of the Jewish State was left to its rabbis. Religious Zionist rabbis were thus given exclusive control as Israel’s official rabbinate.. 

How was that fair to secular Jews? Ironically it was the Charedi faction that agreed to a compromise allowing secular Jews to be secular.

Led by the Chazon Ish Charedim entered into a deal that maintained the existing balance between secular and religious Jews at that point in time. Neither group could expand their rights at the expense of the other. It was called the status quo agreement. .

Leaving religious differences between Charedim and Religious Zionists aside, Israel’s religious orientation was - and is still Orthodox. That is how Rabbi Shlomo Riskin a Religious Zionist and one of the more liberal Orthodox rabbis in Israel has stated it must be. On this issue it appears that Charedim and Religious Zionists are on the same page.

This 70 year old relationship has recently been challenged by heterodox rabbis. Reform and Conservative leaders are now demanding a piece of the pie. They have been trying to impress upon the Israeli leadership the importance of diaspora Jewry - claiming that 90% of those diaspora Jews are not Orthodox. And it is they who contribute the lion’s share of dollars to Israel’s economy. With the implied threat that if they do not get the recognition they desire, that support will dry up. 

It took them 70 years to make these threats - but here we are. Why haven’t they done this until now? Why are they now protesting unlike any other time in Israel’s history? Some of it even turning violent as was the case at the Kotel not long ago?

I think the answer to that is obvious. I’ve mentioned it many times. This once powerful and large group of Jews in America is diminishing in number so fast that in the ‘blink of a historical eye’ they may disappear altogether.  They are currently trying to figure out how to reverse that trend. One of those ways seems to be focusing their energy on Israel’s secular and traditional (but not fully observant) majority. They want in! So they can sell their version of Judaism to the masses. (And thereby survive!)

The masses have not, however, indicated any desire to do that. For the most part the don’t care. Even as they have issues with the way the rabbinate operates, they do not see pluralism as a solution – despite heterodox leaders best efforts to convince them otherwise.

What about the claim that Israel will lose out financially without their continued support? Perhaps they will. But not in anyway that is permanent. If their numbers keeps shrinking as quickly as they currently are, that support will eventually dry up anyway.

Who will then pick up the slack? Can the much smaller percentage of Orthodox Jews of the diaspora do that? Those who say no way, might want to take a look at the Agudah Website. They describe a recent 2 day mission to Israel by their Am Echad arm. 

Long story short, they show in a variety of ways an Orthodox diaspora that pours as much as a billion dollars annually into Israel’s economy. You read that correctly. That’s billion – with a ‘B’. And that’s only the financial side. 

Perhaps more significant is the human side. Orthodox Jews are the ones mostly making Aliyah – immigrating to Israel. By far.  It is mostly children of Orthodox Jews that are sent to Israel for a year (or  more) of Torah study. It is mostly Orthodox Jews  that visit Israel. And pour money into the economy as tourists. It is Orthodox Jews that are buying luxury homes in luxury residential developments. So that even if in the short term heterodox dollars are greater than Orthodox dollars that will at best be temporary. If one measures support by actually being there - it is Orthodox Jews that are doing it. 

I therefore applaud the Agudah for this initiative. They have done a great job in service to the goal of keeping the State Orthodox. 

Which brings me to a couple of minor quibbles. I think the name Am Echad is a misnomer. They should have been called Charedim Echad.  I wish they had broadened their contingent. I wish they had included rabbis from the RCA, the OU, Young Israel, and Mizrachi (Religious Zionists of America). Are they not all on he same page with respect to pluralism? That might have made the name Am Echad more legitimate. (At least in terms of Orthodoxy.) 

Also, they did not give enough credit to American Religious Zionists. While they included them in their pitch to Israeli government officials, they made it sound like the heavy lifting is being done by the Charedi world. 

It may be true that it is the Charedi world in Israel is growing by leaps and bounds – some of which can be attributed to Charedi Aliyah from America. However those that are committed to both Orthodoxy AND the state are the religious Zionists – as their very name implies. Their numbers surely represent a greater proportion of Aliyah from their demographic than does the proportion making Aliyah from the Chareid world. 

It is also the Religious Zionist Jews that participate most in their national obligations. They are the ones that willingly do army or national service. That should have been as much of Am Echad’s  presentation as the financial one. I can’t say for sure, but I would hazard a guess that there are far more religious Zionist immigrants from America doing army service than there are Charedi and secular Zionist immigrants from America doing army service combined. Probably by orders of magnitude.

Where does this leave heterodoxy in the state of Israel?  I don't believe they deserve to have a seat at the table - even if I  thought the were a legitimate form of Judaism. (Which I don't.) Their secular diaspora members simply aren't there. Or at least not enough of them to form a critical mass.  If I were them, I would at least try to get more of their people to make Aliyah. They might then be able to claim that they should have an equal say in religious matters. If I were a betting man, however, I would say that no matter how much they try there are only 2 chances of that happening: slim and none.