Posts Tagged 'The Chief Rabbinate'

The Absurdity and Malignancy of a Jewish Theocracy

“Israel will not be a halakhic state,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised Monday, and for a change he was right. Israel will not be governed by Jewish religious law, and in fact no government has ever been ruled in accordance with halakha. In the time of King David, not only was there no halakha as yet, but the Book of Deuteronomy had yet to be written.

By the time halakha came about, with the completion of the Mishna in the second century, there was no longer an independent kingdom of Israel. And in the intervening period, the Hasmonean Kingdom absorbed Hellenistic concepts (Aristobulus and Hyrcanus are not Hebrew names), and persecuted and executed Jewish sages.

So when he speaks about Israel “returning to operate as it did in King David’s time,” MK Bezalel Smotrich is denying history. No wonder: Historical ignorance is a prerequisite for any fundamentalist vision.

As with other examples of theocratic ambition, such as the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Islamic State organization and the “Hindu nation” promoted by religious nationalists in India, the attempt to imagine a modern government based on religious law always necessitates the invention of a fictitious past and significant self-persuasion.

With just a few tweaks and minor adjustments, the story goes, we could then copy and paste ideas and institutions from the distant past into our world. This never works, and not just because such efforts are based on mythology to begin with. It doesn’t work because it completely ignores the radical changes that have taken place in the human condition.

Not that there haven’t been rabbis who have tried to sketch a vision of a modern halakhic state. In the 20th century, Rabbi Shaul Yisraeli addressed this. Rabbi Naftali Bar-Ilan devoted four volumes to “Regime and State in Israel According to the Torah.” Rabbi Eliezer Yehuda Waldenberg wrote “Hilkhot Medina,” on halakhic issues in the modern state. Justice Menachem Elon wrote extensively on “Hebrew law” and, leaping forward, just last year Rabbi Ido Rechnitz published a book called “Medina KeHalakha: A Jewish Approach to the Challenges of Independence.” Still, no one has ever been able to come up with a framework that anyone but a handful of fanatics would consider realistic.

That’s not a coincidence. The problem with halakha as it is today is not that its laws are bizarre or anachronistic. Yes, the punishment for theft is a fine amounting to twice the value of the stolen item, a ludicrous penalty that would permit people of means to steal to their hearts’ delight. Yes, halakha prohibits women from testifying or serving as judges — an insult to the intelligence of any rational human being. Such details can presumably be modified and updated.

The real problem is the fundamental understanding of humanity in halakha. According to halakha, human beings must obey divine law and cannot legitimately choose to do otherwise.

Simply put, halakha minimizes the significance of individual autonomy. The compulsion to observe the commandments is part of halakha, and it is also no coincidence that halakha permits both slavery and pedophilia. When there is no unequivocal recognition of the individual as an autonomous subject, then enslavement becomes acceptable, and when choice and consent are not a necessary condition for sexual relations, it’s no wonder that it is permissible to have sex with someone who cannot choose (and, on the other hand, consensual sex between people of the same sex is prohibited).

For its time, the Hebrew law was an advanced, enlightened system, and Jewish tradition brought into the world many principles that ultimately contributed greatly to modern humanism and liberalism. Yet today there is a fundamental tension between halakha and modern conceptions of humanity and liberty.

As a personal and communal commitment, a halakhic lifestyle can be deep and meaningful, but one cannot talk about a state operating in accordance with halakha without also talking about religious coercion. In fact, Waldenberg was an avowed supporter of theocracy, and Rechnitz’s book also clearly demonstrates that there can be no freedom of religion in a halakhic state.

Actually, one needn’t go so as far as picturing some future halakhic dystopia in order to understand that Smotrich’s proposal is not a good bet. It’s enough to look at what’s already happening in the Israeli systems that are in the hands of the Orthodox establishment.

The laws of marriage and divorce, over which the Chief Rabbinate holds a legal monopoly, have become a mechanism for coercion and injustice. Nonreligious couples are compelled to marry not in keeping with their beliefs, women are discriminated against under the marriage canopy as well as in the divorce laws and the rabbinical courts abuse many who come before them. Even without the blatant corruption and nepotism that is so rampant in the rabbinate, it would still be despised by the public – simply because the modern conscience rebels against coercion and discrimination.

Smotrich, whose “decision plan,” published two years ago, called for the Palestinians to either agree to live as subjects or to choose between emigration and death, has proved before that democratic principles are of no interest to him. It’s no surprise to find him leading the theocratic charge. Hardalim, or ultra-Orthodox Zionists, account for just 2 percent of Israel’s Jewish population, but intoxicated with the political power given to them by Netanyahu, they mistakenly believe the time has also come for their fundamentalist ideas. Placing them in the centers of decision-making will clearly lead to religious coercion and a shrinking of civil liberty.

“There is also room for democracy in Torah law,” Smotrich hastened to reassure everyone, following the uproar over his comments touting the imminent return of the Kingdom of the House of David. But this is not correct. There is room for Torah law in democracy, but not the reverse. The relationship is always one-way, because one conception is fundamentally tolerant and insists on individual rights and freedom of religion, while the other does not. Should Smotrich and company obtain the kind of power they desire, we will all be made quite aware of this.

CapturePublished in Haaretz

Advertisements

How real is your pain, Rabbi David Stav?

Last Friday, Haaretz Magazine published a  short interview with Rabbi David Stav, entitled “The salesman of Judaism,” by Ayelett Shani. That interview was one of several which Stav has given recently − all as part of a public campaign aimed at helping him get elected as Israel’s next Ashkenazi chief rabbi. Perhaps this is an appropriate way for a person who has a good chance of becoming the next chief rabbi to introduce himself to his flock: the men and women over whose marital lives ‏(and, no less important, divorces‏) he will soon preside.

The interviews have been quite informative about the rabbi’s religious character. To try to get a handle on him, I would like to talk about three key words that he uses in particular.

Halakha: On two occasions in the interview, Stav asserts his unequivocal loyalty to traditional Jewish law. He said, “In regard to halakha, I do not intend to compromise in any way,” in connection with his opposition to civil marriage. In reply to a question about the price he would be prepared to pay to draw secular people closer to the Rabbinate, he stated, “I will not deviate from the halakha as it was accepted by our forefathers − neither to the right nor to the left.”

Surely it would be difficult to come out with a clearer formulation than this.

However, the problem does not lie in the formulation. The problem is that halakha is completely unconnected to the issue of civil marriage. After all, no one is asking the rabbi to exceed the boundaries of halakha as he understands it. No one is asking him to annul religious marriages for whoever wants them. What is being asked about is allowing registration of civil marriage for those who do not want a religious ceremony. All that is being asked of him is not to force those boundaries on all of Israel’s Jewish citizens.

Does the Orthodox halakha prohibit the registration of a spousal relationship through the state’s civil authorities, or even through a private contract rather than via the Chief Rabbinate? Of course not. Halakha does not even recognize the institution of the Chief Rabbinate, because the ancient arbiters could not conceive of a bureaucratic mechanism of rabbis being foisted upon the public under the aegis of the bureaucratic power of a modern state. Indeed, there are Orthodox rabbis who absolutely believe that civil marriage should be allowed. None of them, of course, thinks he is in violation of halakha.

In our time, halakha is often used as a code word whose meaning for secular people is “I cannot,” whereas its real interpretation, for the religious speaker of the word, is “I don’t want to.” There is no halakhic obstacle to civil marriage. The obstacle lies solely in the worldview of Stav, which, let it be said to his credit, he declares openly.

In another interview ‏(to this writer‏), Stav explained that he is fearful of a scenario in which over a million “people who require proof of their Judaism” ‏(in his words‏) will not be obliged to pass through the gates of the Rabbinate and prove their Judaism in order to marry. That whole huge mass of people will wander freely through the country with their ethnic status unclear, at least as far as Stav is concerned. That is a legitimate issue in itself, but it has no direct connection to halakha.

Pain: Twice in the interview, Stav admits that he is pained. When Ayelett Shani asks him about the habit of some secular brides to lie about the date of their menstrual cycle, so that the Rabbinate clerks will not force them to change their wedding date ‏(so as to prevent a wedding from taking place during niddah, when the bride has her period, which to secular women makes no difference and is permitted halakhically‏), Stav replies that he is “deeply pained by this.” When Shani asks him about the fact that homosexuals cannot marry in Israel, he replies that he “will be hurting together with [them].”

Sensitivity is a fine quality, and sensitivity to the pain of others is noble. Just as he will feel the pain of the lies told by secular brides and the pain of the homosexuals who cannot marry, Stav will also feel the pain of the thousands of agunot ‏(women who have been abandoned by their husbands or whose husbands will not grant them a divorce‏), who are unable to remarry or have children. He will also feel the pain of tens of thousands of secular and religiously observant couples who want a wedding ceremony that is more egalitarian. He will have to reject all of these people, though he will definitely share their pain and hurt.

I don’t think there is any reason to be worried about Rabbi Stav. His pain is not overly deep. It is a pain that floats lightly over a great deal of personal satisfaction and gratification. This stems from the fact that Stav, from his point of view, has defended halakha and the unity of the nation. He has affirmed his piety, even if at the expense of others. He did not deviate from what God charged him to do, neither to the right nor to the left. His ticket to paradise wasn’t even wrinkled.

Of course, if the Rabbinate did not force Israel’s Jewish citizens to marry through it, the pain of the secular brides and the pain of homosexuals would be prevented, and possibly also the pain of the agunot and the pain of those who want a different marriage ceremony. But that would be contrary to Stav’s outlook. He is not ready for that. What is he ready for? He is ready to be sympathetic.

Love: “Just as I cannot fight against the Lord, who allowed someone to be killed in an accident, I also cannot help in the halakhic sense. The only thing I can do is to love,” Stav says. He apparently sees halakha as a fateful decree − like an accident. Some would say that, as a rabbi, his task is actually to find ways to ease people’s halakhic distress.However, Stav appears to belong to a school of thought which holds that halakha is a kind of unavoidable situation that people get into, an automatic mechanism that “hurts” and grieves us, for which we need consolation after experiencing it, along the lines of: “Doctor, what’s the problem?” “Sorry, but you have halakha.” Still, Stav is ready to love those who have this problem. It hurts him as much as it hurts them.

Halakha can be an ethical and religious structure in the framework of which the individual enters into a covenant with God and worships him. But I believe it becomes a problem the moment it is forced on the individual. It also loses all religious value in that case. This is exactly the difference between accepting the burden of the precepts and religious coercion. Love in this case will not override the moral wrong and the religious vacuity it reflects.

Beyond this, we need to ask whether a situation in which the Jewish religion or the Jewish people can survive only if the halakha forces itself on Israel’s Jewish citizens is a reasonable state of affairs, or is theologically or ethically proper.

If the Rabbinate were not an institution which is forced on all of Israel’s Jewish citizens, there would be no need to offer consolation to anyone. Who knows? Maybe if the Rabbinate does not receive so much power from civil law, halakhic problems will be more quickly resolved. For in that case, the rabbis, like rabbis in Jewish communities throughout the generations that preceded Israel’s establishment, will have to adapt themselves to the demands of the public. But in the meantime, as a powerful monopoly, the Rabbinate has no interest in making things more difficult for itself. Its interest lies in making things difficult for the public.

nil

This piece was originally published in Hebrew at the current affairs, culture and society online magazine http://www.compress.co.il, edited by Aviad Kleinberg. It was later published in Haaretz, 28.2.13.


Tomer Persico

“The blog of one of the conference participants, Tomer Persico, has made him one of the most consistently interesting observers of Israeli religious life.”

Yehudah Mirsky, "Aquarius in Zion", Jewish Ideas Daily, 17.5.12

Interested in booking Tomer for a talk or program? Be in touch with the Jewish Speakers Bureau

Join 2,841 other followers

Advertisements