Common Sense and Common Ground
Rabbi Avi Shafran
Director of Public Affairs
Agudath Israel of America
If one didn't know better (and many, unfortunately, don't), one might have thought that
the new millennium had dawned 11 months early, and had heralded an entirely unexpected
second coming in Israel, that of Jim Crow, with non-Orthodox Jews as his victims.
Knesset member Yossi Sarid (Meretz) raged over what he called an
"anti-Semitic" act, and inveighed against what he characterized as
"discriminat[ion] against Jews for being Reform or Conservative." Reform leaders
Rabbis Eric Yoffie and Ammiel Hirsch invoked the memory and words of Martin Luther King.
The president and executive director of MERCAZ USA, the Zionist Organization of the
Conservative Movement, protested what they termed an attempt "to prevent our
co-religionists in Israel from enjoying full religious and civil rights."
Taking the offensive (in both senses of the word), Rabbi Uri Regev, who heads the
Reform movement's Israel Religious Action Center, was reported in the Israeli press as
having warned certain Knesset members that they "would get theirs" and would be
boycotted by Diaspora communities.
Rabbi Hirsch singled out former Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai -- a recently
declared candidate for Prime Minister -- saying it would be "very hard" for Mr.
Mordechai's fledgling political party "to raise funds in the North American Jewish
What has inspired all the ire is the new law passed by the Israeli Knesset that is
designed to restore an essential element of Israel's "religious status quo" --
the State's longstanding but uncodified modus vivendi with the country's observant
population -- an element that had been undermined by recent court rulings.
Israeli cities appoint "religious councils", which are charged with
maintaining synagogues, mikvaot and the like. They help ensure that kosher restaurants are
indeed kosher, and oversee things like marriage bureaus and burial societies.
Since the founding of the Jewish State half a century ago, such councils have been
comprised exclusively of Orthodox Jews, who subscribe to the binding nature of the Jewish
religious laws that govern the areas of the council's purview. Several months ago,
however, Israel's High Court -- as a result of a lawsuit filed by Reform representatives
-- ruled that, in the absence of legislation explicitly codifying the longstanding
practice, non-Orthodox representatives had to be seated on religious councils. The Knesset
has now responded to the court's ruling by enacting the necessary underlying legislation
-- a law designed to ensure the councils' commitment to Jewish religious law, or halacha.
Despite all the intemperate reaction and despite how the law might be regarded by many
American Jews at first glance, the legislation is, in truth, not only a model of reason
but an important step toward ensuring true Jewish unity.
For first glances can be misleading. We Americans live in a proudly non-sectarian
country; the idea of a government-sponsored "religious council" on our shores
would turn up only in a work of imaginative horror-fiction.
Israel, however, is a Jewish State; and while some may wish to limit the import of that
term to "a refuge for Jews," most Israelis -- the majority of whom are
religiously traditional if not fully observant -- feel that the Jewish religion, in the
form it has taken for 3000 years, must be an inherent part of the Jewish State's very
Which is a large part of why the American-based non-Orthodox movements -- which have
abandoned halacha, either unabashedly or subtly -- have made so few and so limited inroads
among Israel's Jews, even though they have always been, and remain, free to seek adherents
in Israel's free and open society.
One thing is certain: The furious response to the new religious councils law is more
than a bit silly. After all, can it be characterized as anything short of bizarre to
appoint men and women who do not subscribe to Jewish dietary laws to oversee supervision
of establishments claiming to observe those laws? Or people for whom a mikva is
essentially a symbol rather than a sacred space to supervise the details of constructing
one according to the complex rules of halacha?
Would a reasonable person ever consider a law granting only scientists the right to sit
on a "science council" to be "anti-laymen"? Would it be in any way
accurate to say that it "discriminates" against non-scientists?
Most important of all, and though some may choose to loudly contend the very opposite,
the truth of the matter is that a multitude of standards -- what the Reform, Conservative
and Israeli secularist movements are actively (and angrily) promoting -- is what really
threatens Jewish unity.
As we have seen in the United States, when there are a menu of "Judaisms",
each with its own independent attitude not only toward who is a Jew but toward what
constitutes Judaism, only disunity and strife result. A single standard -- that of halacha
-- has always been, and continues to be, the only effective guarantor of meaningful Jewish
unity, whether community religious needs, marriage and divorce or conversions are at
As the only religious standard that can possibly be common ground for all Jews,
regardless of their personal level of Jewish observance, that single and historically
validated touchstone is the precious key to keeping our fractious people one. It should
certainly be embraced and protected, and not angrily assailed, in the Jewish State.