Sermon – Israel and its Judaisms

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 5 March 2016

Just a couple of weeks ago, on Thursday 11 February, the Supreme Court of the State of Israel made one of the most significant decisions in its nearly 70 year history.  It was a decision that received remarkably little fanfare, but which was, in its way, much more significant than the compromise government decision a couple of weeks earlier to create a separate non-Orthodox prayer section near the Western Wall.

The Supreme Court ruled that all state run mikvaot – ritual baths – in the country must allow access to those seeking immersion for the purpose of non-Orthodox conversion.  Prior to that date, the Religious Services Ministry – currently led by MK David Azulai of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party – had prevented their use for this purpose.

The decision was the end of a decade-long legal process led by IRAC, the Israel Religious Action Centre, whose Executive Director, Anat Hoffman, is a regular visitor to, and friend of, this community.  The case focussed on one public mikveh, in Beersheva, but widened throughout the country – in large part because the Religious Services Ministry rejected a deal that would have given non-Orthodox converts access to three specified public mikvaot, for fear that this would be to legitimise non-Orthodox conversion.  That deal having been rejected, though, the wider ruling applies to all public mikvaot in the State of Israel.  In giving the ruling, Supreme Court Justice Elyakim Rubinstein stated that “the moment Israel funds ritual baths and makes them available to the public, they cannot be used in a discriminatory way.”

The response of the Israeli ultra-Orthodox rabbinic establishment, has been furious.  Their parties in the Knesset, which control the balance of power, have already indicated their intention to introduce legislation to reverse the change, as they have sought to challenge other rulings in the past, such as the ruling that funding must be granted to the building of non-Orthodox communal buildings.
And the accompanying rhetoric has been, to say the least, extreme. One example, not atypical, was the reaction of Israel Eichler of the United Torah Judaism.  He responded: “Not every mentally ill person can come to the operating room and decide the rules of medicine and force the hospital to have an operation by whatever way works,”

Why has this made them so angry?
What difference if state run mikvaot are used for this purpose.  A mikveh, after all, can no more be made impure than a river or stream, of which it is just an artificial version.
And no one is asking that, because of this change, they should now recognise Progressive conversions – any part of the Jewish world has the right to give Jewish status to whomever they see fit, on the basis of their own guidelines, and has no right to impose those onto any other part of the Jewish world.  So, in Israel, non-orthodox conversions will remain, as presently, recognised by the State for purposes of population registration, but not by the powerful Israeli Rabbinate, for things such as marriage.
So why the anger?

One reason for the ire is that at stake is political power.  This is one skirmish in an ongoing struggle.  The arenas of the battle are most often one of two things: state funding of non-Orthodox institutions, and questions of Jewish status.  This case has both, so the strength of the response was not unexpected.

But this is not only about power and finance.  It also comes from a fundamental religious conflict.  In truth, what is going on is a struggle over the very meaning of the word Judaism in Israel.

Think back to the analogy from Israel Eichler that I quoted earlier.  Parking, for now, the unacceptable, but alas not atypical, use of mental illness for the purposes of insult – the analogy is enlightening.  This is not just an angry insult, but a very pointed, very intentional, positioning.  There is a long Charedi tradition of using the doctor analogy to challenge Progressive Judaism.

The doctor analogy reflects a religious viewpoint which is about expertise in following pre-determined rules and processes, about a binary right or wrong decision making.  The analogy he makes – no mentally ill person can come in and “decide the rules of medicine” – works for him because the rules of Judaism exist for him as an independent truth beyond us all – a divine map projected onto the world, genuinely akin to the laws of nature.
To Eichler, one can no more change the laws of conversion as decide that the blood is going to flow the other way around someone’s body.  The expectation is that, like a doctor, the rabbi will have learned the rules from the rulebook, and is duty bound to keep them.  It is rabbi as posek – as decisor.

And the thing about the doctor analogy is that while it is extraordinarily powerful in ultra-Orthodoxy, it lacks any purchase at all in Progressive Judaism – because I am not a posek.  It doesn’t say that on my ordination certificate – my certificate says rav u-moreh b’yisrael – rabbi and teacher to the Jewish people.  I no more want to be a posek than I want to be a… well, a doctor.  Mine is not a binary system of do and don’t.  In truth, nor is much of modern medicine – but we should park that, too.
My Judaism is not one of pre-ordained rules that must be kept, but of an evolving relationship with a challenging, but itself evolving, inherited tradition – a complex relationship of obligation and struggle.

One example of this is the question that Libbi raised in her dvar torah about Shabbat, how it can have meaning for her, about her doctor grandfather’s struggle with law and his values.  In how we honour and keep Shabbat, we see these two very very different models in tension.
The Eichler Judaism sees Shabbat as framework of legal obligation, in which the ideal is keeping to a full, specific and detailed set of laws.  The rabbinic role is to know the laws and to make sure that people know what they should do – what kind of knot they should and shouldn’t tie, how they can brush their hair without inadvertently breaking the prohibition on shearing, and so on.  A rabbi who deviates from this is like a bad medic only giving part of a treatment.
This is simply, not the Judaism I live.  My Judaism sees Shabbat as one of our tradition’s great gifts.  It recognises that the rabbis of the first two centuries CE shaped their practice through reading our portion of Torah in a particular way, but that over years the meaning can and will change, and so can our practice.  My Judaism seeks to balance the sense of obligation from the text with a search for evolving meaning in the experience.

And these are not the same Judaism.  Same texts; same Torah, same Talmud, same rich literary heritage.  Different exercise.

We can do the same thing to kashrut, to liturgy and worship, to issues of status.  Same texts; same Torah, same Talmud, same rich literary heritage.  Different exercise.

Underlying the argument over state funding of mikvaot is a reality that we might find hard to accept.  Judaism today includes two utterly different paradigms of religious life – both use the same sacred language, have the same source texts – speak of the same God.  Both call themselves Judaism, both have claims to reflect an authentic religious tradition of our Jewish past.
But these are two utterly different models of religious life.  Different enough that, perhaps, it is time to use the powerful plural of the American Jewish historian Jacob Rader Marcus – to speak of different Judaisms.

For each of us, this reality presents a challenge – if we live in a world of two Judaisms, ultimately each of us needs to pick one – as Libbi’s grandfather did – we need to decide which is our model and live it with integrity.
But for the State of Israel, for a Jewish state, the challenge is even greater.  It is no surprise that American colleagues, working in a community in which Orthodoxy is the minority – and we should never forget that the largest synagogue organisations in the world are not Orthodox – that American colleagues are reporting an increased alienation of their members from an Israel which describes itself as a Jewish state, but which is still dominated by just one form of Judaism.

The decision of the Israeli Supreme Court a couple of weeks ago was a huge one.  It was an important step in the development of a Jewish state that recognises the existence of more than one mode of Judaism.  We should rejoice in our association with a country with a legal system capable of challenging its own government.  But we should also be saddened that it has to be this way.  That this was a ruling against a ministry of the Israeli government, brought about because that ministry did not wish to legitimise non-Orthodox Judaism – the majority Judaism of world Jews.
Ultimately, the only way that these two models of Judaism will be able to coexist will be to separate religious institutions from political power and funding, to create civil institutions and mechanisms, separate from the control of any rabbinate.  Despite the good work of organisations like our friends in IRAC, it is not, alas, an outcome that any of us is likely to see in our lifetimes.