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Shouldn't Religion in Israel Attempt to 'Wear' All the Colors of the Rainbow?

September 24, 2009 By:
Rabbi Andrew Sacks
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Rabbi Andrew Sacks

As we begin the New Year, 5770, the Jewish community can only ponder what lies in store for Israel. Will this be a year free of war? Will we thrill to the long-awaited return of Gilad Shalit, the kidnapped Israel Defense Force soldier held in captivity by Hamas? Will the economy turn around? Will we be blessed by the arrival of new olim?

Nearly all Israelis hope for these events to occur, even if we envision different paths to get there.

Yet there's one area where harmony looms only in the hearts of those who are willing to dream. The Jews of Israel are torn as to what should be the nature and place of Judaism in the Jewish state. Ought it to mirror the black of the ultra-Orthodox haredi world or reflect the colors of the rainbow, as Israelis allow themselves to realize that there is more than one way to live as a Jew?

Over the past several months, we have witnessed regular rioting in Jerusalem. Nir Barkat, the mayor, agreed to allow a private parking lot to be opened on Shabbat. This was done to accommodate the many tourists who frequent the city on Saturday.

I do not drive on Shabbat. I do not believe that Jewish law permits driving on Shabbat. But Israeli law certainly does. In fact, cars, taxis and buses (in some cities) run seven days a week. Better to accommodate those who wish to drive than to have them ride around for long periods of time until they finally park on the sidewalks.

Protest is legitimate in a democratic country, and the haredim have the right to protest what they may view as a concession to the secular citizens and the possible domino effect of opening the parking lot on other Shabbat observances in the city. But they do not have the right to riot and destroy public property.

Israel is the only democratic state in the world where a significant percentage of the citizens must leave the country to marry. Hundreds of thousands of immigrants came to Israel -- indeed, were recruited by the Jewish Agency -- under the Law of Return. This law allows a person with a single Jewish grandparent to claim citizenship. Most of these people live as Jews in every way: They attend Jewish schools, youth groups and serve in the army. They live as Jews, but they are not Jewish. And since intermarriage is not sanctioned in Israel, they must fly to Cyprus or elsewhere to wed.

Jewish law allows for great leniency for these citizens to convert to Judaism. Many would be open to conversion. But most life-cycle events -- marriage, conversion, divorce, burial -- are no longer in the hands of the religious Zionists. They have been co-opted by the haredi community, which sets a standard that slams shut the doors to most that would choose Judaism.

There are very few conversions in Israel. Indeed, even most Orthodox conversions performed in the United States are no longer accepted by Israel's Chief Rabbinate. The number of non-Orthodox conversions is rising with each passing year, as Israelis learn about -- even embrace -- the very alternatives that Diaspora Jewry finds normative.

Thus, there is little progress in achieving solutions for agunot (women whose husbands refuse them a Jewish divorce) because the haredi rabbinical courts are unwilling to apply innovative solutions. The right to hold a gay-pride parade in Jerusalem is preceded by rioting, bonfires and threats of violence. Haredi rabbis with no higher education serve as ministers in some of the most sensitive areas; with swine flu looming, our deputy minister of health is a politico with no academic education.

Yet change is in the air. We may see a modern Zionist rabbi elected, this year, to the position of Jerusalem's chief rabbi.

And some 20 percent of Israeli couples are choosing to marry -- many in Jewish ceremonies -- outside the rubric of the official religious establishment. They have a strong attachment to Jewish tradition, but a bitter taste from the official religious establishment.

Alternative cemeteries are opening in each city that allow for burial in a coffin (most burials in Israel take place without a coffin as the body is covered in a shroud); and at these institutions, women, too, can recite the mourner's Kaddish at the graveside.

Some may see these progressive phenomena as a slippery path toward assimilation. Others resent what they feel is the domination of the black-cloaked haredim, many of whom reject the Zionist state.

This new year will surely bring more conflict. But we Jews pray that God will "bless our people with peace." I am confident that the day will come when Israel signs a peace treaty with most of her neighbors. My prayer is that God grant us, the Jewish people, the strength to live in peace with one another.

Rabbi Andrew Sacks directs the Rabbinical Assembly in Israel and the Bureau of Religious Affairs of the Masorti movement. Sacks is slated to speak at Temple Beth Hillel/ Beth El in Wynnewood on Sept. 30.

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