Rx for “Orthodox Intolerance” An Israeli Speaks Out

By Chaim Eisen

We have heard much lately regarding “Orthodox intransigence” and “divisiveness.”  Recently, at a major campus in northeastern United States with a large (overwhelmingly nonreligious) Jewish population, graffiti was scrawled menacingly in front of the building in which religious Jewish students conduct their minyan, demanding: “End Ortho Oppression!” Evidently, we are all quite a stiff-necked people. But especially in this case, one suspects underlying issues run much deeper and warrant serious consideration rather than shrill slogans. I think some clarification is in order.

I know many American Jews have difficulty understanding how the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, which operates in deference to halachah, can wield such power in a state most of whose citizens are admittedly not religious. But ‑- while I don’t deny the existence of political deals, which are apparently endemic features of democracy ‑- survey after survey here confirms that most of us Israelis, irrespective of religious observance, prefer it this way.

I recall a fellow student at Columbia University, many years ago, who grew up as a nonreligious Israeli in West Germany. He once described to me a “Shabbaton” organized by a visiting “American Reform rabbi,” during which the latter recited kiddush, with a cup of wine in one hand and a lit cigarette in the other. I reiterate that my acquaintance was not religious; he did not personally object to kindling a fire on the Sabbath. Yet, to him, there was something fraudulent ‑- even revolting ‑- about claiming to represent a religion defined by an historic tradition of laws, while flouting those laws. Let him describe himself as nonreligious -‑ my acquaintance concluded contemptuously ‑- just don’t be nonreligious and claim to be a rabbi!

Even today, despite repeated blitzes by the press, most Israelis simply do not take alternative “rabbinates” seriously. Thus reported the Jerusalem Post recently, quoting a leading “Conservative rabbi”: “Israel as a sovereign democratic society is not ready to recognize and grant legitimacy to non-Orthodox forms of Judaism. To my astonishment, I found that in a secret vote of conscience, most [Israelis] believed that a Jew is only someone born of a Jewish mother or converted according to halacha” (“In Jerusalem,” 4 April 1997, p. 1). Likewise, because of the same sense of historical integrity, most sizable Jewish communities in the Old World today have an official rabbinate that is beholden to historic (i.e., halachic) Judaism. Don’t American Jews wonder why, for example, European Jewish communities aren’t noticeable on the barricades together with them, haranguing and threatening Israel’s elected leaders over the Chief Rabbinate’s role here; why virtually no other community seems so incensed by a halachic rabbinate’s hegemony?

This article was featured in the Fall 1997 issue of Jewish Action.
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