Israel’s War Over Religious Pluralism is Escalating
Israel is at risk today less from the Palestinians than from the ominous and intensifying war of the Jews over pluralism, freedom of religion and religious extremism.
In the last six months, Israel’s ultra-Orthodox parties have gone on an extremist rampage. They have infuriated Diaspora Jews in two ways: First, by blocking a compromise on non-Orthodox worship at the Western Wall; and second, by passing legislation that bars Reform and Conservative converts from using state-run ritual baths for their conversions.
There was no religious justification for either of these acts. In both cases, the purpose was simply to express scorn for Reform and Conservative Jews and to deny the two non-Orthodox movements even the slightest measure of recognition by the Jewish state.
Haredi politicians, by the way, did not hesitate to acknowledge their motivations. Moshe Gafni, a member of the United Torah Judaism Party and a font of contempt for his fellow Jews, was the sponsor of the bill restricting access to ritual baths. In the Knesset committee considering the bill, Gafni was challenged by members of the opposition who noted that immersion in ritual baths by Reform and Conservative Jews did not detract in any way from the suitability of the baths for religious use by Haredim. No one can argue that halakhah – Jewish religious law – requires barring non-Orthodox Jews from the baths.
Gafni did not deny this, and he also made no attempt to suggest that the bill in question was intended to promote the cause of Torah or advance the sacred character of Israel. The bill’s purpose, he acknowledged, was to prevent Reform Jews from making use of the ritual baths to gain “legitimacy” in Israel.
There is something sad, pathetic, and even tragic about all this. These are the actions of small men with small minds, and Diaspora Jewry looks upon such pettiness with a combination of astonishment and despair. Israel faces a multitude of problems: Her relations with the American administration are strained, terrorism is a daily threat, and Iran is spewing hatred of the Jewish state. Is it really necessary for so-called religious parties to defame the Judaism practiced by the great majority of American Jews? Might their time be better spent on making Jews more Jewish and bringing them back to Torah?
Prohibiting Jews from praying at the Western Wall or using ritual baths is bad enough, of course. But even worse is the bill now being pushed by the Haredi parties that would allow Haredi schools to eliminate virtually all secular studies from their curriculum and still receive government funding. In other words, not only do the Haredim intend to alienate the Jews of the world by deriding their Jewish practice and belief. They also intend to undermine Israel’s economy by denying ultra-Orthodox children the tools they need to function in a modern economy.
And once again, there is no religious justification for such a drastic act of ghettoization. Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik studied economics and philosophy in Berlin, and the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, studied mathematics and physics in Berlin and at the Sorbonne. In France today, in addition to religious studies, Haredi schools are obligated to teach the entire public school curriculum. In most communities around the world, in fact, secular authorities impose general education requirements on Haredi schools. Why should this not be the case in Israel, where 10 percent of the population is Haredi and the stakes for the economy are much higher?
To be sure, there are voices that offer a defense of the Haredi position. Evelyn Gordon, writing in Commentary, argues that there is a younger generation of Haredim that disagrees with the current, elderly rabbinic leadership and that over time will promote secular education for their children, along with traditional Torah study. Gordon makes the case that bottom-up change is always better than top-down change. Therefore, she says, it would be best not to impose a secular curriculum on Haredi schools through legislation, as was done by the last Knesset, but to allow the process to develop on its own.
Gordon is correct that younger elements of the Haredi population are more open to secular studies. But she is wrong to suggest that no legislative mandate is needed to bring about truly meaningful change. Even she admits that it would take a very long time for such change to occur, and it could be decades until younger rabbis who favor secular studies rise to positions of leadership. This means that the current law must be kept in place or a similar one enacted. Under any circumstances, abolishing requirements for secular study will be disastrous.
Top-down change is difficult, of course. But given that half of Israel’s fast-growing Haredi population remains out of the workforce, Israel does not have the luxury of waiting a quarter century for its Haredi leaders to come to their senses.
When specific requirements are considered, my own preference would be a grand bargain. For Jewish students, the task of the schools is to help Israel understand its Jewish mission. That is a complicated business, to be sure, and one that is far from defined. But the best way to get there is to pass a core curriculum law that requires Haredi children to study English, math, science, and Shakespeare, and that requires secular children to study Rambam, Shulchan Aruch, Tanach, and Buber.The goal: Serious secular studies for the Haredim and all religious children, and serious religious studies for secular children. If Israel needs a top-down approach, and she does, that’s a good place to start.
In addition, Gordon says nothing about Haredi Diaspora-bashing. World Jewry will not tolerate 25 more years of Haredi-led public attacks. If the ultra-Orthodox do not like Reform and Conservative Jews, that is their business, but the Knesset must not be the instrument that Haredim use to pour out abuse on Israel’s most devoted supporters. Prime Minister Netanyahu, are you listening?