Unorthodox Rabbis

Not Orthodox? Not Good Enough

After decades of utter neglect and seven years of legal struggle, the Jewish State has agreed to officially recognize a handful of rabbis who aren’t Orthodox:

In an unprecedented move, Israel has announced that it is prepared to recognize Reform and Conservative community leaders as rabbis and fund their salaries.

Rabbis belonging to either stream will be classified as "rabbis of non-Orthodox communities." The attorney general advised the High Court that the state will begin equally financing non-Orthodox rabbis in regional councils and farming communities that are interested in doing so.

Though on the other hand:

Religious Services Minister Yaakov Margi said Monday that if he is forced to pay the salaries of non-Orthodox rabbis, he will request permission from Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef to immediately retire from his position.

One wonders why Margi even bothered to make the comment, however, because:

financing of non-Orthodox rabbis will be the responsibility of the Culture and Sports Ministry and not the Religious Services Ministry, according to a deal between the State and the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism. In addition, non-Orthodox rabbis will not be employed directly by the local authorities, but will instead receive financial assistance.

Truth be told, as an American-Israeli raised in the fine tradition of the separation of religion and state, I actually think that modern nation-states shouldn’t be in the business of funding religious leaders of any kind.

But given that Israel is The Jewish State and has always interpreted that fact to mean that it alone has a license to determine who’s Jewish enough to perform certain acts (weddings and funerals, to name two) within its borders, it actually matters that the State’s Religious Services Ministry only recognizes one branch of Judaism.

What I don’t understand is why American Jews remain so quiet about it. In fact, as a proud Conservative, I don’t really understand why we’re supposed to celebrate the Attorney General’s recent decision.

Most of the world’s Jews are Reform, secular, atheist, Reconstructionist, Conservative, anything-but-Orthodox. And yet other than this one, highly-qualified decision, Israel’s handling of religious issues says loud and clear that there is but one way to be a Jew, and that’s Orthodox. Indeed: ultra-Orthodox.

Reform weddings? Unacceptable. Conservative conversion? Unacceptable. Burial in anything but an ultra-Orthodox fashion? Literally impossible in Israel (unless you take the body to a friendly kibbutz).

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It’s simply wrong for a democratic state to dictate to its citizens how they may conduct matters of faith, who they may marry, who (in short) they are. “You may think you’re a Jew,” Israeli law seems to say, “but guess again.”

But to make matters worse, these same people? This bunch of largely secular, nationalist politicians so anxious to hand anyone even thinking about living in Israel over to the tender mercies of the ultra-Orthodox rabbinate?

They are the very same people who tell American Jews, over and over again, that we’d better support official Israeli policy regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We’d better be all about the occupation, and the settlements, and the constant war-footing, and the refusal to accept any responsibility for decades of mutual blood-letting, and that furthermore, we need to send our money to support those policies, and dog our elected representatives to do likewise. Else we are very bad Jews indeed.

To recap: The Jewish State is happy to take American Jews’ money and shame us into creating political pressure to support endless war. But our prayers?


Yaakov Margi wasn’t the only member of Israel’s government who was disturbed by the Attorney General’s slim concession. Rabbi Daniel Hershkowitz, Science and Technology Minister and chairman of the ultra-Orthodox HaBayit HaYehudi party, has said he’ll meet with Prime Minister Netanyahu to discuss “the gravity of the matter.” Given Israel’s political history, I genuinely expect such meetings to overturn the decision, or empty it even further of meaning.

Hershkowitz also said that decisions regarding the Jewish identity of Israel shouldn’t be “determined by legal advisors and state officials.”

With that, at least, I couldn’t agree more.