Israel’s Reform Jews dedicated the first non-Orthodox synagogue to receive state funding on Monday, after a long court battle that accented the rift among streams of Judaism in Israel.
The Reform Yozma congregation fought for the better part of a decade for state funding equivalent to what Orthodox congregations receive. After arguing their case twice before the Supreme Court, they got what they wanted: a prefabricated, two-room building on a plot of land in the center of Modiin, a new town between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
“This is a substantial step in recognizing different streams of Judaism in the state of Israel,” said Rabbi Kinneret Shiryon, who leads the 240-family congregation. The government has long funded Orthodox synagogues, even paying rabbi’s salaries.
The Reform movement is trumpeting this as a huge victory. And I can see why it would feel good to finally get a piece of the pie. But I’m not feeling so great about it. I want to see a thriving liberal Jewish culture in Israel, but I fear that this development, insofar as it sets a precedent, is dangerous for liberal Judaism in the long run. (And if it doesn’t set a precedent, then it’s an insignificant anomaly.)
Yes, there are some potential positive results, even for those of us who want to see separation of church and state in Israel. The Supreme Court ruling could set a legal precedent that leads to other rulings weakening the Orthodox monopoly over government functions (e.g. government recognition of non-Orthodox Jewish marriages, or even better, establishment of civil marriage), and could sow seeds of chaos among the Orthodox factions (e.g. if they can’t countenance being part of an apparatus that funds Reform Jewish institutions, and decide to take their ball and go home) leading also to the weakening of state-sponsored religion. But these outcomes seem indirect and unlikely.
Suppose this ruling isn’t a freak occurrence, but rather leads to further funding of liberal Jewish institutions. Then a more likely outcome is, at best, that the Reform movement will find itself in the role of propping up a corrupt system. Yes, the Reform movement might continue to pay lip service to separation of church and state, but deep down, it’s going to have a vested interest in the continued existence of the institution that gives it its funding, so the Reform movement will wake up one morning and find itself allied with the forces of antidisestablishmentarianism.
At worst, the Reform movement itself will become part of the corruption. As liberal Jews, we can read every day in the newspaper about the unethical activities of the Orthodox establishment, and pat ourselves on the back for being untainted by these transgressions. But the real reason that liberal Judaism has steered clear of this rampant corruption isn’t because liberal Jews are congenitally predisposed to be better human beings, but simply because we haven’t been in power. The purpose of laws and governments is to protect us from the darker side of our human nature, and likewise, one purpose of separation of church and state is to protect us from the perversion of religion that inevitably occurs when religious authority is entangled with political authority.
Our tradition is full of warnings about the dangers of mixing religion and state. In the ancient Israelite monarchy, the king was NOT the religious authority; the prophets (who transmitted the words of God) were independent from the king, and were free to criticize the king openly when he went off the right path. One reason the rabbis of the Talmud couldn’t stand the Hasmoneans was because they combined the priesthood with the monarchy, leading to corruption in both religion and government. And it is the prophets and rabbis who are our models today, not the kings.
And now in our time, the Israeli rabbanut has become a latter-day Hasmonean dynasty. If the Reform movement wants to maintain its moral authority, it has to steer clear of this system. A great and knowledgeable prophet (in another tradition) once warned that “all knowledge seeming innocent and pure becomes a deadly weapon in the hands of avarice and greed”. The motive of promoting liberal Judaism in Israel may seem innocent and pure today, but if it becomes entangled with the political authority that has thus far been under Orthodox monopoly, it will become just another deadly weapon.
Taking the high road and avoiding getting mixed up in the mess of established religion seems to me not only to be more moral, but also more convenient. Despite this groundbreaking ruling, the Reform movement’s quest to get government funding for more synagogues is going to be an uphill battle. Instead of starting this fight for funding, wouldn’t it have been a lot easier to just declare victory and go home, and score points with the public by saying “We don’t want any of your dirty money”?
It is no coincidence that liberal Judaism has prospered the most in the United States, where separation of church and state is enshrined in the Constitution. And it is no coincidence that the US is one of the most religious countries in the world, while European countries with established churches have populations that are apathetic to religion, and most Israelis are more interested in New-Age spirituality than in Judaism. Religion is most successful as a moral voice when it is decoupled from coercive governmental authority and patronage machines, and the liberal movements in Israel should be leading the fight to make that a reality, rather than simply trying to be admitted to the club.
As Israel celebrates 60 years, we can dream about what Israel can and should be. I want to see an Israel where Jewish culture is the majority culture (Jewish holidays are national holidays, Hebrew is spoken, etc.) and Jewish values are actualized (society doesn’t stand by while its members are living in poverty), but religion is not legislated or funded by the state, and people are equally free to pursue any religion (or no religion) and any religious stream without government interference.