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Paying for Religious Pluralism

A milestone of sorts was crossed yesterday when the Israeli government agreed to pay the wages of non-Orthodox rabbis currently serving on local religious councils. Acting on the advice of the Supreme Court, the country’s attorney general ruled that a Reform rabbi who is serving on a council should be paid just as Orthodox rabbis who serve in the same capacity are currently financed by the state. The decision was the result of delicate negotiations and hair-splitting in which the state didn’t actually recognize the Reform rabbi in question — Rabbi Miri Gold of Kibbutz Gezer — as a rabbi per se, but as a “rabbi of a non-Orthodox community.” Nor will she or any other such official be given any authority over religious matters but just given the right to serve their specific communities. Nonetheless, the decision was still criticized by Orthodox politicians and organizations that begrudge the least whiff of state approval or funds for the Reform or Conservative rabbinate.

The decision, while welcome by Diaspora Jewry, will also serve to highlight the ongoing inequality between Jewish denominations in Israel wherein Orthodoxy is considered the official, subsidized authority on Judaism and Reform and Conservative Judaism are wrongly treated as illegitimate knock-offs. This is bitterly resented by the majority of American Jews who identify with non-Orthodox religious streams and is the cause of no small amount of tension with Israel. But the deal that produced this advance for their denominations also ought to make it clear to Americans that the problem is not so much Israeli prejudice against their beliefs but a system in which any rabbi is paid by the state.

For all of the ongoing controversy about defining Jewish identity in Israel, the real source of friction there is not so much one of “who is a Jew” but who is a rabbi. And any country where rabbis are in effect employees of the state, as priests or imams are in other nations, is one in which the assignment of rabbinical status is inherently political. That means the debate about recognition of Reform and Conservative Judaism in Israel is not really one of competing doctrines as it is a scramble for government patronage.

Seen in that light, it is no mystery that the Orthodox political parties, who can count on the support of a large share of the Israeli electorate and whose influence is magnified by a system of proportional representation in the country’s parliament, have zealously defended their stranglehold on the state-financed religious bureaucracy. Nor is it imaginable, even with the best of wills on the part of Israel’s political leadership, that this monopoly will ever be broken up until the distant and perhaps unattainable day when Reform and Conservative Judaism commands the support of a sizeable electoral constituency of its own.

It is possible that a scheme of electoral reform that will make it harder for niche parties to win seats in the Knesset — something Prime Minister Netanyahu’s current grand coalition could pass if it wanted to — will diminish the influence of the Orthodox. But so long as the synagogue that even most secular and non-religious Israelis choose not to go to is Orthodox, there will be no groundswell there for equal rights for the rabbis of religious streams with little popular backing.

A far more urgent issue for most Israelis than the discrimination against Reform and Conservative rabbis is the oppressive nature of the taxpayer-financed official religious authority that is the bailiwick of ultra-Orthodox officials who have the ability to make an application for a marriage license the equivalent of a visit from the Spanish Inquisition. Like much of the structure of the Israeli bureaucracy, the whole idea of state-subsidized religion (and it should be specified that all faiths including Christianity and Islam are also given government support in Israel — the only reason non-Orthodox Jews are left out is because they refuse to register as being separate faiths that are distinct from traditional Orthodox Judaism) is the core of the problem. Until Israel fixes that, Diaspora Jews will continue to complain about the lack of religious pluralism and to largely misunderstand the source of the problem.


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