(This essay is part of Chapter 11 in my book “Why Are We Still Afraid?”)
Israel needs to be a place where a university student who just survived a jarring antisemitic event can come, take a deep breath, and feel relief among his people.
The Western Wall, the Kotel, needs to be a place where a person who has had a sudden religious awakening—and every other Jew—can come and pray in the manner he or she finds comfortable.
Why do Israel and the Kotel need to be these places? Because that’s why there’s an Israel.
Israel was created as a refuge for persecuted Jews around the world, a home for any Jew who wants to be here. Not just ultra-Orthodox Jews, not just Reform Jews. All Jews. Whoever is driven here, whoever is drawn here.
Today’s Israel is a modern state with modern politics. It is strong enough to ignore the idiocy of the United Nations, the hostility of antisemitism from left and right, and, unfortunately, the feelings of Jews outside Israel.
Freezing the plan for a proper egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel to augment or replace the tiny platform paid for and operated by Israel’s own Conservative Jewish movement is wrong, practically and morally. The Kotel has its own extremist rabbi on a government salary who runs the site with tax money.
Even considering a measure that would reject all conversions not performed by the extremists in the Israeli rabbinate—even by other Orthodox Israeli rabbis—is also wrong. With these two measures, the government of Israel is driving away most of Diaspora Jewry and, it must be said, most of Israel’s Jews, too. Such making of the religion hateful unto the people is a clear violation of Halacha, Jewish religious law.
In fact, we don’t need the rabbinate at all for Jewish marriages. That’s according to that well-known radical anti-Jewish Adin Steinsaltz. Oh, wait, he’s the revered Orthodox sage who translated and annotated the Talmud. He writes that marriage is not a sacred undertaking—it’s a contract between a man and a woman. This is from his 1976 book, The Essential Talmud:
“Since the act is not a sacrament, there is no need for priestly or rabbinical sanction…when the act takes place with the concurrence of both parties, a marriage has occurred.”
Just as marriage is not what we think it is, neither is conversion. The Talmud lays down three conditions: mikvah, brit mila and acceptance of the biblical commandments. Any religious court can approve a conversion, and any three Jews in good standing can make up a religious court. That’s it. The Talmud does not require rabbis for marriage, or rabbis for conversion. The added requirements are relatively recent, and they can be undone with just a little moral courage.
What would be the practical affects? If, for the sake of Jewish unity, Israel accepts conversions done abroad, then there will be a small minority of Israelis—the ultra-Orthodox—who will not marry an immigrant. Well, folks, they wouldn’t anyway, so no harm, no foul.
My upcoming second book, Why Are We Still Afraid? chronicles the 45 years I’ve lived in Israel, starting in 1972. Then Israel was a small, weak nation less than two years before a devastating war that nearly drove the Jews into the sea. Today Israel has the strongest economy and the strongest military in the region and has nothing to fear, existentially. Israel can handle Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas and all the rest. It might not be pleasant, but we can handle them.
But can we handle ourselves?
I remember my first trip to the Kotel. It was just a few weeks after I made Aliyah. I got a telegram that my best friend had died suddenly at the age of 26. I got a bottle of whiskey and headed for the Kotel. Until then, I had never been drawn to the site—I was a Reform Jew, not much into ritual or holy sites. But the Kotel was here, and I was here, 6,000 miles away from my friend, separated forever. I spent several hours just sitting in front of the Kotel with my bottle and my grief. No one bothered me. No one surrounded me, threw bags of feces at me, blew whistles in my ears.
Yet even then, Orthodox politicians were fomenting coalition crises with the “Who is a Jew” issue. Pun intended—the writing was on the wall.
I got married in 1973. I had to bring two witnesses to the rabbinate to testify that I was indeed born Jewish. Of course, having been here such a short time, and coming from a small city, I couldn’t produce two such witnesses. Neither could most other new immigrants. But it was enough to bring in two friends who were willing to testify. The rabbis knew they didn’t actually know, and we knew they knew, but it didn’t matter back then.
Today, the Rabbinate often demands written certification from rabbis they recognize—“just” being an Orthodox rabbi isn’t enough—to affirm a person’s Jewishness. So I probably couldn’t get married in Israel today. My parents were Holocaust survivors who escaped from Germany with the clothes on their backs—no documents, no ketuba. My grandmothers were murdered by the Nazis in death camps, so there are no gravestones to photograph (yes, they demand that).
So here I am, the son of Holocaust survivors who were met at the train station in Fort Wayne, Indiana, by representatives of the local Reform Jewish congregation, went to services there for as long as they lived, brought up their two children in that framework, watched me make Aliyah and become Orthodox—and I probably couldn’t get married in Israel? What’s going on here?
Israel was founded by anti-religious Labor Zionists. Anti-religious in this case did not mean anti-Jewish—they accepted the religion but not its practices. That’s why they gave military exemptions to a few hundred ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students, for example. The ultra-Orthodox segment formed a political party or two, but because of their anti-Zionist ideology, they refused to take part in the government.
And that is what has changed, alongside the maturing of Israel’s society, economy, and military. The ultra-Orthodox, just 10 percent of the population, hold the balance of power. No coalition government, even those without them, can afford to alienate them—because next time they might be needed for a coalition, and there’s always a next time.
So Israel has abdicated its social responsibility to its own people and to the Jews of the world for the sake of coalition politics. Without flinching, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told a delegation from AIPAC, the group that lobbies in Washington on Israel’s behalf, that he had to freeze the Kotel pluralism deal and keep the conversion bill on the table because the alternative was to lose his coalition majority.
To which many of us would say, so lose your majority. Let’s have an election about these very issues. A clear majority of Israelis hotly oppose the ultra-Orthodox stuffing their practices down everyone’s throat. Maybe we could finally have a government that puts them back in their place, along the fringes of Israeli society, practicing their Judaism the way they want and letting the rest of us practice ours the way we want.
My ideal is an open marketplace of ideas—Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and civil marriage, a whole range of conversion practices—and let the people decide individually what they want. Ideological competition, not religious coercion.
Persuade us that your way is the best way. Don’t try to force us to accept your way as the only way.
As the old Israeli song goes, “The day will come.”
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MARK LAVIE, an Orthodox Jew, has covered Israel and the Middle East as a foreign correspondent since 1972. His book Broken Spring examines the failure of the Arab revolution.