aaaaaDuring the last International Congress of Judaism, held in Jerusalem between July 29th and August 5th 1997, one could frequently hear denounced the danger of grave divisions in the Jewish world. One, which is already taking place, would be that between the religious leaders and the great majority of the population of Israel (and not only the lay section of the population). The other division is that which is being created between the same religious sections of Judaism. In fact they can be divided into three categories: orthodox, conservatives and reformed (and reconstructionists). These last two categories are made up of liberal religious who do not interpret and take literally the ancient Jewish laws (the halakà). They live mainly in America and are 90% of the Jews living there. They are also numerically greater than the Jews of Israel. From there they have shown towards Israel a moving solidarity, economically very important in the reconstruction and support of this State.
aaaaaThe problem, which has become very serious in these months, centres on the fact that the orthodox (Haredim), who in Israel maintain all the religious power (and much of the political too), do not want to give an "active voice" to the liberals. The issue has reached the Constitutional Court and Parliament itself who is called to decide on the issue soon.
aaaaaNetanyahu, in government because of the alliance with the three religious parties, must, for love or for pressure, support the decision to refuse the official recognition in Israel to the liberal currents, as long as no other component of his alliance will refuse this support and bring down his government.
aaaaaThe liberal Jews pretend to have in Israel the same authority which they have in USA or in any other place where they lead their respective communities. There they obviously have the authority to establish if a person is a Jew or not and therefore member of the same community. They take care of the rites which take place from birth till death (from circumcision to burial), or from the moment in which one decides to accept the Jewish religion and converts to Judaism. Now the orthodox refuse the validity in Israel of the certificates issued by their conservative and reformed colleagues. This not only for economical reasons but also because they consider that their Jewishness is not sincere and accuse them of "syncretism", mixing together the Jewish religion with other religions and uses (read: above all Christian; in USA mixed marriages between Christians and Jews are very common).
aaaaaIf the Israeli parliament will approve by law the opinion of the orthodox rabbis, almost all the Jews living outside Israel will be declared non Jews. It is a principle question because the liberals could still practice their form of religion even in Israel, more still if they were born there. Even we Christians practice our religion there either as natives, governed by particular laws and rights established for ethnic or religious minorities, or as guests with a residence permit.
aaaaaThe situation becomes grave on the practical side. Not only because the religious rites of the liberals (circumcision, marriage, burial) would not have any civil validity as those performed by the orthodox, but also because the liberal Jews coming into Israel would not be able to obtain citizenship in Israel, which is automatically granted to the orthodox Jew because of the "law of return". An orthodox Jew, with his Jewish declaration, recognized by the Israeli religious authority, automatically becomes an Israeli citizen with all the rights and advantages. These are rights and advantages to which we, non Jews living in Israel, can never aspire. It seems absurd though that a Jew cannot receive them only because he is not orthodox.
aaaaaIn the attempt to avoid the division in Judaism and/or a government crises, Netanyahu has set up, some months ago, a commission presided by a Minister, Y.Neeman (orthodox). The commission did not succeed to find a solution prior to the target dates established. The liberal Jews threatened to present their claims in front of the Constitutional Court which would have surely presented serious problems to the Orthodox. At the end of October, in front of the imminent danger, a decision was taken to postpone by some months the target date for the end of the commission's work.
aaaaaAmong the orthodox Jews, some moderates say that, to avoid the dangers, the State must remain outside the discussion. We quote A.Rabinovich and D. Hartman (The Jerusalem Post, 31 Oct.) who know well how much the whole situation is difficult. If in fact the radical solution of a lay State is adopted, which exist in many modern states, something which many want even in Israel, more serious problems will arise. A lay state in Israel would mean in practice the possibility that the country can have an Arab majority and that Christians may become parliament deputies. In this way the Jewish identity will vanish again and become only a private option. This was the situation for two thousand years, up to fifty years ago when the new Jewish state was born. A new state which was born to save Judaism and its identity after the tragic experience of the "final solution" adopted by Hitler!
aaaaaIt is true that it is not right that the orthodox Jews maintain the monopoly of the Jewish religion and impose on all their dictates. We will be moving towards a war both within the state of Israel and with all the Arab world.
aaaaaA lay Jewish state is not the necessary alternative. There is the possibility to have a religious state where the principles will be dictated by a modern and a critic interpretation of the holy sources on which they are based. I do not agree with the above mentioned article by Hartman of the 31st of October. In this article he seems to be leveling the same accusations to the liberals as those leveled by the orthodox even if he recognizes to the liberals their right of citizenship. The liberal Jews are accused of not accepting the traditional Jewish religious law. But in fact they accept it! They only interpret it in a more modern way!
aaaaaIt seems to me that the whole problem centres on the modern interpretation of the documents of faith together with the respect for freedom of the conservatives and reformists alike in the interpretation of the religious law. We Christians passed through such a moment ourselves. We arrived to the real solution only through Vatican Council II.
A timid final opinion
aaaaaIn Israel there should also be the right for a Christian interpretation of the Law of the Old Testament (Torah). It is not fair that a Jew, who wants to make this interpretation will be automatically considered as a "non-Jew".
aaaaaHere we bring to the fore a problem which only a few talk about while many maliciously avoid it completely. In the Jerusalem Post (Nov. 7) a series of articles started being issued about the "conversion" of about 200,000 Russians (beware from calling them Christians!). These have immigrated to Israel as close relatives of Jews, according to the law of return we mentioned above. For them there seem to be an "easier conversion" en-masse, which will make them fully Jews (circumcision and the minimum observance of the Jewish religious laws). In other words (and we have to be careful from proclaiming this in the open) they are aiming at destroying the Christian religion of the citizens of Israel who came from Russia. This is far from offering them religious structures which correspond to their needs and their faith! One must also note that in whatever way Israel resolves the problem of these Israeli Christians, for their children, who are to attend Jewish schools and be educated according to the Jewish religion, this problem will not crop up anymore because it would have been "resolved" through today's laws! An unheard of and subtle violence against another religion existing only in Israel, now that Stalinism is dead!
aaaaaIt would suffice that a Jew be given the freedom to be a Jew as a Christian, going back to that sort of Judaism of the first centuries of our era which we are accustomed to call "Judeo-Christians". In this way a very serious violation of human rights would be avoided.
aaaaaFinally: if in Israel we will have a pluralistic religious leadership and, sharing the land with the Palestinians these would be given their own pluralistic and democratic State, one could continue to defend the thesis of a Jewish religious state. And many unsolved problems will vanish!
Created / Updated Saturday, March 28, 1998 at 18:55:49
by John Abela ofm for the Maltese Province and the Custody of the Holy Land
This page is best viewed with Netscape at 640x480x67Hz - Space by courtesy of Christus Rex