No Compulsion in Religion

As an American-Israeli it is painful to watch Israel’s dirty laundry be aired out so publicly. I have been content defending Israel’s right to exist, touting her accomplishments and achievement as a leader in high tech innovation and in medicine. When I was a kid I loved the bravado of the T-shirt in the Shuk that depicted an F-16 with an Israeli flag on its wing tailing and similar jet with stars and stripes. The caption said, “Don’t worry America, Israel is right behind you.” It’s not that Israel could do no wrong, but that her mistakes were forgivable given the enormous pressure that the country’s citizen bare every day.

Being the American family, my parents were the only one of their siblings who left Israel for the states, it fell to us to be religious. None of my twenty Israeli cousins are religious. Given that, and given the reality of Israel, I am certain that had we stayed in Israel, I would not be religious either, and certainly not a rabbi. While there is a large swath of the Israeli populous which is religious in its own way, the polarity of either/or thinking, either black hat or no hat at all, still feels like the norm. I’ve recently been introduced to this great term for the unvoiced middle contingent of Israelis – they wear “transparent kippot.”

In the past, American Jewry’s wading into the affairs of Israel was frowned upon. “You have no idea,” we have been told. It was true – before. It was true during the first sixty years when Israel was fighting for the right to exist, but that fight is largely won. To be sure, threats still exist on a daily basis. However, that something like “peace” is nearing is evident in that the central issue facing Israel, since her birth, is finally being addressed. The elephant has grown larger than the room itself: What does it mean to be a “Jewish State?” To what degree religious, and to what degree culturally defined? This is where American Jewry has to step in. The greatest asset we have to offer Israel in the midst of her crisis of Identity, religious or secular, is a working model of pluralism.

I suggest that Israel make a clear separation of Synagogue and State. I suggest this A) Because it works for us and B) Because there can be no compulsion in religion – it weakens any sense of moral compass for its adherence. I am suggesting that the Haredim, who don’t want women on their busses, who don’t want women on their streets to be dressed in any way other than their specific way, who don’t want female doctors to rise to the dais to accept awards, will actually be healthier without the over-stated voice in Israeli political life.   While I disagree with each and every embarrassing misogynistic position that has been voiced these past few months, I actually believe in the right of these Haredim to voice their opinions.  And where else to do it but in Israel?  Nonetheless, they are going about it all wrong.  We are taught that “everything is in the hands of heaven, with the exception of awe of heaven” – Our early sages guided us that we must be free to choose God and choose our path in Judaism, or the entire enterprise is meaningless.

Only without a government sponsored Rabbinate can freedom of religion really flourish in Israel. When that happens we can see Orthodox, Hassidim, Reform, Reconstructionist, and Conservative Jews, and even right-wing Haredim, support each other in continual growth and closeness to our shared, One and Only God.

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