Sunday, February 24, 2002

The Religious-Secular Split

Rather than bring national unity, the current conflict seems to be exacerbating the problems within the Secular-Religious divide. While there are many shades and forms of religious observance, there are basically three Jewish religious philosophies in Israel: secular, Religious Zionist, and Haredi. The secular Jews do not believe in G-d or Torah, and therefore view all religion as nonsense. They tend to identify with the strict secularity and separation of Church and state of Europeans in their world outlook, rather than embracing the agnostic but respectful attitude towards religion which most secular Americans seem to have. The Religious Zionists, who wear knit, colored yarmulkes believe that the Israel is a Jewish State only as much as we make it one. I.e., to fulfill religious obligations is still a must, but they believe that the creation of the State of Israel should be taken as a religious omen, and that the religious Jews should work within the system to make the State more Jewish. While Secular Zionists were at the forefront of the pre-1967 settlement drive, the Religious Zionists took the lead after 1967. Meanwhile the Haredim (plural of Haredi), who wear black hats and suits, who were originally opposed to statehood, are becoming more and more involved in the government to obtain funds for Yeshivas and draft religious legislation, but do not serve in the army nor do they view the state as being particularly Jewish. Of course, these are general trends, and there are plenty of right-wing secular Jews and Haredim living in the settlements, and plenty of left-wing Religious Zionists (including the speaker of the Knesset) who advocate withdrawal. This week, the Supreme Court ruled that the Knesset must legislate an end to the Haredi draft deferment soon.

Today, the “debate” is continuing about what kind of State Israel is going to be. The problem is that the political leaders of these different ideologies are more interested in grandstanding and making rhetorical statements than reaching an agreement on how to live because each group is convinced it will win in the end. The Secular Jews are convinced that the Religious will “wake up” and see how silly their religion is, and the Religious Jews are convinced that the Secular Jews will “wake up” and see how empty and meaningless non-religious life is. The main fight is between the Haredim and the Secular Jews, with Religious Zionists taking flak from both sides. The problem has become so great that some of the largest parties on the left, Shinui and Meretz, state as their primary goal, “To fight the Haredim.” However, if one could get a Haredi and secular Jew to hammer out a conversation, it would look something like this:

Secular: You Haredim are all crazy. You have been sitting around studying Torah and praying in your Yeshivas for 2000 years and what exactly did you accomplish? You sat there praying your hearts out for a return to the Land of Israel with all your souls, and you got nothing. When we secular Jews decided to start up a country, we took action. It only took us 50 years from the first Zionist Congress in 1898 until we founded an independent Jewish State in 1948.
Haredi: So you think that this is a Jewish State? And what exactly makes this a Jewish State? After all, Israeli Law is based on Turkish and British law. You don’t even have to be Jewish to be a citizen here. We have the Torah. The Torah gives us a very clear guideline as to how to run a country. We have thousands of years of legal experience and precedent according to Jewish law. We have been running our own affairs according to the Torah just fine for the last four thousand years. We don’t need your state, thank you very much. We would be just as happy to live under the British as under you.
Secular: This is a Jewish State because it is a democracy and the majority of the people living here are Jewish. We share a culture and a history together. What makes an Italian state Italian or a British state British? They live together and share one national identity and history.
Haredi: And without Torah, what, exactly, do Israelis share in common? We have lived apart for 2,000 years, with very little contact between the different branches. Yemenite, French, Moroccan, Indian, Polish, Argentine, and American Jews have absolutely nothing in common except that which is contained in the Torah: language (Hebrew), history (the Bible), food (kosher), and Jewish Law.
Secular: We share a history of persecution for our beliefs.
Haredi: Beliefs that you do not believe in.
Secular: Take a look at America. They are a nation of immigrants that shares a common national identity even though they come from different countries and backgrounds all over the world. We live here now, what’s the difference?
Haredi: The difference is that you call yourself a Jewish state. If you just wanted this place to be a nation of immigrants, then why aren’t you living in Manhattan? It’s a lot less trouble than here.
Secular: We need a place for Jews to run to when they are persecuted, a homeland.
Haredi: A lot of good that’s done. This is the only country in the world where non-Jews can kill you for being Jewish, and the rest of the world is cheering them on.
Secular: Well, I don’t see you helping with that. Why won’t you go into the Army if you’re so worried? I have to send my sons and daughters into the Army and sit at home and worry every night whether they are going to make it back. I don’t see you taking any risks or making any major contribution.
Haredi: We learn in Yeshiva day and night. This is our contribution. The “Jewish State” would have no reason to continue existing if there was no learning in the Yeshivas, if nobody was keeping the faith alive. We contribute spiritually and you contribute physically.
Secular: Well, I manage a grocery store, and nobody would be able to eat if there weren’t grocery stores, yet I had to do my army service and I get called up for a month of reserve duty every year and I have to worry about my kids. The country can’t exist without automobile mechanics, engineers, sales clerks, steel workers, and house painters. If we all said that our work was too important and refused to go into the army, the state would have been destroyed long ago. I’m not asking you not to learn in Yeshiva, I’m asking you why you can’t take a three-year break and help out with the country.
Haredi: Because the army is a corrupting influence. The army is full of promiscuity, drug use, and misbehavior. Half of our boys wouldn’t be able to stay religious in the Army.
Secular: Then why don’t you do what the religious Zionists did and set up a Haredi unit in the army where you can serve and still live according to your faith?
Haredi: And look what happens to them. Many religious Zionists simply stop being religious altogether when they go into the Army. We can’t afford that! We will never be like the religious Zionists because they follow Rabbi Cook, whose teachings we believe to be inferior. In spite of this, we did set up a Haredi unit.
Secular: Yes, but almost nobody goes into it. The Religious Zionists are drafted. They don’t have a choice.
Haredi: Well, why aren’t you complaining about the Israeli Arabs who are also exempted from the draft?
Secular: Are you crazy!? If we handed them guns, they would immediately turn on us. As a matter of fact, there are plenty of very loyal Arabs in the army from among the Circasians, Druze, and Bedouin. There is even an Arab General. But this is a Jewish State, and we know we can trust you not to turn around with your gun and start mowing innocent people down. I have seen no effort on the part of the Haredim to work out a solution, to try to figure out a way around this impasse, only to resist and obstruct any attempt at bringing the Haredim into society.
Haredi: But this is not a Jewish State and we don’t recognize it as such, therefore we have no desire to join this society. I have about as much desire to serve in the Israeli army as I do in the Polish or Spanish Army.
Secular: Well, you certainly seem selective as to when you recognize the state and when you don’t. You may not recognize the state when it comes to Army service, but you do when it comes to receiving government funds for your Yeshivas, you don’t recognize the state when it comes to obeying the rulings of the Supreme Court relating to draft deferments and separation of religion and state, but you recognize the state enough to vote and pass religious legislation banning the sale of pork or mandating that places of business be closed on Shabbat.
Haredi: Remember, if it weren’t for us, you wouldn’t be here. The only reason that there are Jews today and we didn’t assimilate into Greece, Rome, Europe, and the Arab world is that we kept our beliefs and our careful practice of Torah. If we don’t continue learning and doing the commandments then Israel will turn into something totally unrecognizable. It is just as easy to assimilate inside of Israel. Already, if we look around, this place looks more American than Jewish. There are McDoalds opening up all over the country, we drink American Pepsi and you watch American programs on television. If we don’t keep our religion, what will Israel be except a more dangerous and poor version of America?
Secular: Well, I don’t believe and I don’t want to be religious, and you are just taking my money and ordering me to be more religious while refusing to contribute anything tangible to Israeli society and sending my sons out to die for you.

Another problem within the religious-secular divide is the Religious control over civil matters such as weddings, divorces, and burials. Upon independence, it was decided that because of Israel’s sharp variety of religions and traditions, with Jews, Muslims, Christians, Druze, and Bahai to name a few, each religion would form a religious council and each council would govern the civil affairs of its own adherents. The Jewish state religious authorities are known as the “Rabbinut.”

Meanwhile, in America, the Jewish people divided into four groups; Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, and unaffiliated. The Reform and Conservative, while making up the bulk of the American Jewish population, decided that Jewish law is not obligatory and can be rewritten to suit the needs of the day, while the Orthodox believe that Jewish law is not something which human beings are capable of rewriting any more than the laws of physics can be rewritten. While the Orthodox consider Reform and Conservative adherents to still be Jewish, since one can never “escape” from being Jewish, they nevertheless do not consider Reform or Conservative to be authentic forms of Judaism.

These divisions are all theoretical until it comes to issues such as conversions and marriages, and divorces. According to the traditional (Orthodox) interpretation of Jewish law which has been in effect for about 3,000 years, conversion to Judaism requires three things: 1) Immersion in a ritual bath (Mikveh) 2) acceptance of the entire Torah and all Jewish law as obligatory and 3) circumcision. Because the Reform do not believe that Jewish law is obligatory, Reform converts do not fulfill the second requirement, acceptance of the entire Torah. The Conservative ideology of being able to rewrite the law is viewed by the Orthodox as a decision not to follow the law, since the law never really changes. Therefore, when someone goes through a Conservative conversion, he also doesn’t fulfill the second requirement, acceptance of the entire Torah. The conversion must also be carried out by three religiously observant Jews. Because the Reform rabbis do not observe Shabbat, and because the conservative Rabbis have “rewritten” many laws over the last 100 years and do not follow the traditional interpretations, these rabbis are not considered to be observant by the Orthodox. For all these reasons Reform and Conservative conversions are not considered valid conversions, and someone who has gone through them is not considered to be truly Jewish according to the Orthodox.

It is my personal experience that most Reform and Conservative Jews do not necessarily believe in or even know the minutia of the differences between the philosophies. The synagogue fulfills a social niche as a place of gathering and solidarity for many American Jews. In Israel, there is no need for such a function because just living in a Jewish state is enough of an act of group solidarity for most people, and there are no friendly Gentiles against whom to define one’s self. Therefore the Reform and Conservative, while making up the bulk of American Jewry, are a tiny minority in Israel.

However, it is now all coming to a head as the Israeli Supreme Court last week ruled that Jews who have been through a non-Orthodox conversion can be registered as Jews by the state for the purpose of census and statistics. This has no effect, however, on the civil system whereby marriages and divorces are controlled by the Orthodox Rabbinut. Because Israel’s definition of who a Jew is (one Jewish grandparent, married to a Jew, or went through any type of conversion) is different from the definition of who is a Jew provided by the Orthodox Rabbinut (one with a Jewish mother or who went through an Orthodox conversion,) hundreds of thousands of people now live in Israel but are not able to marry, divorce, or be buried in a Jewish cemetery by the religious authorities. Many of these Gentiles want to go through conversions to show solidarity with the country, but do not want to keep all of the commandments, so they go through non-Orthodox conversions. However, when it comes time to marry, the Rabbinut will not recognize their conversions and therefore will not help them, and they are left with no one to officiate their weddings. Most simply fly to the nearby island Cypress to get married as Israel, like all countries, is required to recognize marriages performed outside of the country.

There is much talk of beginning a non-religious civil service to take care of these problems. This would, however, generate a new problem, a problem which the Reform and Conservative will soon face in America as well. Every time a sect of Judaism modifies the practice of conversions and marriages, the adherents of that sect will eventually not be considered Jewish. Christianity was originally a sect of Judaism, with anybody who wanted to convert to Christianity having to go through a full Jewish conversion. Later, Paul modified the conversion process, requiring only Baptism (ritual immersion,) not circumcision and acceptance of the Torah. Immediately after this change, it was still known who was Jewish and who had gone through a Christian conversion. After a few generations, however, it was no longer remembered who had converted and who had married, and, since there was major doubt as to who was, in fact, Jewish, anyone Christian who wanted to become a religious Jew or have a Jewish marriage had to go through an arduous conversion process lasting several years.

The same danger faces Israel today. In a few generations, Israeli and American Jewish society may very well split into two different groups, one group of Jews who have gone through marriages and divorces by the Orthodox authorities, and another group of Reform, Conservative, and secular Jews whose status as far as Jewish law is concerned is uncertain, and who will have to go through conversion to marry into the Orthodox Jews.
It must also be remembered, however, that this may not be such an issue in America as Reform, Conservative, and secular Jews are disappearing at breakneck speed, with a 58% intermarriage rate, virtually none of the children of intermarried couples being raised as Jews, and with birth rates which are well below replacement anyway. Meanwhile, the birthrates among Orthodox Jews are astronomical (Haredi families with ten or more children are commonplace,) and Orthodox intermarriage is at about 1-2%. While the Orthodox only comprise about 20% of American Jewish households today, this number is sure to rise very quickly in the near future.

In Israel, a similar situation exists, with secular families having one to two children, religious Zionists four to six, and Haredi families, by conservative estimates, an average of 7.5. This is counterbalanced by immigration statistics, which show hundreds of thousands of largely secular, intermarried, assimilated people moving from economically depressed countries like Russia and Argentina to Israel. 70% of new immigrants are not Jewish by anybody’s definition, including their own. Assimilated American Jews will gradually lose their cultural and religious distinctiveness and "disappear" off the radar screein into the general American society. In Israel, however, there is no "greater society" into which to assimilate, and the Jewish people may very well split into two distinct groups, one of which does not consider the other to be Jewish. The secular-religious split, which was much less important 50 years ago, is now becoming one of the dominant issues in Israeli politics. The face of Israel will look very different in another 30 years.

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