For most Americans, religion is a thing. A useful thing, perhaps. Even an important thing. But nevertheless…a thing. Something that can be taken out to be admired or stored away for future use. Something that can be crucial—even essential—in the lives of some people, but which others can just as easily be justified in setting aside. Something that has a certain intrinsic value, to be sure…but also something with ascribed value that different people will evaluate in different ways and that some will determine not to have any real value at all. To be sure, we in this country pay a great deal of lip service to the importance of religion as one of the foundation stones upon which just societies rest. One of the core principles of our Constitution, after all, is the protection of the rights of all citizens to worship as they choose. But we also find it slightly peculiar, even perhaps a bit annoying, when people insist that beliefs they have acquired through the medium of religious affiliation are not merely dogmatic ideas they personally have decided to embrace, but absolute truths that should be reflected absolutely in public policy. To say the same thing in other words, we Americans like religion. But we also feel, in this as we do too about other people’s pets or the videotapes of their weddings, that it should never be foisted on others—not unawares by pretending that a particular platform rooted in one’s personal faith simply “makes sense” as public policy, and surely not overtly by insisting that there is something morally perverse or ethically aberrant about embracing some alternate position to whatever policy or program we wish personally to promote as public policy and then refusing to entertain even the reasonability of those alternate approaches.
The great debates that have riven the nation in the last decades—the ones, for example, surrounding abortion, same-sex marriage, illegal immigration, or public access to medical insurance and health care—could all be interpreted along these lines, with parties on both sides of each issue thinking—and occasionally saying aloud—that the people on the other side of the debate are being motivated not by patriotic concern for the public weal or by altruistic feelings for the welfare of others, but by religious convictions they wish to bring to bear in the establishment of public policy whether or not they have the nerve actually to say that clearly. People generally know how they feel about specific issues, particularly hotly debated ones. But I would like to write today about the debate itself, about the specific question of how the thoughtful citizen should behave when, say, something being promoted as a positive innovation in law or practice is also something his or her religion teaches is not only non-mandatory and non-requisite, but actually sinful and morally wrong. Is the right thing to do to stand up or to sit down, to speak out or to keep one’s peace? Are we supposed to insist that society follow what we ourselves have come through the medium of faith to accept as the path of righteousness and decency? Or are we supposed to hold our tongues and allow secular society to make secular decisions that we, as free citizens, will then be free to disagree with and dissent from? These are complicated questions for all Americans to consider, but all these issues boil down to the same basic question: what role should religion play in public life?
Here this is all confusing enough, but things in Israel are exponentially more complicated. Partially that has to do with the specific political process that Israelis use to elect their officials. But mostly, I think, it has to do with the way Judaism itself functions as the coordinating metaphor widely understood not merely as a foundation stone upon which the secular state rests but more accurately as the glue that holds that society together. When people are annoyed by Israel defining itself as a Jewish state, they generally justify that sentiment with reference to the non-Jewish minorities that form 24.7% of the population. (Why those same people never seem anywhere nearly as exercised by Iran, Mauritania, Libya, or Pakistan choosing to self-define as Islamic republics is an entirely different question, although one with a relatively obvious answer.) But, the right of any state to self-define in terms of its national ethos and culture being both basic and inalienable (a point formally articulated in the opening lines of the Declaration of Independence, among other places), that is exactly how Israel defines itself. And that, clearly, is why things that are non-issues in other places are hugely contentious ones in the Jewish state.
Just this last week, a bill was introduced by the Yesh Atid (“There Is a Future”) party headed by Yair Lapid, Israel’s Finance Minister, proposing that Israel create the possibility of couples marrying in “civil union” ceremonies that would provide them with the same benefits available to couples who marry in religious ceremonies. The bill also proposes that there also be created a way to dissolve such unions, one that would be a kind of secular parallel to the divorce proceedings through which married couples can legally and permanently dissolve their nuptial bond. The bill’s chances, although not negligible, are not great. But the very fact that it was introduced and is being taken seriously—along with the possibility that it could actually become law—constitutes a kind of sea change for Israel, one that I think I think I welcome. Or, to speak less equivocally, it is a solution to a problem that I personally feel needed desperately to be solved without being the solution I personally would have favored. So the question comes down to this: is solving the problem more important than not solving it even if the solution is, in my humble opinion, the less good option? It’s a tough call. But in the end I think it probably is.
Israel does not have civil marriage for anyone who self-defines in terms of religious identity. Christians have to be married by Christian clergypeople. Muslims have to marry under Islamic auspices. Jews are obliged to be married by rabbis who are certified by the Chief Rabbinate to perform weddings. Couples who declare themselves to have no religion at all do have a civil option, but for Jewish citizens to be obliged falsely to declare themselves to have no religious identity just to escape the obligation to engage with the Chief Rabbinate, a vestigial institution at best which has evolved into a bastion of religious extremism with which most normal people would naturally to have no truck at all—that seems beyond insulting and can hardly be the solution to the problem for people who are proud of their Jewish identity and who have no interest in making believe that they aren’t. To say the same thing in other words, for the Jewish state to offer a way to marry without having to submit to the heavy-handed auspices of the Chief Rabbinate only to Jewish citizens who deny that they have any sort of Jewish identity seems insane. And that is why the bill introduced by Yesh Atid is so important.
The bill specifically references couples as “two human beings,” thereby making irrelevant their gender. That opens the door to civil unions for same-sex couples. But it will also have a very salutary effect on countless Israeli non-same-sex couples unable to marry because they cannot adequately prove their Jewishness—a problem that confronts particularly immigrants from the former Soviet Union but also one that can make huge problems for olim from North America as well, and particularly converts to Judaism—or because they do not quality for marriage under some other rule that the Rabbinate imposes on those who wish to wed. The courts in the United States have determined that in most cases separate is not equal, and that I believe is surely so. But this constitutes such a huge step forward for Israeli society that I think all right-minded, forward-thinking people should embrace it as serious progress that should be applauded and not derided for not going far enough.
Having said that, the real solution to the problem lies, I believe, not solely in the dissolution of the Chief Rabbinate but in ending the stranglehold on Jewish religious life that the Chief Rabbinate is able to maintain not because they have won over the hearts and minds of the citizenry through the sheer force of their moral example but because they have benefited mightily by the political system that allows their constituents, time and time again, to function as deal-makers and power-brokers in Israel’s peculiar version of parliamentary democracy. If non-Orthodox rabbis were permitted to function fully, then Jewish people would not need to turn to secular, non-Jewish ceremonies to wed…but could marry in the Jewish setting they want and deserve. If there simply were no Chief Rabbinate and each religious stream were permitted to function by its own lights, then the alternative to religious extremism would be religious liberality. And that would be a very good thing for the Jewish state and its Jewish citizens.
This new bill exists to provide a way around the rules, a way to circumvent the obligation of Jewish people to live fully Jewish lives to the best of their ability, a way to sneak past the roadblocks set in place by an extremist Chief Rabbinate. That is a solution, but it isn’t the best one. Nor is it one I can support other than as the lesser of two evils. The real solution is for Israel to take its place among the democracies of the world and offer its citizens not civil unions but religious freedom. Yes, it is painful for me to see Israel listed among the forty-five nations in the world that have the most restrictive marriage laws—for those of you reading electronically, click here for a remarkably upsetting and eye-opening picture of how things are out there in wide world of matrimony—but I also can’t feel good about the idea of Israel solving its problems by creating a way for its Jewish citizens simply to step away from Judaism and embrace secularism instead. The solution is not to create an exit route, but to work to obviate the need for an exit route! And that is the day-to-day work of organizations like Mercaz and The Masorti Foundation for Conservative Judaism in Israel, both of which are out there in the world striving to obviate the need for legislation like the bill introduced in the Knesset this week by creating a kind of traditional, halakhic, liberal, just, fair-minded, and inclusionary Judaism in Israel for Israelis.
I hope the Yesh Atid bill succeeds. It’s not what I would have proposed personally, but it will do some good…and perhaps it, and other pieces of parallel legislation, will eventually break the power of the Chief Rabbinate and let some fresh air blow across the spiritual landscape of modern Israel.