Separation of Church and State, or Separation of the ultra-Orthodox from Judaism?


This past week the Israeli government went back on its plan to create an egalitarian prayer space due to the immense pressure coming from the ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, community.

This is by no means a unique or new occurrence. For years the ultra-Orthodox community has used their government sanctioned control of Judaism and the Israeli rabbinate to pass extremely problematic laws having to do with conversion, marriage, and Jewish identity (just to name a few).

The problem with this can be viewed from multiple angles. For one, laws like these inevitably expand the already growing disparity between the American and Israeli Jewish communities.

Second, the fact that Israel has no separation of Church and State and has, for some reason, given control to the Haredim allows for an immense amount of bullying from the ultra-Orthodox leaders. Many individuals have their Jewish identity or the authenticity of their conversions and marriages called into question if they deviate from the norm in any way. One irony of this phenomenon is that individuals who are generally more politically conservative (as Orthodox Jews in Israel and America tend to be), and tend to want less government control in their lives, are actually now using the government to thrust religion on Israeli citizens.

However, there seems to be a much greater irony bundled up in this situation.

The ultra-Orthodox community thinks that they are practicing the authentic version of Judaism. According to them, everything that they are doing is simply a continuation of the ways that religious Jews have acted throughout history and nothing has changed. Every other Jewish denomination is a departure from the true Jewish way, and only they are correct.

The only problem with this is that the idea of a state or centralized authority making religion compulsory on its citizens is a view that is explicitly against Judaism.

Once the temple was destroyed and the Sanhedrin dismantled, Judaism became a religion that operated, at its fundamental level, with no central authority. When questions inevitably arose throughout the ages, people would bring them to local scholars, rabbis, and leaders to receive answers – not a centralized authority such as the Pope. This allowed for communal diversity and the multiplicity of opinion that is so frequently celebrated within classical rabbinic Judaism.

Now it is obvious that the modern state of Israel is an extremely confounding variable in the ultra-Orthodox worldview. The problem seems to be as follows: If one were to go back 150 years and mention to any Orthodox leader that we would soon have complete control over the land of Israel, they would say that the messiah has certainly already arrived.

Well, we have complete control over Israel and no messiah.  What is worse is that it mostly happened via secular Jews.

Given these two factors surrounding the creation of Israel, the ultra-Orthodox community has been predominantly against the modern state of Israel. “Only the messiah can reinstate a Jewish run government in the homeland,” they argue based off of a certain reading of a few elusive passages in talmud.

This leaves the ultra-Orthodox in a bind.  On the one hand, since Israel is technically a Jewish state (even though they do not agree with the concept of a modern Jewish state), the Haredim want to be in charge and have their leaders be the authority of all things Jewish. However, on the other hand, having a centralized Jewish authority (the Sanhedrin) is something that is equally reserved for messianic times. It makes no sense to be against the state of Israel on theological grounds, but be pro instituting a centralized Jewish authority based off of those same beliefs.

If the ultra-Orthodox were to truly care about maintaining classical Judaism, then they would leave the government out of this whole endeavor. While I disagree with their opinions about Judaism, I fully respect their right to advocate against a mixed prayer space at the Western Wall (and any other view they may hold). It has always been the Jewish way to have multiple opinions in regards to hotly contested issues and this should be celebrated. However, when the ultra-Orthodox forgo trying to convince people of their opinions based on logic, ration, or rhetoric – as Jews have done since the days of the talmud – and resort to using state sanctions and compulsion, they are advocating for one of the largest breaches of Jewish continuity ever.

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