To be fair, at the moment, no one should call me a rabbi; I still have a few years of studies before I will be ordained at the Schechter Institute in Jerusalem. However, even after my ordination, I do not want the government to judge my worthiness to be a religious leader. I would much prefer the government worry about issues other than the way its citizens connect to God, spirituality, and halacha.
Instead, I would prefer the government worry about the services it provides its citizens, such as national defense, infrastructure, and education. The state provides a number of social services, such as health care, funerals, and even weddings, and it is precisely for this reason that I am so glad that the state has decided to fund non-Orthodox rabbis.
Maintaining a practice that goes back to the Ottoman period, Israel recognizes a number of religions that it then funds to provide certain services. These services, in turn, can only be provided by a religious body. As a result, two Catholics who wish to marry must do so via a state-recognized priest, while two Jews who wish to marry must do so via a state-recognized rabbi, who is always Orthodox. The system has a number of flaws, most seriously in that it does not allow someone who is not recognized as a member of any of these religions to marry at all, a particularly common problem among some immigrants from the former Soviet Union who are not recognized as Jewish by Orthodox halacha. In addition, the system forces one who wishes to get married, apparently considered a civil right by the state, to adhere to a certain religious standard when doing so.
The recent ruling in favor of funding non-Orthodox rabbis does not address this problem of marriage. But it does allow Israelis to have more freedom in choosing the color and flavor of many other meaningful aspects of their lives, and this is to be applauded.
In the past year, I have had the privilege of interning at the Masorti (Conservative) community in Kfar Vradim, a small town in the Western Galilee. Kfar Vradim is a unique example in Israel of a town where ‘the synagogue they don’t go to’ for many secular Jews is actually the Masorti one. In practice this means that many families choose to have their children’s bar or bat mitzvah at the Masorti synagogue, go there for one service during Yom Kippur, and are generally pleased that such an option exists.
The residents of Kfar Vradim are also unique because their town does not have a religious council. If they had a religious council, that council would be responsible for funerals in the town. Instead, when a resident of the town dies, the family calls the local council, who immediately informs them that they can choose a Masorti leader to officiate or an Orthodox one. The family makes its decision, and the leaders of both communities readily oblige to be with the family in their time of need.
The town’s mayor, Sivan Yechieli, is to be commended for his active role in promoting religious pluralism in his town. However, the burden of paying for such services—after all, the rabbi who officiates such a funeral deserves to be paid for his time—falls on the few dozen families who pay membership dues to the synagogue, plus any donations received from abroad. The tax shekels of all Israelis already go to provide services such as funerals, and so it is only fitting that now the state will give that money to the ones who in fact do the work.
Many have commented that the court’s ruling toward funding non-Orthodox rabbis is only the first step toward a more open Israel, and they are right. However, the next step is not government recognition of the non-Orthodox as rabbis; it is government recognition that myriad social services can be performed in a variety of ways. It is beautiful that the state helps fund people’s ability to seek counseling, to mark life cycle events in a meaningful way, and to grapple with a rich collection of Jewish literature. The state should take the brave step of saying that there are different ways to approach these things. If Israel is to have true religious freedom, it will not only fund Orthodox rabbis, but will support leaders of all kinds, including both non-Orthodox rabbis and non-religious leaders, in offering such public services.
As a Masorti rabbi-in-training, I am glad that Israel has taken a step toward helping me make a living while following my passion. But more importantly, I am glad that Israel has taken the first step toward recognizing that its government should not be telling its citizens how to be Jews.
(image via Shutterstock)
Arie Hasit is studying in the rabbinical school at the Schechter Institute in Jerusalem. He has worked with synagogues in Tel Aviv and Kfar Vradim as well as the Masorti Movement’s youth group, Noam.