Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Memo to Haredim: Jewish pluralism won’t destroy your way of life

The more I learn about orthodox Jewish traditions, the more they mirror the orthodox Muslims - Mike Ghouse

by Carlo Strenger
Courtesy - Haaretz

To protect their modus vivendi, the ultra-Orthodox sector must give up certain privileges and stop forcing their beliefs onto the rest of Israel's population.

Last week I gave some lectures in Switzerland on Israel and its interminable problems. My audience was mostly composed of Jews who care deeply for Israel, who want the best for it, and profoundly believe that only the basic liberal order, with its respect for human rights and tolerance for different ways of life can, in the long run, save Israel from its internal woes.

Originally Swiss myself, I found the audience profoundly sympathetic to my message, and I am grateful for the warm reception and hospitality. Why is it then that the simple message that the basic order of liberal democracy will save Israel is received with often venomous resistance in Israel?

In Israel’s currently charged atmosphere, the group that feels most threatened by the new revival of classical liberalism is the ultra-Orthodox sector. This sector has staged large demonstrations against Yair Lapid and his demands to adopt the ultra-Orthodox school system in a way that allows Haredim to participate in Israel’s economy and for them to help shoulder Israel’s security burden. This is a great pity; I am certain that Jewish pluralism will not threaten the ultra-Orthodox way of life, but will actually help to preserve it.

I am an avowed atheist, but I grew up in a family that combined ultra-Orthodoxy and religious Zionism. Most of my extended family is Haredi, and I have warm relations with them. It may sound strange if a secular atheist tells you, Haredim, to return to the model according to which Judaism has functioned for millennia, but I think that this modus operandi was much wiser than the way things have functioned in Israel in the last 65 years.

My message to you, dear Haredim, is very simple: I understand that you feel threatened in your way of life by the new government’s state of mind. But if you want to protect it, you just need to accept that you must stop forcing your beliefs onto the rest of Israel’s population. Let me explain.

The current situation in Israel is an anomaly in Jewish history. My grandparents were Haredim, and so is most of my extended family. None of them ever expected anybody else to pay for their children’s upbringing and education. They worked hard during the day, and studied the Torah and the Talmud in the time left. So did many of Judaism’s greatest figures: Maimonides was one of the great physicians of his time, Ibn Ezra, one of the great astronomers of his century and Don Yitzchak Abrabanel, a gifted businessman whose advice was coveted by many governments.

Let’s talk about money then, one of the obvious points of conflict, because you Haredim demand that Israel finance the Yeshiva system. You might do well to remember that for many centuries Yeshivot were financed by voluntary contributions of the members of the Jewish community and was not imposed by taxation. This is how Jewish life has been working for millennia, and for good reasons.

In the past each Jewish community found a delicate balance between its elected leadership and the rabbinical authority that was hired and paid by the community. Paradoxically, Jewish life was more democratic in the last two thousand years than it has been in Israel, where the state is paying rabbis, and gives religious monopoly to one of Judaism’s many currents.

If you want to protect your way of life, you need renounce some privileges, like payment of a large contingent of rabbis and kashrut supervisors by the state. But I seriously think that you stand to gain more from accepting the basic liberal order than you’ll lose from it.

The Haredi argument that without a single standard for Jewish conversion, marriage and divorce the Jewish people will fall apart doesn’t hold water. In any case, dear Haredim, you only marry those of your own belief and lifestyle anyway, so your monopoly on rabbinical state institutions in Israel is not necessary for you to assure your way of life.

And please do not tell us that the survival of the Jewish people depends on our accepting your particular interpretation of Judaism. The majority of the Jewish people in the world do not share your understanding of Judaism: Worldwide there are many more conservative, liberal, reform and secular Jews than Orthodox – never mind Haredi. You must realize that there are more Jews in the U.S. than in Israel, and US Jewry has flourished phenomenally under conditions of pluralism.

Israel’s situation is an anomaly in Western democracies of the last two hundred years. No modern democracy except Israel maintains a situation in which the clergy determines how its citizens can marry or how they will be buried. Dear Haredim, you must understand that the current status quo is intolerable for everybody but yourselves. Precisely because I feel close to you, I strongly suggest that you accept pluralism in Jewish life. This will prevent unnecessary conflict and will not threaten your way of life in any way.

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