JTA

Israelis are getting religion, in spite of a coercive Chief Rabbinate

Rabbi Dr. Kenneth Brander – June 21, 2024

When the war in Gaza began, hundreds of Israelis volunteered to tie tzitzit for soldiers going to reserve duty. Apparently, the 50,000 pairs of green dress tzitzit that the army had in storage were not enough to meet the demand from thousands of reservists who wanted to wear them when they went into service or battle. 

But if you asked many of the non-kippah wearing soldiers who wanted to wear these tzitzit if they would formally identify as “religious,” the answer would be a clear “no.” There are also stories of soldiers unfamiliar with the blessing of Hagomel — recited when one is saved from a dangerous situation — asking their religious soldier mates to recite the blessing with them. Women who did not formally identify as religious are holding challah-baking parties both to feed and support the soldiers and many have also embraced lighting additional Shabbat candles on Friday evenings for the hostages in Gaza. Tel Aviv restaurateurs who prided themselves on not being kosher flipped over their restaurants to kosher so their cuisine could be delivered to the front lines. 

These are just a few examples of a trend, since the war began, of a small segment of Israelis who would not call themselves “religious” taking on religious customs and mitzvot (though a December survey found that most do not feel closer to religion). 

On the one hand, this should not be surprising; Israeli society is culturally connected to Judaism. The majority of secular Israeli Jews mark Shabbat in some way: for example, 69% have a special Friday night meal. Over 60% fast on Yom Kippur and over 92% give their sons a brit. 

And yet, these stories of “secular” Israelis taking on religious customs stand in sharp contrast to the fierce divisions caused in society by the role of religion, including the ongoing legal battle around whether or not haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, Israelis should serve in the military (or how to find a gentle way for them to serve). This renaissance has not come from rules or guidelines set by the government through the state rabbinate, which has oversight on many matters of religion for the Jewish population, including marriage, divorce, adoption and conversion. 

Many Israelis currently feel a disconnect with state rabbinic authorities, as most of its members are ultra-Orthodox, meaning they often do not serve in the army or have the life experiences of much of the rest of the population. 

And the rabbinate’s processes can often be coercive and onerous. For example, a young man I know in the conversion process failed a recent hearing at a state rabbinical court because he was not able to recite by heart the entire long blessing said after meals (which most Jews read from a prayer book or their cell phone). Meanwhile, the court didn’t give him any credit for going to great lengths to wrap tefillin everyday while serving in Gaza since the war began on Oct. 7, simply because they have no context for such an experience. They told him to come back to the court for another hearing in three months. 

When I officiate a wedding, I must, by Israeli law, ask the bride for a receipt proving she went to a mikvah, or ritual bath, before the ceremony, as commanded by halacha, or religious law. Ideally, I wish this receipt were not required, and that I could just trust the bride to use her judgment; I believe it is enough for me to have spoken with the couple before the wedding about the importance of using the mikvah, and given them contact information for such a facility.

When religious authorities are not reflective and don’t appreciate the experiences of the general population, or “amcha,” it affects how all of us view religion and how its institutions serve the people. In too many cases, rather than understanding and seeing non-Orthodox or non-formally religious populations as their equals, the state rabbinate sees them as a weak link in the chain of Judaism — people who need to be told what to do, and how to do it.

This disconnect between the state system and society is why rates of marriages performed via the rabbinate or other religious authorities affiliated with the state are dropping.

It should be remembered that there is no Israeli legal requirement that soldiers wear tzitzit, or that families give their son a brit, or that Israeli Jews observe Shabbat or fast on Yom Kippur. What we should take away from this thriving of religious practices during these difficult times is how this interest in practice has emerged naturally. There has been the actualization of an idea quoted in the fourth chapter of Psalms: “You freed me from distress”  — a spiritual liberation that follows or accompanies trauma.

All of this is telling evidence that religion does better in the free marketplace of ideas, without being coercive. At the same time, both secular politicians and Jewish religious leaders have an obligation to create a context in which Judaism can be nurturing. 

This idea is deeply rooted in our tradition, especially in Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, the 12th- century work that seeks to describe all of Judaism’s laws. In “Laws of Kings and their Wars,” Maimonides outlines three mitzvot that Israel is commanded to fulfill upon entering the Promised Land, including appointing a king and waging war to root out pure evil. In the third commandment upon entering the land — to build God’s chosen house — Maimonides’ choice of words is significant: “Seek out His Presence and go there,” he writes. “Seek out” highlights how spiritual or religious life is only effective when it comes from individuals, not from authorities forcing it upon the people.

This is what we see happening today: people seeking out Jewish practice and spirituality. The struggle to eliminate the obvious evil of Hamas is certainly part of the impetus pushing more people to embrace these customs. But just as Maimonidies outlined, it is only after setting out to destroy evil that the people of Israel will embark on building God’s chosen house, or a spiritual life.

As we hope and plan for better days, as the threats presented by Hamas and others eventually fade, leaders concerned with preserving Israel’s strong Jewish identity need to find a way for religious life to flourish without coercion. In practice, this means offering choices of different types of Jewish education along with more flexible and understanding paths for prayer, conversions and lifestyles. It also requires solving challenges within the religious framework.

One of my goals, and that of the Modern Orthodox institution I lead, is to help give people a more accessible and understanding experience with religion. That is why we discuss with the young generation how they feel about the current system, and instill values like the obligation to respect those different from themselves. 

I don’t need to compromise my halachic standards in order to be respectful of others. For example, I have never prayed in an egalitarian prayer space, yet I understand why it is important that, near the current formal Western Wall plaza, the most holy place we have, there be a separate agreed-upon area where men and women can pray together if they choose. 

Maimonides and countless Jews for thousands of years were not able to live in the land of Israel, to form a government, to fight evil in the region — much less build a spiritual epicenter here. Now, the spiritual epicenter in Israel is larger than it has been, even in the time of the Second Temple. This spiritual epicenter is essential to our survival, to maintaining our moral compass in the face of Hamas’ evil or our own personal challenges. And it will only happen without coercion, when religion is a welcomed choice.

Read this article on the JTA website 

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