ז׳ בסיון ה׳תשע״ז (June 1, 2017) OP-ED: The Ultra-Orthodox Should Not Have Cradle-to-Grave Control

President Trump’s daughter Ivanka Trump converted to Judaism in 2009 before marrying Jared Kushner. But questions arose soon after she was thrust into the national spotlight: Was her Orthodox conversion actually legitimate, and would it be considered adequate by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel?

The answer was yes, but the fact that the question was necessary to ask and the fact that the answer to these sorts of questions matters so much poses a huge problem to Jews everywhere, and especially to many in Israel.

The ultra-Orthodox have control over all life cycle events, which determine the personal status of Israelis. This has always been the case and it is very problematic for citizens of the state,  and especially damaging to people who don’t follow Judaism to the standard of the ultra-Orthodox.

These personal status events include things such as birth and adoption, marriage, divorce, death and burial, and, perhaps most important, conversion. The ultra-Orthodox have control over all of them. Ultra-Orthodox Judaism should not have exclusive control over personal status, and drastic steps need to be taken to ensure that Judaism is governed fairly in Israel.

An important thing to realize is that while ultra-Orthodox Judaism’s presence is felt most strongly, only 20 percent of Israelis identify themselves as Orthodox, and within that, only 8 percent as ultra-Orthodox. This creates a huge issue in the country where a group of people that is greatly outnumbered is making laws for people who find the regulations unnecessary and quite frankly, really frustrating and aggravating to follow.

People who want to get married with a Jewish ceremony are not allowed to in Israel if they did not have an authentic enough conversion or one of the couple’s status as a Jew is questioned. Additionally, same-sex and interfaith marriages cannot be done under Israeli law because of the ultra-Orthodox Jews that govern all the personal status events and who do not approve of such marriages.

According to a 2016 survey by Hiddush, an organization that works to “implement the basic values guaranteed in Israel’s Declaration of Independence,” the majority of people would want to find an alternative to being married by the Chief Rabbinate. With 55 percent of people wanting this option, it is also the first time the majority of people have decided they would want the flexibility to be married civilly.

This is both surprising and uplifting in that it seems like the country is on the right track toward finding something better than having their significant life events controlled exclusively by the ultra-Orthodox.

Additionally, there should be a separation of church and state for the entire country in general. The state of Israel wasn’t founded for a specific sect of Judaism; it was founded to protect all different kinds of Jewish people from oppression. Similarly, Muslims and Christians should also not have their personal status events governed by religious law. Muslims and Christians also are not able to intermarry and many of them would rather have their personal status events conducted according to civil law.

Israel should be a country in which all Jews can choose to practice their religion in the way they want. Many people struggle with not being able to get married and there are often cases when people get upset that patrilineal descent does not mean in the eyes of the law that they are really Jewish. Jewish people who also consider themselves Jewish but are not considered to be Jewish by the country cannot be buried in a Jewish cemetery.

In response to these kinds of case and others, Rabbi Uri Regev, the head of Hiddush, recognized that what’s happening in the country is not okay and that the poll results suggest that something must be done in the country.

Separation of church and state in Israel is necessary because it would mean that the ultra-Orthodox wouldn’t be able to govern every single thing, and that people could practice Judaism as they saw fit. Israel was created to protects all Jews, so it should be a place where every Jewish sect and kind of practice are tolerated and accepted.

Some people say that ultra-Orthodox control over personal status issues is good for the country. The argument to support this claim is that Israel is, after all, a Jewish state, and so the people who best understand the halachot (laws) of Judaism should be the ones exclusively controlling how everything is done.

However, I would argue that ultra-Orthodox don’t actually understand the halachot better than any other type of Jew. The reality is that Judaism is a religion where followers are supposed to struggle with God and argue with God. Accordingly, different sects of Judaism have different interpretations of the laws. So the ultra-Orthodox aren’t any more qualified than Reform Jews or anyone else to govern matters that should really be civilly governed.

If the ultra-Orthodox truly understood what it means to be Jewish, they wouldn’t impose harsh regulations about what people must do to be married, to convert, and to be buried under their laws, and would instead work in cooperation with other sects of Judaism to ensure that all Israeli Jews are happy.

ELIOR WASKOW
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