Separation of synagogue and state
The issue of separation between church (temple) and state is one that I usually shy away from in Israel despite it being something I feel very strongly about from my American upbringing. Ideology and politics aside, being a Jew in the Diaspora almost necessitates disdain for official state religion. When it comes to Israel, however, I have always dismissed the conflict between the two as one of the quirks that makes the country what it is. I was taught that the religious establishment’s role in Israel is part of a multi-faceted balance between a secular, democratic government and Jewish state. Recently, much of that willingness to overlook the gaps between my values and my surroundings has begun to unravel.
My second-guessing of the situation in Israel – specifically, the immense power of the orthodox rabbinate – began with stories from friends who were told they could not marry in Israel. I had always (reluctantly) accepted that a Jewish wedding in Israel must be performed by the orthodox rabbinate but with the realization that there is no other option, came the first seeds of resentment. That a citizen who is invited (with significant financial and ideological incentives) to “come home” to a country and then risk his or her life for that country only to find themselves without any option to marry, watered those seeds of resentment enough for them to sprout.
I was willing to leave the values that led to unwavering support for gay marriage in California back in California. There, I understood that some changes don’t happen overnight and the fact that we’ve come so far already socially was an indication of the progress to come. It is my impression that most like-minded people are able to live with the status quo because it is constantly progressing. That constant progress doesn’t seem to be occurring in Israel with this issue. Things seem to be getting worse, and here, it affects a group that I’m able to indentify much more closely with, Jews. Never mind the rabbinate’s ability to tell me whether I’m Jewish or not, I’m comfortable enough with my self-defined idea of religion not to be bothered by that. The bothersome part was the realization that they have the ability to tell me whom I can marry, let alone if I am allowed to marry.
The most recent realization that the marriage between temple and state is problematic came last week when some 50 municipal rabbis – whose salaries are drawn from my tax shekels – published a religious ruling prohibiting Jews from renting or selling property to non-Jews. For hard-core advocates of free speech, this would only be marginally perturbing in a secular state. However, when state-sanctioned and employed religious authorities issue overtly racist rulings that hundreds of thousands of people should theoretically follow, it becomes a whole new game.
Following the rabbinical ruling last week, the secular discourse in Israel has gravitated towards firing those rabbis who are handing down racist religious edicts. This too is extremely problematic. For the state to dictate how religion is practiced is even more dangerous than a de jure endorsement by the state of racist religious rulings. It would be reminiscent of most of the other regimes in the region where the government dictates what Imams and Ayatolahs are allowed to preach. Neither scenario allows for both freedom of religion and freedom from religion.
Secular Israelis love to blame the orthodox establishment for the ills of the country but this is misplaced blame. The responsibility actually falls on the system that gives religion such a powerful role in government, from which it can control the lives of those who want nothing to do with it, and even more so, those of other religions. The only solution I see is a wholesale separation of temple and state.
This would not diminish the Jewish nature of the state. A secular government retains the power to mandate whatever day of rest it chooses. A secular government can subsidize religious institutions as long as it does so indiscriminately and those institutions are apolitical. It can even continue to define itself as the national home of the Jewish people/nation/civilization. It cannot, however, dictate how one chooses to define him or herself religiously or deny the right to marry based on that definition. It certainly cannot tell members of one religion how to act towards another religion.