Tensions rising.

Photographer: Lior Mizrahi/Getty Images

Israel's Religious Fault Lines Deepen

Daniel Gordis is senior vice president and Koret distinguished fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem. Author of 11 books, his latest is "Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn."
Read More.
a | A

Far from international headlines, Israeli society is being shaken by the tremors of an emerging religious battle, as ultra-Orthodox members of the new governing coalition test their political power.

At first glance, this government seems not very different from the last. Pre-election polls predicted a tight race in March, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud Party actually scored a "crushing victory," increasing its Knesset seats from 20 to 30. It was Likud's strongest showing under Netanyahu since 1996.

It therefore appeared that Israel's most critical policies would remain unchanged. On the foreign front, that has proved largely true. Netanyahu's primary and almost exclusive focus has been Iran, and as expected, nothing is happening on the Palestinian front.

The real news, then, is that the sands are shifting domestically -- particularly on religious issues. Netanyahu's previous government ruled in coalition with Yair Lapid's center-left Yesh Atid party, which won only 11 seats in this election, down from 20 in 2013. Lapid thus had less to offer Netanyahu, who needed 61 votes for a Knesset majority, and Yesh Atid was relegated to the opposition.

Netanyahu found the votes he needed from the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) parties. With Lapid -- who had been a strong advocate of drafting Haredi men into the army and imposing criminal sanctions if they refused to serve -- out of the government, the ultra-Orthodox are now flexing their muscles in new ways.

So far, the Haredim have squeezed out of Netanyahu an agreement to roll back Lapid's draft changes -- not a terribly difficult squeeze, as Netanyahu seems to have no commitments other than to staying in office and preventing Iran from getting a bomb. They have also managed to undo a proposed reform to Israel's conversion policy, long seen even by Orthodox rabbis as abusive and backward.

The ultra-Orthodox are seeking to quash other glimmers of modernity, as well. Not long ago, the Chief Rabbinate -- the body that controls marriage, divorce, conversion and standards for kosher food, among other issues -- announced that it might not renew the appointment of the influential and wildly popular Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, formerly of New York, as the chief rabbi of the West Bank settlement of Efrat. How had Riskin -- a fervently Orthodox rabbi -- sinned? He had suggested an alternate text to the traditional liturgy in which men thank God for not having made them a woman (a text many women understandably find offensive). He permitted women to chant the Scroll of Ruth on the holiday of Shavuot, has looked favorably on the ordination of women, and offended some traditional Jews by speaking positively about Christian values.

For these brushes with modernity, the rabbinate threatened to end Riskin's tenure. Interestingly, the limits of its power quickly came to light, as a public outcry prompted it to back down. In a claim that virtually no one believed, the rabbinate said it had never intended to terminate Riskin and only wanted him to appear for a hearing.

Other examples of ultra-Orthodox muscle-flexing may similarly backfire. The public will eventually bristle at ultra-Orthodox men not being required to share the burden of defending the country. The conversion battle is far from over.

And a more personal rebellion against the rabbinate is also gaining steam.

Israeli law stipulates that weddings must be registered with the rabbinate and that Jewish weddings must be performed by Orthodox rabbis in order to be registered. Violations of the law are theoretically punishable by two years in prison. Yet Lapid, neither a rabbi nor Orthodox, has performed weddings, not attempting to hide them.

As have I. When my daughter got engaged six years ago, she and her fiancé refused to register their wedding with a rabbinate they consider misogynist (among other offenses) and asked me to perform the wedding. As a non-Orthodox rabbi, I am legally forbidden from doing so. But in front of some 500 people, I performed the ceremony. So far, I haven't been arrested. Nor has anyone else who has performed similar weddings, which are becoming ever more common. (The Israeli press calls these couples "rebels against the rabbinate.")

The rabbinate simply doesn't understand the degree to which Israel is a very modern, Western country. (For example, the IDF is considered one of the most LGBT-friendly forces anywhere.) The rabbinate also doesn't fully appreciate that young secular Israelis are increasingly searching for a way to find meaning in the Jewish tradition that their early Zionist grandparents rejected.

Intentionally or not, the rabbinate is positioning itself as a barrier between these young Jews and the tradition they wish to reclaim as their own. In a democracy, that is almost certainly bound to fail in the long run. Some Israelis are already demanding substantive change, including, perhaps, an Israeli version of the separation of church and state. What remains to be seen is how far and fast the Chief Rabbinate will continue to push, unwittingly leading Israel's secular majority to clip their wings once and for all.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author on this story:
Daniel Gordis at danielgordis@outlook.com

To contact the editor on this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net