Monday, July 6, 2009

Gordian Knot

There was a time that Israel was not only a “light unto the nations”, but the only place in the Middle East where not only democracy reigned supreme but where an enlightened society shed its light on all those in its path. The beauty of Judaism had been that together with much of Europe they had gone through the middle ages as uninitiated but emerged as a people enlightened, willing and able to participate and contribute to the universal good and advancement of humankind. The same can’t be said of most of the Muslim countries in the Middle East where they are still wading knee deep in the mire of the dark ages.

For most of Israel’s 60 years of independence there was this constant push in the forward position, an avant-garde nation putting forth remarkable ideas in the arts and humanities as well as contributing significantly to the technological advancement of society. However there is a fundamental flaw in the political structure of Israel that has inhibited it from becoming a greater nation than it already is. As a matter of fact, because of this flaw we have at times taken a step backward. Separation of church and state should have been etched into the very nature of the political system and this would have eliminated many of the problems we are experiencing today. Israel has suffered in years past as evident by the Gordion knot of the rabbinate over the very social fabric of Israeli society, pushing away rather than embracing the citizens that it was entrusted to serve. The scandalous behavior of the rabbinate regarding the most recent episode of conversions; the practical evisceration of Rabbi Druckman and the disenfranchisement of hundreds of converts is a stain on our national conscience. Of course there are many who believe in the wisdom of the rabbinate that is self righteous, sanctimonious and are clueless regarding the long term damage this will have on our society.

Another such instance is that of the IDF Chief Rabbi, Avichai Ronski who recently commented that women, (regardless of their religious or lack of religious belief) are inappropriate conscripts and shouldn’t be serving in the IDF (as reported in Haaretz 7/2/09). As part of his statement he noted that there were no rabbinic rulings authorizing women to serve. Not surprisingly, Ronski has a myopic understanding of Jewish Law. There doesn’t have to be a rabbinic ruling allowing for something that isn’t proscribed in the first place! If Torah only references men going to war that’s because society then was dominated by men. Many rabbinic rulings, custom and mores in Judaism are based on a male dominated society. The traditional marriage ceremony is a male dominated transaction whereby the male “takes” the female. Her agreement is passive; the groom is the active party in the transaction. The traditional prayer service too, is male dominated as is certain of our rituals such as the mohel, shochet and communal leaders.
But we are an enlightened society. All around the world Jewish women have taken their rightful place within society whether in politics, sciences, arts, technology or the humanities. They have even become religious leaders in the orthodox communities (as well as mashgichot)-outside of Israel where enlightenment rules. Even in Israel there are women serving as communal leaders and in the Knesset, so too there is a place for women in the IDF, Rabbi Ronski not withstanding.

The larger issue however is the slow but insidious slide of Israeli culture backwards into the morass of the middle ages mimicking our Muslim neighbors. There was a time not too long ago Israeli’s penned the expression “khomeinism”, gaining wide usage, intended to mean a system of government lacking tolerance and wielding power from a theocratic power base. One can only assume that the term is still part of the Israeli lexicon, but is being used less frequently and by fewer people. Those same people that would subscribe to Ronski’s point of view and support other pernicious remarks made by clerics with the intention of suppressing women have no doubt purged the term “khomeinism” from their vocabulary.

The saving grace of Israeli society however, is that it is predominantly secular or moderately observant of Jewish tradition, and while deferential at times to the rabbinic establishment it is a fiercely free thinking and independent society, resentful of clerical interference in matters effecting their lives. They subscribe to the proposition that for an enlightened society to flourish it must be free of the tyrannical, suffocating Gordian knot of the “religious right” who wish to usurp power for no other reason than to rule in the name of God.