Tuesday, October 19, 2010

A Case for Shaping Civil Society with Jewish Law?

About a month ago I read an article in the Forward (September 24, 2010), “A Case for Shaping Civil Society with Jewish Law” by Jill Jacobs which infuriated me, so I put it out of site with the intention of picking it up again, rereading it with a calmer disposition. It didn’t help. Close to a month later I’m still upset by the lack of Jewish context exhibited by what appears to be a self-serving rabbi as well as her lack of having a smattering of understanding of Israeli social/political structure.

The rabbi tries to make the case that there ought to be room in Israeli society for the application of benevolent Jewish law to somehow shed light and shape society: “When people ask me whether I think that halacha, should govern civil law in the State of Israel, my response is ‘no, but given the current religious power structures in Israel, I shudder to think of the damage that might be done by haredi authorities”. You shudder to think of the damage that haredi rabbis would inflict? They have done so already. Where have you been for the past thirty years? The orthodox rabbinate has inflicted terrible damage, pain and hurt on women defined as agunot, as children classified as mamzerim, on issues of conversion, on ht shabby treatment of the gay community and on and on. And you come up with a marginal case citing the “Wisconsin Plan”.

The fact of the matter is that religion should be kept out of the public sector of government. Religion never had a long-term positive effect on society. Our behavior, when we had political and military power in biblical and post biblical history was no better, no worse than any other regional power. In fact the internecine fighting between the tribes and later the poor relationship between Judea and Israel wasn’t exemplary for anyone trying to make a case for turning to religion for guidance on running a benevolent society.

Religion was never benevolent, nor can it ever be. The fact that we were on the receiving end of religious persecutions for nearly 2000 years created among some quarters a romantic view of what religion could do for people if one only read the prophets. But the prophets isn’t the religion of the Jews, it is only a piece of it, a very small piece. The overwhelming influence is the halachic structure, which is stuck, in the medieval period, struggling for some daylight.

Rabbis from any quarter of Judaism are all guilty of the same mistake: assuming that religion is the arbiter of what defines being Jewish. Jews in Israel do not require rabbis, whatever their denomination or religious affiliation, to participate in the public sector. By interjecting religion into the public sphere a dangerous assumption is made. That people with a certain religious persuasion knows what is best for society. How can this be? In an enlightened culture, people ought to be free from the guilt upon which religion thrives. Religion assumes there is a god. As a rabbi you’re legitimacy stems from that assumption. How do you impose your value system on others who don’t share your worldview? The place of a rabbi ought to be in the synagogue who can preach and teach to those who have elected to enter.

Historically, religion has been toxic to anyone who didn’t buy into their system. Israel made an egregious error in 1948 when religious affiliation with the government was allowed. However, Israel wasn’t founded as a religious state but as culturally Jewish state. Thus, ideally, religion is an option – for those choosing it.