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May 14th, 2004
In Israel, personal-status issues, such as those related to marriage and conversion, are the perennial focus of social campaigns, legislative initiatives and good old-fashioned politics.
Often, though, when issues like conversion, marriage or divorce are on the agenda, what gets lost in all the heat and noise is something recently pointed out by Israels former chief Ashkenazi rabbi, Yisrael Meir Lau.
After 55 years, Lau reminded an audience at a recent conference in Jerusalem, the Knesset has not, to this day, found the time to take five days and discuss what exactly this Jewish state we have created is meant to be.
The words Jewish state, he went on, are mentioned 22 times in Israels Declaration of Independence not state of the Jews, but rather Jewish state. And yet the Knesset has never found the time to define what that means.
And so, in the dearth of such definition, what happens is that issues intricately related to that truly fundamental one are isolated and individually subjected to a tug-of-war among an assortment of Israeli social forces both larger ones like religious nationalists, haredim or fervently Orthodox, and secularists, as well as smaller ones like advocates for the Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist movements.
Many factors are weighed, and many interests vie to be accommodated in the debates surrounding these important issues.
On kashrut, for example, there are questions like: Should the Israel Defense Forces serve only kosher food? Should pork be imported to Israel?
The debate on conversion focuses on what standards, if any, there should be for accepting as Jewish someone not born so.
The debate on Shabbat grapples with questions like: Should public transportation run on the Jewish Sabbath? Should certain roads or neighborhoods be closed to traffic on Saturdays?
Usually lost in the shuffle in all these debates, however, is the import of decisions on the larger issue of the states Jewish identity.
A societal necessity
When it comes to marriage and divorce for Jewish Israelis, things are even more hairy and the stakes are even higher. Marriages, after all, can produce children, and most indeed do.
So while it might seem like an innocuous and good idea to expand the marriage and divorce options of Israelis, in truth it is neither. Preserving traditional Jewish marriage and divorce standards as a common denominator is not a religious luxury but a societal necessity. A smorgasbord of standards would be a recipe for societal disaster.
By rejecting the proposed legislation to authorize civil marriage in Israel, the Knesset helped ensure:
that the term marriage will continue to have uniform meaning for all Israeli Jews;
that children born of Jewish marriages in Israel will in turn be able to marry one another without concern regarding issues of Jewishness or legitimacy; and
that Jews in Israel will remain one people, united around a standard that lends legitimate substance to the Jewish character of the state.
To be sure, Israel is not a theocracy. And in fact, Israelis non-Jews and Jews alike are free to live their private lives largely as they choose. But if the Jewish identity of the state is to have any meaning at all, it must reside at the very least in its communal institutions.
If a Jew, for instance, wishes to marry a non-Jew, the couple has the option of marrying outside the country or simply living together without the states imprimatur. Were the state to be compelled to endorse their union officially, however, it might gratify the couple, but it would tear apart the very fabric of Israels Jewish identity.
And so it is with other Jewish laws whether dietary laws, Sabbath laws or marriage laws. To challenge them as incompatible with Israels democratic nature would be to eviscerate her Jewish nature.
Do Jews of any persuasion or belief really want to see an Israel where ham and lobsters are served to Jewish youth in military mess halls; or where traffic is as heavy and stores as busy on Shabbat as on Thursday; or where marriage is a mere agreement between two parties, without the gravity of any religious sanction?
Some might well say yes, and that is their perogative. But it is a simplistic position, born of emotion and a myopic focus on individual issues at the expense of a larger, looming imperative: Israels Jewish identity.
Rabbi Avi Shafran is director of public affairs at Agudath Israel of America.