Orthodox Rabbi on the Dangers of State Religion

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin of Efrat, the charismatic ex-New Yorker and outspokenly moderate settler leader, offers some startlingly bold criticisms of Israeli Orthodoxy in a Jerusalem Post column titled “Has the Chief Rabbinate outlived its usefulness?” His bottom line is that it hasn’t—at least, he hopes it hasn’t—but he hints that it’s teetering on the edge with its relentlessly intrusive disregard for the rights and sensibilities of non-religious Israelis.

The proximate cause for Riskin’s complaint is the recent showdown between Religious Affairs Minister Yaakov Margi of Shas, speaking for the Chief Rabbinate, and an organization called Tsohar, made up of Modern Orthodox rabbis whose open-source, culturally sensitive weddings are popular with non-religious couples turned off by the official rabbinical bureaucracy. Margi effectively shut down Tsohar’s operations on a technicality in late October, causing a national uproar. The two sides reportedly reached a tentative agreement last Wednesday (here and here), but feelings have been left raw.

Riskin’s complaint is deeper than just how the Chief Rabbinate conducts weddings, though. He argues that it represents a narrow reading of religion that concentrates on the minutiae of ritual observance and loses sight of shared humanity. More shocking, coming from an Orthodox rabbi (and a longtime municipal chief rabbi in his hometown of Efrat), he comes close to arguing for a separation of religion and state—though he doesn’t quite say so—by arguing that Judaism rests on twin pillars of nation and religion, which have separate and equal value. “Our status as a nation” is based on God’s covenant with Abraham in Book of Genesis, while “Our status as a religion” begins (later, take note) “at the covenant of Sinai,” in the Book of Exodus.

The Jewish concept of nationhood, therefore,

Jewish religion, by contrast, is expressed in

Written by

J.J. Goldberg

J.J. Goldberg

Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).

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Orthodox Rabbi on the Dangers of State Religion

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