It’s easy for liberal Jews to write off the hullabaloo regarding the dating habits of one of Israel’s better known sons as just that: Hullabaloo. Sound and fury signifying nothing, or maybe signifying a prurient interest in famous lives, or possibly signifying a helplessly stultified and hidebound worldview that has nothing to do with us. Or, you know, politics.
But the Sturm und Drang in certain Jewish circles about Yair Netanyahu’s (maybe?) girlfriend is bigger than that – as evidenced by the speed with which his father the Prime Minister has turned around to deny the romance. It goes to the heart of the Jewish experience and the soul of our people. Who are we, how do we define ourselves? Whether or not we realize it, that’s what we’re talking about, and ultimately, these questions go to the heart and soul of how the Jewish faith is conducted everywhere, not least in the Jewish State.
Liberals often forget that for many Jews, the question of one Jew’s dating habits is, genuinely, the business of all Jews. If the younger Netanyahu marries a Gentile, these Jews will (genuinely) feel it to be a catastrophe – a national catastrophe, not just for the State, but for the entire Jewish people. We see more than a little of this fear reflected any time an American Jewish leader starts talking in dire tones about intermarriage.
This is, of course, true as regards any Jew’s decision to marry out, but it’s more powerfully true when the Jew in question is well-known. Marit ayin (appearance) plays a powerful role in how Jewish law is interpreted; minhag k’din (“custom as law”) is no joke. A well-known Jew can lead others astray, new customs can arise, and these will, eventually, change the way that people understand the law.
Which, I tell myself, is fine – those folks can believe whatever they want. I don’t daven with them.
Because even though it warms my heart to see Jews marry each other and raise little Jews, I do (genuinely) believe that people must live lives that provide them with meaning – that an individual’s God-given right to authenticity, respect, and love, wherever it may appear, is more important than the collective’s desire to have more bar mitzvahs. I also have bone-deep faith in the future of the Jewish people and, not incidentally, believe that children born to a Jewish father are Jewish if they are so raised, no matter who their mother is.
Many American Jews may agree with that latter point, but it’s important to remember that in Israel, most do not. Fourteen years of living in Tel Aviv made it very, very clear to me that even though a majority of Israeli Jews don’t identify as Orthodox, they do reflexively accept certain Orthodox interpretations of Jewish law – such as the notion that only the children of a Jewish mother count. Note that Lehava, the Israeli anti-intermarriage organization, took to Facebook to remind the Prime Minister: “Your grandchildren, as you know, will not be Jewish.”
It’s hard to get that kind of unquestioned, society-wide, religiously-mandated conventional wisdom out of your head, even if you never daven anywhere.
This is why it’s so important to Israel’s Orthodox institutions that they maintain a monopoly on religious interpretation and observance in the Jewish State. Sure, it’s politics, sure it’s about the budget – but it’s also about a firmly held and quite genuine belief that Judaism is doomed if Jews don’t adhere to their interpretation and observance. That theirs is literally the only way.
Yair Netanyahu and Sandra Leikanger walked straight into a struggle over the very nature of the Jewish people. Is there only one way to be authentically Jewish? Or are there many? Are only Orthodox prayers and customs acceptable to God, or does the Holy One Blessed Be He also listen to the Reform, the Conservative, the I’m-not-sure?
Recent polling has shown that despite the stranglehold enjoyed by Israel’s state-funded rabbinate on public Jewish practice since 1948, opinion is shifting. This past September a survey found that 61% of Israeli Jews favor a separation of state and religion; 62% want authorities to recognize civil weddings.
It’s perfectly reasonable for a congregation or movement to make theological decisions for its members, but in a modern nation state – where the Reform, the I’m-not-sure, and the atheist also pay taxes – it’s not reasonable that a single community expect that their vision will delimit the lives of everyone.
When Shas head Aryeh Deri says “if, heaven forbid, this is true, it is no longer a personal matter – it is a symbol of the Jewish people,” he means it. When Member of Knesset Nissim Ze’ev likens interfaith dating to “sowing in the fields of others,” he means it. Jews who want to limit Judaism to a single, narrow definition believe themselves to be led by the Almighty; they aren’t going to change because of public outcry.
Those who want to see the Jewish state thrive as a democracy, and who want to grapple more honestly with the facts of intermarriage, would be wise to follow the Yair Netanyahu story closely – not because of what it tells us about him, but because of what it tells us about ourselves.