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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,

…was forged in the Biblical insistence that every human being is created in the Divine Image, thereby guaranteeing the inalienable rights of human freedom and human inviolability.

Jewish religion, by contrast, is expressed in

ethical, moral and ritual laws, which would hopefully shape a God-fearing, sacred nation and kingdom of priest-teachers. Hence, our Torah and our Hebrew calendar – replete with panoply of feast and fast days with both historical and spiritual significance – serve as national as well as religious expressions. This is what makes a simplistic separation between “synagogue and state” in Israel a near impossibility… (emphasis mine – jjg.)

There is, however, a profound distinction between the national and religious covenants: the citizens of a nation-state are bound by laws promulgated by the legislative and judiciary bodies of that polity, to which they must comply as long as they are residents within that nation-state. Religious law, on the other hand, which its adherents believe has its origins in Divine Revelation and its legal system interpreted by religious legal authorities in every generation, is dependent for compliance upon the free choice of the individual. As my revered teacher, Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik, was wont to say, the term religious coercion is an oxymoron; no truly religious act for the sake of heaven can be legislated by legal force and still retain religious significance for the one who performs it.

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