Israel’s Slide Toward Religious Oligarchy

Israel’s Slide Toward Religious Oligarchy

Michael Jacobs

Atlanta Jewish Times Editor Michael Jacobs is on his second stint leading the AJT's editorial operations. He previously served as managing editor from 2005 to 2008.

By Eugen Schoenfeld

It was early May in 1948, and I was on my way to the United States. For two years I had worked for the United Nations as a welfare officer in displaced persons camps in Germany, helping survivors immigrate to various countries, and I had been granted a visa to come to the United States to attend a university and try to rebuild my own life, which had been shattered by the Holocaust.

Eugen Schoenfeld
Eugen Schoenfeld

While I waited for my departure, the Jewish dream of two millennia was coming true: to have a national home, Israel.

What kind of country would it be? For sure, it would be a country conscious of social justice and a democratic state. What else could a Jewish state be, especially after the Jewish population in the world had experienced the greatest injustice in many millennia, the Holocaust?

The return to Zion had been on our collective Jewish mind since our expulsion from Judaea in 74 C.E. For two millennia we prayed, “May our eyes behold when G-d will bring the remnant of Zion proudly back to their homeland.”

For a long time we believed that the return to Zion, like the departure from Egypt, would be accomplished through G-d’s intervention — a miraculous event. But the yearning for Zion became secularized and independent from our wait for the Messiah.

Most, if not all, Zionists shared a new tikvah — a new hope that was not a principle of our faith but was a return to a secular Jewish state one rooted in Jewish history and experiences and not associated with the Temple and sacrifices.

We Zionists, even the religious Zionist Mizrachi, whose motto was “Torah and work” (Torah v’avodah), did not yearn to rebuild the Temple and resume animal sacrifices. It would not be an atheistic state, but one in which Jews could chose their identity, be it secular or religious, and worship accordingly.

Over two or more millennia, we Jews had spread all over the world Jews and become culturally and even racially heterogeneous and multilingual with a variety of racial physiognomy and historical experiences. This new Israel, we hoped, would become the common denominator for a collective Jewish identity. After the Holocaust we could not conceive of this new Israel becoming a totalitarian state rooted in theocracy.

Unfortunately, religion is subject to the forces behind the “iron law of oligarchy.” Robert Michel, an early sociologist, proposed that with time all organizations develop an elite leadership assuming the power of decision-making. In short, in all organizations, religious or secular, the leadership develops a vested interest to maintain itself in power.

Before the Holocaust, as a mode of maintaining their power, most Orthodox rabbis denounced the idea of establishing the state of Israel. Wait till the Messiah comes and legalizes our return, they argued. The Munkacser Rebbe, for instance, sought to place all Jews who attended the Hebrew Gymnasium, a Zionist school, in cherem — he wanted to excommunicate everyone associated with that institution.

Jewish history attests to the continual existence of inter- and intra-religious power plays since Korah rebelled against Moses. Later was the schism between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and such schisms continued into the Diaspora. The Wilner Gaon in 1781 excommunicated all the Hasidim, and there have been petty but vicious arguments among the Hasidim themselves.

The system of rabbinical power that rose during the two millennia of Galuth (Diaspora) in Europe ended with the Holocaust. But it would be different in Israel.

Unfortunately, Israel has again become dominated by the Orthodox rabbis. In the beginning, this power came as a reaction to the Holocaust and a desire to rebuild the ancient religion. This sentiment gave rise to religious politics, at the center of which was the accumulation of power and the exercise of it against other modes of Judaic expression.

It was there that Orthodoxy again fostered political power. It was there that the Orthodox rabbis became politically active and managed even in a nonreligious, Zionist country to corral enough support to re-establish a form of theocracy.

In a fractured parliamentary system, the price extracted by Orthodox politicians for their support of the right wing was to wrest power from the secular government. The rabbinic organization usurped the right to define who is a Jew and thus control the right of return, the right to marry and where one may be buried.

In a similar manner, the rabbinate in Israel recently declared that it alone has the right of conversion and will endow that right to a certain limited number of rabbis worldwide. Of course, no Reform, Conservative or Reconstructionist rabbi was included among those licensed to perform acts of conversion.

Orthodoxy could not tolerate the rise of Jewish denominations that vary in their definitions of who and what is a Jew and thus vary in their views of what knowledge one must acquire before conversion.

The rabbis in a deliberate mode embarked on a political quest to wrest more power and more control over Jews and Judaism. Their aim, as I see it, was the development of a theocracy.

A small oligarchy, constituted by Orthodox rabbis, began usurping the state’s power to claim the authority that had been vested in each rabbi to form a beit din, a religious court, and grant the right of conversion.

Rabbinical independence was annihilated.

We are again faced with the dictate of a “my way or the highway” oligarchy. The unremitting stances by this rabbinical oligarchy, including its position against other Jewish denominations, did nothing to Jewish unity. Instead, the oligarchy fostered what the sages of the past abhorred: the rise of sinat chinom, a hatred that comes from desire for power. Our ancient sages realized and cautioned us that such hatred is the most destructive force.

Again we are confronted with a great schism, one that separates Israel from the rest of world Jewry. The leaders of Israeli Judaism cannot tolerate Judaic diversity. Rather than embrace evolutionary changes and thus rejuvenate Jewry, they respond out of fear — rooted in and associated with the loss of their oligarchy. They fear their loss of power more than they desire to provide a modern faith.

The consequence of such fear is the rise of an almost unfixable schism that echoes what developed two millennia ago between the Judean priesthood and the Jews of Alexandria. Israel’s acceptance of rabbinic theocracy will lead to a schism like the one experienced by Protestant-Catholic discord.

If we are to survive, Israel and Jews outside it must maintain an active ecumenism. We must solve the discord as it is being created. It must be averted so we can develop a modus Vivendi based on the principle of kol Yisrael chaverim.

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