For more than a century Jews have debated how to guide the Jewish character of a sovereign Jewish State. Until recently, few thought seriously in terms of national halakhic standards. The Founders envisioned a Jewish ethic, not ritual Jewish practice.
In Anita Shapira’s 2014 book, Ben-Gurion: Father of Modern Israel, she writes:
Just before the state was established, he [Ben-Gurion] reached agreement with the ultra-Orthodox Agudat Yisrael (Union of Israel) party on the celebrated “status quo,” assuring the state’s religious Jews (sic) that marital laws would be observed as they had been during the Mandate period and that the Sabbath and festivals would be part of the national calendar. Sensitive to tradition, he granted yeshiva students exemption from military service, but soon regretted it. In total contrast with his expectation that they would disappear completely, the number of yeshiva students steadily increased. But even though he sharply criticized the exemption, he did not cancel it. (p. 191)
In past issues we have dealt with allowing liberal conversions in Israel’s public mikvaot, seen 150 examples of rabbis over the last half millennium who issued piskei din stating that absolute adherence to halakhah was not required for conversion, and witnessed struggles with mehitzahs and kol ishah. Israel deals daily with the Jewish ethics of war and governing a minority population in the midst of conflict.
In this linked study: Secular Rights and Religious Wrongs? Family Law, Religion and Women in Israel, we witness the impact of a duel divorce system in Israel: one civil, one halakhic. The authors describe how when it works correctly, the halakhic system can be the most humane. Utilizing Israel’s Sanctions Law, and with cooperative courts, women can receive the compensation promised them in their ketubahs and have property settled quickly and equitably. In some cases even women from abroad have sent their cases to Israel to be adjudicated fairly. Many cases are recorded in which women prefer the halakhic courts to the civil court in order to expedite the proceedings and get on with their lives. These are rarely publicized in the North American Jewish world.
Yet, the idiosyncratic interplay of the ideologies of the judges and the desire for fairness comes overwhelmingly into play. Some judges simply prefer the rights of men over a woman’s rights. Organizations like Yad L’Isha, Mavoi Satum, and Center for Women’s Justice can make the difference between success and failure achieving a just settlement. Where the desire is for justice and the judges seek fairness, the halakhic system in Israel can and does at times work well. But shouldn’t Israelis have the right to choose which system they prefer: civil or halakhic?
This article opened my eyes to the possibilities within a practical Jewish state in which Jews choose the aspects of Judaism most applicable to their own worldview. Judaism can marry modernity to traditional life, both by modernizing halakhah for the benefit of the community, and by giving choices to individuals about the course they will pursue in their personal lives.
Contrary to the reports I have most often heard, religious courts in Israel can provide men and women with the rights and respect they deserve in these very trying circumstances.
As we see: the agunah problem is resolvable even in modern times, and halakhah can deliver divorce decisions that the parties will accept, with recognition of the rights of both husband and wife, and justice rather than politics combined with the preservation of tradition.
Please let me know what you think when you read the article: firstname.lastname@example.org or in our Facebook group: Rabbis for Religious Freedom and Equality in Israel [link].