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Letter from Israel


By Ira Sharkansky

Not really wars, but a continuation of disputes going back at least to the time of Ezra.

Jews have been quarreling about who is a Jew since then, and over the centuries have added numerous other squabbles.

It all amounts to disputes among people who have been literate for at least 2,500 years, and have written God knows how many interpretations of the fuzzy laws composed in their earliest writings, i.e., the books that came to be sacred and included in the Hebrew Bible.

The current uptick concerns a proposal that has passed the government but not yet the Knesset to ease in what may only be in a microscopic way the efforts to convert of who knows how many of the 300,000 or so Israelis who are not considered Jewish by one rabbinate or another.

The multiplicity of rabbinates is part of the issue. Judaism lacks a pope, or anyone with supreme authority on the issue of who is a Jew or anything else.

The Reform are the most liberal, accepting anyone with a Jewish father or mother, and allowing an easy conversion of others. If the Reform were anything but a tiny minority in Israel, the 300,000 mostly Russians products of mixed marriages would have no problem.

The most recent issue has set several parties in the Knesset against the official Orthodox Rabbinate. The proposal would give a candidate some choice in selecting a city rabbinate (each of Israel’s largely Jewish cities have their own) to instruct and test their qualifications to be let into the tent, as opposed to having to jump through the hoops of the central rabbinate.

The State rabbinate opposes, saying that they fear a loosening of the standards, but are accused by reform advocates of fearing the loss of power.

Meanwhile, the various ultra-Orthodox rabbis have their own standards for conversion and other matters, and do not to rely on the State rabbinate for anything. They are threatening to compile their own registries of who are proper Jews, which will determine who the members of their congregations are allowed to marry.

The problem is as old as the notion of Hebrew, Israelites, Judeans, or Jews.

We have always lived alongside and amidst others.

An early indication is a line, attributed to Abraham, “I am a stranger and an inhabitant with you.” (Genesis 23) There is also a story, which many rabbis skip over in their lessons, about Sarah’s involvement with an Egyptian prince (Genesis 12).

The Moabite Ruth was the great grandmother of David.

The last chapter of the Book of Ezra describes how that religious and political leader of the people who returned to Judea from Babylon assembled the men, and gave them hell. Some of them—maybe many—had joined with “women of the land” and made children.

Ezra demanded that those men divorce their women and children.

The men howled in protest. They refused.

Ezra appointed a committee to deal with the issue.

The Bible isn’t any more clear about the results than about many other things, but a fair reading of the text is that some—or many—did not comply.

Korea is one of the countries that, historically, did not have a Jewish community. Now, however, developments in international commerce and the quest for varieties of higher education have brought Israelis to live in Korea and Koreans to live in Israel. Korean Airlines flies between Tel Aviv and Seoul, and there are 40-50,000 Korean tourists/year.

A Korean family has lived in our building for more than a decade, and currently has a son and a daughter in the IDF.

One of my PhD’s is a Korean Presbyterian pastor who wrote his dissertation on religion and politics in Israel. He has stayed on as the representative of his church, and is a leading figure in overseas Korean activities, i.e., what the Koreans call their Diaspora.

His son and daughter go to school along with everyone else, and speak excellent Hebrew. The boy felt left out when his friends were having a bar mitzvah, so his father, the pastor, led a group of Koreans to the top of Masada, donned kippot and tallitot, and the young man read a portion of the Torah with other prayers appropriate to a bar mitzvah.

I’ve spoken to our friends about the Koreans in our own family, and advise them to get ready for Israeli in-laws.

Pessimists fear the incidence of intermarriage throughout the Jewish world. Optimists note the vibrant varieties of Judaism and Jewish culture in Israel and overseas, as well as unprecedented access of Jews to ranking positions in governments, international business, science, and academia.

A number of the other issues recall the writing of Josephus, who described a truly bloody war on matters not all that different from what bothers present day religious, ultra-religious, and secular Israelis. Josephus’ war facilitated the even more bloody conquest by the Romans, the destruction of the Temple, and the exclusion of Jews from their Holy City.

There has been an uptick in our concern for the Temple Mount, associated with fever among our Muslim neighbors that a tiny movement of Israelis threatens their monopoly on a holy place.

Never far from the agenda are issues that represents differences in religious demography. Liberal congregations prevail in the United States, while here the Orthodox insist on their monopoly. The hottest confrontations have been alongside the Western Wall, where the Women of the Wall, some of them attired in kippot and tallitot, insist on reading from the Torah and practicing the rite of bat mitzvah as it is done in non-Orthodox congregations.

There are also periodic concerns with ultra-Orthodox education. Must it include elements of math, science, and other matters that might help young people earn their own living? 

Yair Lapid’s party, There is a Future, has heightened concern for ultra-Orthodox education as well as the equitable recruitment of ultra-Orthodox young men to the IDF or other national service. Both planks have fallen victim to political calculations, watered down and their implementation postponed for several years. Lapidniks say they must give the ultra-Orthodox a chance to adjust. Cynics say that postponements will push the reforms beyond the life of this government, give the ultra-Orthodox a chance to join the next government, and scuttle the reforms or postpone them into the never to be reached future.

Other items are always on the agenda of one or another ultra-Orthodox rabbi. They include the sale of nonkosher food, violations of Sabbath, the discovery of graves in the way of a construction project, or women who dress or otherwise do things considered immodest. Each can be made the subject of a inflammatory campaign that will produce demonstrations at rush hour in key intersections, scuffles with the police, burned garbage bins, curses, the throwing of sticks and stones, and an overseas campaign to raise money for the sake of preserving Judaism from Israeli anti-Semites.

Josephus would say that he told us so.

Ira Sharkansky is a professor (Emeritus) of the Department of Political Science, Hebrew University of Jerusalem.


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