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Monday, 13 July 2015

Should Israel recognize Reform Judaism?

Daf Yomi Nedarim 47


Recently, the Israeli minister for religious affairs announced that Reform Jews are not real Jews.  Following an international outcry, he rephrased his statement, declaring them ‘sinners.’  At that point, Prime Minister Netanyahu had to step in to apologize and make amends and peace, announcing that he would be inviting the leaders of the various denominations in Israel to a roundtable discussion. 

This announcement is a real coup for the non-Orthodox in Israel.  Since the founding of the State of Israel, the country has only ever recognized Orthodox rabbis and standards, despite years of clamouring for state recognition by the other denominations.  The latest non-Orthodox campaign presents Israel as a theocracy that does not allow for religious freedoms, which is a frightening approach, given our constant advocacy attempts to present Israel as a beacon of democracy. 

Until very recently, Israel only funded Orthodox synagogues and rabbis.  Should Israel acquiesce to funding the non-Orthodox in the interests of maintaining its image as a democratic nation?

If a person declared, ‘I am forbidden to you,’ the other person is forbidden to derive benefit from the vower.  If he declared, ‘You are forbidden to me,’ the vower must abstain from the other person.  If he declared, ‘You to me and me to you,’ they must abstain from one another.  Both, however, are permitted to derive benefit from an institution of the Babylonian immigration, but forbidden from city property.

What are some examples of Babylonian immigration institutions?  The Temple Mount, the Temple areas, and a roadside well.   What are some examples of city institutions?  The town square, bathhouse, synagogue, Ark, and holy books. 
The Ran explains that city institutions are jointly owned by the residents of the city who are partners in the properties.

In contemporary parlance, the difference between the Babylonian immigration institutions and the city institutions is that the former are nationalized whereas the latter are privatized.  The former belong to the state while the latter belong to the people.  The words of the Mishnah are instructive: the Temple is a national institution, but synagogues are private institutions.

In other words, the Mishnah is teaching us that certain major institutions must be state owned and operated.  When it comes to the Temple, you want one Temple – you don’t want people fighting over it.  Likewise contemporarily, when it comes to major issues of status – who is a Jew, marriage and divorce, we need a national system in place to avoid conflict, strife and uncertainty.

But when it comes to synagogues, the Mishnah makes it clear that they should not be state owned and operated.   Israelis look with envy to synagogues in the Diaspora that are owned and maintained by their members.  Diaspora shuls have an incredible vibrancy about them that you just don’t see in state-owned Israeli shuls.   There’s no sense of community, no sense of responsibility, no sense of ownership.

Synagogues should be in the hands of the members.  Rabbis should be appointed by the people – they should not be political appointments.   If people were able to choose their shul and their rabbi, and, if shuls and rabbis had to compete for members, religious life in Israel would be booming!  And then the entire question of denominational funding becomes moot – the state shouldn’t be paying for any synagogue rabbis!


Shuls should be membership-driven.  They’re not meant to be owned by the state, nor by individuals – they should be owned by the masses.  They are communities for us all to come together and build together.  May we merit flourishing, vibrant Jewish communities, driven by the adage, “the competition of sages increases wisdom!”