Saving Orthodox Judaism in Israel
by Rabbi Eric Yoffie
Originally posted in The Jerusalem Post
When Yaakov Epstein became Chief Rabbi of Haifa in 2052, neither the press nor the public took special notice. True, he was the first Reform rabbi elected to the highest rabbinical position in a major metropolis, but he had already served as Chief Rabbi of Netanya. In fact, six Conservative and four Reform rabbis were then serving as Chief Rabbis of medium-sized Israeli cities.
By then, the “Rebellion of 2022” had been largely forgotten. That was the year when the number of Orthodox men studying rather than working and the number of Yeshiva students exempt from army service had reached record heights, almost bankrupting the economy and causing deep resentment among average Israelis. As a result, legislation was rushed through the Knesset de-establishing synagogue and state; its key provisions called for each municipality to elects its religious leader, and for the establishment of a single school system for the “secular” and “religious” populations.
The legislation’s impact was dramatic. Despite some tensions, Orthodox and non-Orthodox children soon came to understand and respect each other, and hotly contested elections for rabbinical positions pushed all candidates to moderate, centrist positions.
It was Orthodoxy that benefited most from the “free market” in religion. Centrist Orthodoxy in particular, no longer held hostage by a monopolistic religious establishment, emerged as a burgeoning and creative religious community. Its outer forms changed. Soon the Orthodox religious parties declined into insignificance, and full-time Yeshiva students, deprived of army exemptions, were once again a small, exclusive elite. But the modern forms of Orthodoxy quickly became a major religious force. No longer associated with corrupt politics, they contributed spiritual vitality to all aspects of Israel’s social and intellectual life. And the Reform and Conservative movements, while smaller, shared in the general religious renewal, and all Israelis benefited from vigorous debates among the movements on matters of spiritual and ethical import.
Israel in 2052 was not a religious utopia. But it had produced a revived Orthodoxy, a growing and active progressive Judaism, serious Jewish education, and broad pockets of deep religious commitment. It was a country to which Jews of the Diaspora of all religious streams looked for spiritual sustenance. It was a Jewish state which, by divesting itself of authority over Judaism, had revived Judaism, and had transformed Torah from a political slogan into an ets chayyim.