The unity of the Jewish nation

April 17, 1997|By Herman N. Neuberger

ISRAEL'S ORTHODOX Jews are portrayed by the American press as religious fanatics who impose their will on an unsupportive non-religious populace. The image of the average Israeli as being crushed beneath the burden of the powerful religious Knesset members is misleading and indeed is pure partisan propaganda.

According to a 1993 survey by the respected Guttman Institute for Applied Social Research, aside from the approximately 25 percent of Israel's population that practices Orthodoxy, a full 54 percent of the country's Jews define themselves as ''traditional,'' professing adherence to the defining beliefs of what here in the U.S. is called Orthodox Judaism.

Halakha (traditional Jewish law) considers non-observant or non-Orthodox Jews to be every bit as Jewish as any other Jew. However, according to traditional Jewish law, which has been practiced since the giving of Torah at Mount Sinai almost 3,500 years ago, a convert must accept in principle the totality of Jewish law, even though he may not be fully aware of its every aspect. If he or she specifically does not accept even one portion of Halakha, the conversion is invalid.

The recent controversy over the Knesset's consideration of a proposed new law has likewise been widely misunderstood. The legislation would simply codify the nearly 50-year-old Israeli norm of entrusting the matter of personal status to religious authorities, be they Jewish, Christian or Islamic. Thus the Chief Rabbinate of Israel retains the established and locally recognized authority of Jewish law and its interpretation.

Expression of identity

While Israel is a democracy, it was, nevertheless, founded as a state for Jews and as an expression of Jewish identity. Thus, though the state's founders were certainly far from ''Orthodox,'' they were cognizant that the only way to preserve the unity of the Jewish nation was to insist, in matters of personal status, on a standard acceptable to all. They had the foresight to realize that the essential Jewish nature of the state could be preserved only by leaving issues of personal status, marriage and the like, issues with import to the very definition of ''Jew'' in the state, to traditional Jewish law.

The legislation before the Knesset was mandated by the Israeli courts' insistence that, for the prevailing status quo to be legally binding, it must be codified within legislation. This status quo has been accepted by every Israeli government since the establishment of the state. The legislation does not categorically deny anyone the right to citizenship, nor does it in any way diminish the Jewish legitimacy of any Jew regardless of his or her level of religious practice or commitment.

In this most difficult period, during sensitive negotiations that will determine Israel's future in the Middle East, we in the American community should focus our attention on seeking to develop a consensus of support for a settlement that will offer Israel peace with security and not allow ourselves to be sidetracked by issues that are essentially internal Israeli matters that will be duly resolved through the democratic process and majority will of Israel.

Rabbi Neuberger is president of Ner Israel Rabbinical College in Baltimore.

Pub Date: 4/17/97

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