Last week, the United Kingdom voted in favor of Brexit, in favor of leaving the European Union. The fall-out at this point has been significant. The stock markets globally are down, Prime Minister David Cameron announced his resignation, there is a lot of economic uncertainty, there are allegations that some of the politicians who campaigned to “leave” are backtracking on the promises they made to the voters, and there seems to be a lot of “buyer’s remorse,” of some people waking up the next morning and not being fully aware of what they’ve done. At the same time, the “leave” campaign continues to argue that leaving the European Union is the best thing for the United Kingdom to do in terms of immigration and the economy and as we all know, the country is deeply divided on this issue. At the crux of the Brexit issue seems to be a core question: When there are problems with a certain political reality, should you destroy that reality and start anew, or should you try to fix those problems from the inside, avoiding the instability that goes along with destroying that political reality.
This past Shabbat, our community was treated to three presentations by Rabbi David Stav, the chairman of Tzohar, an organization whose stated mission is to “guarantee the Jewish future of the State of Israel.” Presented with deep sociocultural challenges in present day Israel, Tzohar takes an approach that seems incongruous with the approach chosen by the UK in the recent Brexit vote. As delineated by Rav Stav, there are many serious issues with the Chief Rabbinate in Israel. Rav Stav explained that while many secular Israelis are open to Judaism and certain Jewish practices, they are strongly opposed to religious coercion and react by shunning their religion altogether when they feel bullied by a Chief Rabbinate that they feel does not represent them. Some examples addressed by Rav Stav relate to Jewish marriage and divorce in Israel and the present conversion crisis. He explained that often many secular Israeli couples are not treated with the appropriate sensitivity by the Rabbinate when they plan to get married, and therefore end up marrying outside the country. Regarding divorce, he shared stories of Rabbinic courts affiliated with the Chief Rabbinate not doing enough to prevent a woman from being held hostage to unreasonable demands by her husband before receiving a Get. He also bemoaned the Chief Rabbinate’s seeming lack of concern for the crisis of approximately 400,000 Russian olim who are not halakhically Jewish, and will eventually contribute to a crisis of mass intermarriage in the Jewish state.
In the face of all these challenges, one might be tempted to follow the Brexit model and vote to “leave” the Chief Rabbinate, creating a separation of Church and State in Israel that is similar to the American model. Noting that the Chief Rabbinate causes so many problems for its citizens, and may not bring people closer to Torah but rather distances them from Torah, the “leave” approach has been advocated by some. However, Tzohar does not believe in that approach. “Leaving” or curtailing the Chief Rabbinate might cause other issues – we won’t create a solution to the intermarriage crisis caused by the Russian aliya, and we will diminish the Jewish character of the Jewish state. So instead, Tzohar’s solution is to try to fix the system – maybe not from within, but from without.
Tzohar hosts beautiful Yom Kippur and Tikkun Leil Shavuot programs that have attracted thousands of secular Israelis. They have provided an alternative for secular Israelis wishing to be wed by Tzohar Rabbis who, while keeping halakha meticulously, show appropriate sensitivity to these couples. They have advocated a halakhic pre-nuptial agreement to curtail the agunah problem. They are working on a conversion program to convert children of Russian olim, which will hopefully eventually be recognized by the Chief Rabbinate to ensure that in the long-term, the overwhelming majority of non-Arab Israelis will be Jewish.
Brexit may or may not have been a good decision for the UK – only time will tell. But sometimes the answer to a national problem is not simply to “leave.” Fortunately, Tzohar is leading the way in Israel, providing us with a model for how to change the status-quo without destroying it, preserving its benefits while fixing its flaws.