Religious Affairs: Finding the middle ground

The value of the middle path has been extolled by philosophers and religious thinkers throughout the ages, from Aristotle in the West to Confucius in the East, as well as by the Jewish medieval scholar Maimonides, to name but a few.

Said Maimonides, “The straight path is the midpoint of all traits… equidistant from both extremes… and therefore the Sages instructed that man’s traits always be there and that he should direct them along the middle path so that he will be whole.”

There can be no doubt that in the country’s current political climate, and in the reflection of the national mood in the Knesset, there is a great deal of room between the extremes.

And perhaps nowhere in the public debate is there greater division than in the realm of religious life in the public square, amid the ferocious battles for Israel’s soul and its Jewish identity.

Recent governments have swung from one extreme to the other, from the abolition of the Religious Services Ministry as demanded by Shinui in 2003 to its reestablishment in 2008 as demanded by Shas; from the imposition of universal conscription on haredi yeshiva students by Yesh Atid and the last government to the mass exemptions for yeshiva students the current government is at liberty to grant.

At the same time, the tone of the debate is particularly shrill, with liberals shouting about religious fascism and a halachic state, while religious traditionalists denounce “rabbit eaters” and the godlessness of secular society.

If the zeitgeist of the last government was emphatically toward religious pluralism, the motivating spirit of the current one is most definitely pointing due religious monopoly. Few members of the current coalition seem interested in stemming the conservative tide.

Hopes for the liberal traditions of the Likud are flagging, while Bayit Yehudi parliamentarians sense that the primary votes are on the religious Right.

Kulanu’s Rachel Azaria is one MK who has sought to temper the flames of religious fervor in the current government.

She is not, however, starry-eyed about her ability to turn the country into a paradise of religious pluralism, and has instead adopted a highly pragmatic approach to some of the problems that have arrived on her desk since the government was formed last year.

Despite eventually wading deep into the dispute over kashrut, as well as a struggle regarding Shabbat and most recently the firestorm surrounding mikve use, the Kulanu MK said she has sought to avoid outright confrontation.

“In Israeli society, we are used to having this line drawn between secular and religious people and then at some stage there’s a gong and everyone begins to hit each other,” Azaria told The Jerusalem Post. “We’re not used to trying to understand what’s important to others, what’s important for Israeli society.”

Azaria was unsure at the start of the current Knesset if she even wanted to be tarred with the brush of being the pluralist point man, or in this case woman, perhaps nervous to be dragged into the pugilistic arena where Israel’s religious battles are fought. Nevertheless, it quickly became clear that she would not be able to remain above the fray, as issues close to her liberal-leaning values quickly came to the fore.

The first campaign was over kashrut, when Shas introduced a bill designed to outlaw independent kashrut licensing authorities, with the new Hashgacha Pratit kashrut authority squarely in its sights.

Azaria herself helped set up Hashgacha Pratit in 2011, which came about due to a groundswell of opposition from restaurant owners in Jerusalem fed up with rabbinate supervisors who didn’t do their jobs and showed up just to collect their monthly checks.

She noted that Shas had written this legislation into its coalition agreement with the Likud, and said that this made the task of stymieing it even harder.

Azaria argued that the law would harm the choices of people in the mainstream while strengthening the rabbinate monopoly over kashrut, but at the time of the bill’s introduction she chose to focus largely on the increase in food prices the legislation would create.

The law was approved in its preliminary hearing in the Knesset last July, but with the backing of Kulanu chairman and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, Azaria lobbied to guarantee that it would be advanced only once coalition agreement is reached.

Although the legislation has been put on ice ever since, the High Court of Justice threw a spanner in the works this week when it closed the legal loophole that allowed Hashgacha Pratit to function.

In response, Azaria told the Post, she now plans to introduce legislation to remedy the situation. In keeping with her doctrine of pragmatism over pure principle, the bill does not seek to bypass the Chief Rabbinate altogether, but instead would turn it into the service regulator allowing several kashrut authorities to operate under its supervision.

The chances of passing such a bill in the current political constellation are slim, to say the least, although Azaria said that it has Kahlon’s backing and argues gamely that there is a chance it can be approved.

Azaria insisted frequently that progress on the most contentious aspects surrounding religion in the public realm relies on formulating the right language while buttressing the middle ground, eschewing the open combat preferred by other parliamentarians.

Focusing on the increased costs to consumers that would be incurred by the kashrut bill was one example, and her approach to the ongoing imbroglio surrounding mikve use is perhaps another.

The High Court in February ruled that local religious councils could not bar the Reform and Masorti (Conservative Judaism in Israel) movements from using public mikvaot for their conversion ceremonies, and shortly thereafter United Torah Judaism introduced a bill to circumvent the ruling.

But the bill would also require that mikve use be conducted only in accordance with the instructions of the Chief Rabbinate. This clause was quickly perceived by women’s rights groups to be a threat to recently won rights to immerse in mikvaot without being subject to questions and inspections by mikve attendants.

So Azaria, along with two Bayit Yehudi MKs, chose to focus on the potential damage to women’s rights instead of the more knotty problem of religious minority rights.

The proposed legislation led to outrage among leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements both domestically and in the US, but Azaria said this issue is above her pay grade and that it is the prime minister who has the responsibility for resolving it.

In addition, she argued matter-of-factly that in terms of numbers the greatest effect the bill could have would be on women, and so it was this concern that she had addressed.

Azaria said that “creative solutions” can be found, given the relatively small numbers of non-Orthodox converts every year, again advocating for the path of least resistance instead of tackling the issue head-on.

Azaria’s attitude to the status in general of the progressive Jewish denominations is of a similar vein, saying that the Reform and Conservative movements should focus less on gaining official recognition and more on finding partnerships with like-minded segments of the Israeli population.

Nevertheless, she managed to perform the rare feat of putting feisty UTJ MK Moshe Gafni on the back foot this week, as he struggled to head off her opposition in the committee to the mikve bill by insisting that new language in the bill would ensure that women’s rights in this realm would be preserved.

The key to her strategy to bolster the middle ground, she said, is sitting down with the right people in order to demonstrate the alternative perspective. Azaria said she won over Likud MK Miki Zohar on his controversial Shabbat bill, which has since January been put on ice, while she said that Shas MKs she has talked with have, at least privately, conceded the need for change on Shabbat in the public realm.

“We are strengthening the center and we are formulating a dialogue, so extremists on either side aren’t making the decisions,” she said. “Solutions won’t happen overnight, we’re not ripe for it, but on the other hand, if you look back over the last year and where we were on religion and state, I think I have influenced that debate and am changing it.”

Azaria said she’s trying to prevent “any haredi knockouts,” but argues that progress on a broader scale can come only through respect for the perspective of all parts of society.

“I’m not just trying to see to it that the state is as similar as possible to my religious worldview, which is the prevailing attitude today, both haredi and secular.

Everyone wants everyone else to act as they do, but this won’t happen.”

Ultimately, as Azaria herself admitted, legislating liberalizing changes on the combustible concerns surrounding religious life will be nigh on impossible for the duration of the current Knesset.

“Legislation on religion and state is very hard at the moment; we’re not there. We need to explain these issues to the public and we need the different groups to give up on their dreams.”

What can be achieved, Azaria said, is to initiate a dialogue for creating as broad a consensus as possible, which can then serve as a platform for recruiting support among the general public and in the legislature for a new way forward.

Extremes are often appealing for their ideological purity and for the absolution of responsibility they frequently provide, while compromising on ideals is an inherent component of the middle path.

But as Azaria points out, it may be the best way to achieve practical results for the time being.