Resigning from Judaism

November 6, 2011 by

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Image: Alex Livac

One of Israel’s most celebrated writers, Yoram Kaniuk, has resigned from the Jewish religion. He won his case in court to have the word “Jewish” removed from his identity at the Population Registry, and from now on he will be listed as “without religion”.

He is not alone. Apparently, hundreds of Israelis are lining up to follow his example.

Kaniuk has his own personal reasons for abandoning our faith and many commentators have criticized and lampooned him for it. Rabbis have not taken him seriously either, because Jewish law makes it clear that however much a Jew tries to escape their origins, they remain Jewish (Sanhedrin 44a).

But even if the act has no halachic significance, it should still concern all who care about Judaism in Israel. Never before has it been easier to be a Jew, so why the wave of defections? As an Orthodox Rabbi, I am troubled by their actions, however, I understand the frustration that drives them.

Many Jewish traditions such as the Passover seder, the lighting of Chanukah candles and our lifecycle events are popular, beautiful, and inspiring to religious and secular Jews alike.

Unfortunately, this beauty has been overshadowed by the religious leadership’s coercive tactics. Our religion demands precision, but when the legalistic minutiae of ritual become the raison d’etre of Judaism drowning out the beautiful ethical messages of our tradition, people feel cheated out of the outstanding beauty of their heritage.

Even the driest portrayal of Judaism would still be tolerable to most Israelis were it not for offensive attempts to force them to follow a religious lifestyle. Religious coercion is the enemy of true religion. Forcing people to believe or practice Judaism breeds resentment and hatred. Genuine spirituality can only come when it is intelligently presented and accompanied by the warmth and loving kindness which have always been associated with Jewish life.

Many years ago, when zealots in Petah Tikva tried to prevent Sabbath desecration by calling for the closure of cinemas on Shabbat, my teacher Rabbi Riskin rejected their coercive techniques. “Let every cinema remain open”, he told us, “but let them be empty, because every Jew has been invited to a traditional Shabbat meal with their friends, neighbors and family”.

When I challenged him on the need to protest religious transgression, his answer was straightforward and wise; “No one appointed you God’s policeman!” he said.

Acting as God’s policeman is a recipe for disaster, but recently elements of the “religious” community have exchanged their role as God’s police officers for the role of His criminals. In the great cause of modesty, we have seen attacks on young school girls in Beth Shemesh, and the love of the Land of Israel has been expressed through racist declarations and “price-tag attacks” on olive groves, mosques and Israeli army bases.

In religious terms, these individuals are committing one of the worst possible crimes a Chillul Hashem – a desecration of God’s name. The villains represent only a tiny minority of observant Jews, most of whom are good, law abiding citizens, but their actions tarnish all of us. Seeing their behavior, we can understand why many of the most idealistic people feel alienated from their religion.

Fortunately, there are people working to counter these phenomena. One of the most beautiful recent initiatives, through which religious services are held in community centers across Israel, was launched by Rabbi Michael Melchior and has been developed by Rabbi Shlomo Riskin’s Ohr Torah Stone Institutions.

These services are run by rabbis and educators who are chosen for their acceptance of every Jew, their non-judgmental style, and their determination to create unity amongst our people rather than harboring divisions. Their services, ceremonies, lectures and workshops are attended by thousands of Jews who would never set foot in a synagogue, but are very happy to taste traditional Judaism in a community center without the poison of racism, elitism and coercion.

We are taught that the Torah’s “ways are pleasant and that all of its paths are peaceful” (Proverbs 3: 17). This is not just a beautiful slogan, it has powerful halachic ramifications. Judaism must be taught with gentleness, warmth and sensitivity.

Only when our rabbis start leading the charge for a compassionate Judaism which champions the rights of the widow, the poor and the stranger, when they give full support to agunot and converts and all the other vulnerable people in our society, will we reverse the lines at the Ministry of Interior, restoring the Jewish people’s pride in their faith.

Rabbi Gideon Sylvester is the British United Synagogue’s rabbi in Israel and director of the Beit Midrash for Human Rights at the Hillel House of Hebrew University in Jerusalem


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