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April 16, 2014 | 16th Nisan 5774

Pluralism III

Galilee Diary #301, September 3, 2006
Marc J. Rosenstein

In a famous discussion in the Talmud (Baba Metzia 59b), Rabbi Eliezer differs from the majority of his colleagues on a technical legal matter, and brings miraculous support for his position, up to the ultimate: a heavenly voice commanding the rabbis to accept his opinion. But the rabbis hold firm, arguing that “the majority rules,” and even God cannot intervene in the decision-making process. We like to use this story to show that Judaism supports democracy. However, the story continues that the subsequent excommunication and humiliation of Rabbi Eliezer grants him the moral high ground – such that his prayer brings disaster on Rabban Gamaliel, the president of the Sanhedrin that rejected him. Thus, the majority rules, but it may not rule tyrannically, but must respect the minority.

An interesting case study:
An eleven year old girl, Orthodox, has been participating for several years in the gymnastics club at the local community center. Her coach informs her that tryouts are being held for the competitive junior high team, and suggests she try out. She points out that she is shomeret shabbat, which will prevent her from participating in competitions on Saturday, when most are held. The coach encourages her to try out anyway, promising that a solution can be found. She passes the audition, and is informed that she has made the team. A few days later the coach calls to tell her that because she won't participate on Shabbat, her invitation to be on the team has to be rescinded.

A classic Diaspora dilemma - the reason many of us made aliyah, right? Yes, but no, as this true story took place recently here in the Galilee, the girl in question being the daughter of a friend and colleague. We all know, of course, that the Orthodox minority has managed to impose a degree of "religious coercion" on Israel at large, so that, for example, there is no public transportation in most of the country on Shabbat, and businesses can be fined (at least theoretically) for opening their doors on Shabbat unless they have a special permit. Governments have fallen over the landing of an El Al plane on Shabbat. And yet, as usual, both sides perceive themselves as the victim here: the non-observant majority feels put upon by restrictions imposed by a minority, which impinge on their personal freedom, while the observant minority feels constantly embattled, disenfranchised, and discriminated against. We came to a Jewish state, they say, assuming that this would be the one place in the world where our children wouldn't have to choose between sports and Shabbat, where we could have all the social and cultural goodies we were denied in the Diaspora. To which the majority seems to respond by saying, this is a modern secular state; if you want to hold on to your religious observances, that is your personal choice, and you'll have to pay the price; we can't design the state around the needs of a minority.

The result of this "conversation" is the rather complete segregation of Orthodox and non-Orthodox populations, who attend separate schools and youth groups, live, in many cases, in separate communities, attend different cultural events, eat in different restaurants, etc. On the one hand, one could see this as healthy and normal: after all, it makes sense for people to live and learn in relatively homogeneous communities, where shared values are reinforced and applied; it would be impossible to create a society that would satisfy all of the people all of the time. On the other hand, the story of the gymnast above is disturbing to me, just as was the discovery, when we arrived here, that all school parties take place on Friday nights.

I believe in freedom of conscience, in the inappropriateness of state intervention in religious belief and observance. And yet I have trouble with the tyranny of the secular majority in the Jewish state, and with the ironic fact that my children found it easier to observe Jewish religious traditions in our community in North America than they did in the Jewish state. Interestingly, in America, there is an assumption that while the state must be neutral, individuals are expected and encouraged to be religious. The European secularism that entered Israeli culture, on the other hand, sees all religion as the enemy of progress and enlightenment and humane values.

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