The Ten Commandments or the Golden Calf
By Yizhar Hess
The weekly portion of Ki Tisa – and the sin of the calf that lies at its centre – teaches us how fast, how terrifying and how extreme the process can be wherein a nation moves from a future that is moral and correct to a dangerous road based on religious fundamentalism. The children of Israel received the ten commandments, an awe-inspiring, ground-breaking document of religious and moral commandments. 40 days have barely passed and with the first difficulty, with the first disappointment – Moshe’s delay in coming down the mountain – they turn to idol worship.
It’s clear to see that there are two parallel, identifiable and opposing paths.
The same paths can be seen in the directions that the State of Israel is choosing for itself today.
The first path is a cause for genuine optimism: the significant increase in those who identify with pluralist Judaism that doesn’t focus on a narrow interpretation of Jewish religion and culture.
The number of Jewish Israelis who define themselves as Masorti or Reform now stands at 500,000: around 7 percent of the Jewish population in Israel. This number has doubled in the last decade and it is no longer a minority voice that can be ignored. The significant growth in Conservative (Masorti) congregations (around 80 at present) and Reform congregations (around 50) demonstrates how Jewish Israelis are increasingly taking ownership of their Jewish identity. We are in the middle of a Jewish pluralist renaissance in Israel and this renaissance is gaining momentum.
In parallel, another trend is also occurring: an wave of Jewish fundamentalism, a narrow interpretation of Judaism that forms an extremist Jewish nationalist identity.
The characteristics of this wave are expressed in the education system, in the army and in the Chief Rabbinate. Essentially, they are felt at every point where Jewish citizens interact with the government.
Religious marriage and divorce are carried out under the sole auspices of the Orthodox Rabbinate, a reportedly corrupt kashrut system rules the supervision of Kosher food, there are limited conversion options and increased religious legislation around Shabbat threatens the very fabric and character of secular life in Israel. This is a cause for pessimism.
And in the middle of these two paths is the Kotel, which in many ways acts as the symbol of this struggle. After three decades of pressure and even violence around the issue of the status of women at the Kotel and the right for egalitarian prayer, the government attempted to come to a compromise that would be acceptable for a wide range of Israeli Jews. They negotiated intensively for four years and the negotiations, to everyone’s surprise, ended in a compromise and agreement where everyone lost something but gained other things in return. In January 2016 the government passed the agreement with a majority and was meant to enact it within 30 days. But since then nothing has happened.
The pressure from Ultra-Orthodox political parties has meant that the government has been unable to realise the agreement on the ground. At the time of going to press (following a high court order to make this agreement happen) there was still no solution in place.
The next decade in Israel is critical. It will be the decade that declares the fate of Zionism. Will the state of Israel keep its Jewish-democratic identity, or will fundamentalism, the narrowest of interpretations of our religion, rule over the Zionist dream?
Do we choose the moral path of the Ten Commandments or do we pursue the false promise of the idolatrous golden calf?
Yizhar Hess is the Executive Director of the Masorti Movement in Israel.