The Israeli newspaper, Haaretz, recently reported:
"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."
Why would Israeli Jews--who live in the Jewish homeland, speak Hebrew, and feel comfortable as Jews--want to resign from the Jewish religion? What's their problem? According to halakha, one can never resign from one's Jewishness, so Mr. Kaniuk is Jewish regardless of what is recorded on the Israeli Population Registry.
Moreover, there are plenty of Jews in Israel and the diaspora who do not consider themselves to be "religious"; yet, they do not go so far as to label themselves as "without religion". It's not a matter of importance to them to actively repudiate their religious identity.
It has been plausibly suggested that Mr. Kaniuk and others like him have been so distressed by the official face of Jewish religion in Israel that they want to disassociate themselves from it. The religious "establishment" has alienated many thousands of Jews. Instead of reflecting sweetness and light, it reflects religious coercion, self-righteousness, and unsavory political maneuvering. While the vast majority of Israelis are not Hareidim, the Hareidim yield inordinate power, and increasingly impinge on the freedoms of general society. In the eyes of thoughtful Jewish Israelis, the Jewish religion has become a serious problem, and a threat to the "Israeli way of life."
How very tragic that Jews feel so repelled by the religious establishment that they actually go to great lengths to list themselves as "without religion". The religious establishment seems to have no message for them, no way of reaching them; or more likely, it has chosen a path of religious extremism and elitism that has no room for those who do not conform to their ideas and behaviors. Surely, there are many good religious people who try to counter-act the negative impact of the religious extremists; yet, the moderate and enlightened religionists seem to have forfeited the bases of religious power to the extremists.
The vast majority of Jews--including a high percentage of Orthodox Jews--do not like and do not want religious extremists to be in charge. They do not respect Israel's Chief Rabbinate. They do not approve of religious coercion. They resent the fact that a small coalition of Hareidi parties wields inordinate power in the Israeli government. As for diaspora Jews, there is also a growing resentment against Hareidism; there is growing dissatisfaction with the fact that Modern Orthodoxy has all but ceded total authority to Hareidi "gedolim"--that the Hareidim largely call the shots in matters relating to yeshivot, batei din,mikvaot, eruvin, kashruth etc.
So why does the majority of the Jewish people let this Hareidi power continue unabated? Why doesn't the majority assert its own rights? Why doesn't the Modern Orthodox/Religious Zionist community speak with its own independent voice, and present a Judaism which is intellectually vibrant, compassionate, inclusive, compelling, loving?
Our Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals works tirelessly to strengthen the voice of an intelligent, sensible, meaningful Orthodox Judaism. There are like-minded groups in Israel and the diaspora that work with these same ideals. One day, we will succeed in turning the tide. Meanwhile, more and more Jews are alienated from our religious traditions and our religious identity.
Edmund Burke once noted: "All that the forces of evil need is for enough good people to do nothing." It's time--well past time--for enough good people to do something.