By Nicole Reisinger
For the Mitzpeh

Rabbi Elli Fischer spoke to six students at Maryland Hillel Monday night about the relationship between religion and the state of Israel.

This was the first discussion of the semester for JLIC’s first Food for Thought series, a program that aims to provide students with differing perspectives, said Rabbi Alex Tsykin.

“It offers an opening for a different perspective,” said Tsykin, an OU-JLIC Torah Educator. “We sometimes have people from the community come speak and it is also convenient for other speakers who are coming to visit the area.”

Fischer is currently visiting the U.S. on a speaking tour discussing the topic of religion and the state of Israel.Fischer was Maryland Hillel’s first OU-JLIC rabbi and now lives in Modiin, Israel, with his wife and three children working as an independent writer, translator, editor, and rabbi.

Fischer focused mainly on the contentions surrounding the institution of marriage – a divisive and contested issue in Israel.  

“The problem with the Israeli Chief Rabbinate … is that it’s an arm of government,” said Fischer.

Students listen to Rabbi Elli Fisher (right) at JLIC's first "Food for Thought" of the semester Monday. Nicole Reisinger/Mitzpeh.
Students listen to Rabbi Elli Fisher (right) at JLIC’s first “Food for Thought” of the semester Monday. Nicole Reisinger/Mitzpeh.

Fischer believes that while chief rabbis and rabbinical courts are highly accepted by the majority of Jewish communities, the transformation of these religious bodies into government entities leads to problematic relations between church and state, or the lack thereof.  

“Judaism is not just a matter of religion. It’s a matter of culture and nationality,” said Fischer.

The Rabbinical Courts Jurisdiction Law holds that a legitimate marriage can only be conducted under halachic Orthodox rules. Reform weddings or those not conducted by an Orthodox rabbi are not acknowledged by the state and the couple is considered a common-law couple. An addendum to the law includes that those who fail to register a marriage or one they arranged for someone else faces a two-year prison term.

In Israel, there are waves of couples secretly wedding in private halachic marriages.

“I’m an orthodox Rabbi,” said Fischer, “I will not officiate the wedding of a kohen to a divorced woman. I observe halacha and I will not officiate that. But there’s a big leap from saying ‘halakha forbids this and therefore we can’t do it’ to saying ‘we want to have a state where such marriage is forbidden.”

Rabbi Elli Fisher talks to students Monday about religion and the state of Israel. Nicole Reisinger/Mitzpeh.
Rabbi Elli Fisher talks to students Monday about religion and the state of Israel. Nicole Reisinger/Mitzpeh.

The danger of having a religion and government so inextricably related manifests itself into certain groups drawing political implications to justify their own means. Fischer calls for alternatives in order to preserve the sanctity of Judaism because he fears religion in Israel is becoming a matter of coercion and is on the urge of fragmenting itself.

“I want civil marriage because I don’t want to be coercive…[it’s] a waste of political capital to make sure people who have no interest in the Jewish religion get married religiously,” he said.

A current concern in Israel is determining whether civil and non-Orthodox marriages require divorces since they are not legally recognized by the Rabbinate, and therefore do not carry the same legitimacy. Fischer believes creating a brand of civic religion and allowing people to opt out of the rabbinate is the proper solution.

However, Fischer thinks it would be a mistake to recognize more than one form of Judaism.

“When I think about where I want religion and that state of Israel to go, I don’t want it to move in the American direction,” said Fischer.

Rebecca Grossman, a senior engineering major, thought this was an interesting lens through which to view the issue of different denominations of Judaism in the U.S. and the lack thereof in Israel.

“[I didn’t think of it] as something that is very deliberate, that we want to keep it as a general religion that doesn’t have those divisions that Jews (in the U.S.) are very use to,” said Grossman.

Israel officially recognized 17 different religious communities, and of those 17, it only recognizes one Judaism. The Knesset ruled not to recognize Reformed Judaism as its own autonomous and religious community. Fischer believes this is the correct decision because doing so would ultimately transform Judaism into a matter of personal creed rather than the civilizational way of life.

This creates a dilemma for Israelis because there is now an underlying tension between what it means to be ‘Israeli’ and ‘Jewish,’ two terms that used to be synonymous. It is also troubling for Jewish Americans because it means conceding the point that Judaism in Israel is inherently Orthodox and that it is impossible to take the Jewish religion out of the Jewish state.

Aharon Garrett, a sophomore finance major, feels like this discussion changed and informed his view on these issues.

It “covered some culture background which was interesting and also offered some in-depth knowledge of the issue that I wasn’t necessarily aware of,” said Garrett.  


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