Analysis: President Rivlin’s response to Rabbi Jacobs’ & Rabbi Wernick’s demands for religious equality in Israel

Ever since Chanukah, there has been a lot of media traffic regarding President Rivlin’s “change of heart” as to non-Orthodox Judaism. Much of it focused on the Chanukah event sponsored by the UJA Federation of NY, which brought together rabbis of different denominations to listen to President Rivlin, following “introductions” by Rabbi Rick Jacobs, head of the Reform Movement, and Rabbi Steven Wernick, head of the Conservative Movement. This Chanukah event was titled “Shevet Achim Gam Yachad.” Both Rabbis Jacobs and Wernick are to be applauded for their commitment to having religious freedom become a reality in the State of Israel and the non-Orthodox movements being accorded equal status to that of Orthodoxy.

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Below, we will try to unpack the encounter and related events and consider its actual substance, regarding whether we are indeed witnessing a change of heart on President Rivlin’s part, and what this exchange may suggest for future strategy in this arena. As you will see below, the specific issues raised with Rivlin were: that Reform and Conservative rabbis should be officially allowed to sit on rabbinical courts, perform weddings, funerals and conversions, and receive state funding for their congregations in Israel. President Rivlin responded that he “believe[s] it is very important for the State of Israel to show full respect and sensitivity to all American Jews,” and that nobody should deny another’s Jewishness. The President’s words drew praise from many in the non-Orthodox world.

As we know, “the devil is in the details,” and breaking down each speaker’s terminology and comparing their use of language is very instructive, for this casts a clearer light upon President Rivlin’s response to the two American rabbis.

 

American rabbis welcoming President Rivlin President Rivlin’s response to American Jewry
Rabbi Rick Jacobs: The time is long overdue for equality to reign throughout the State of Israel, and because of our deep love for and commitment to the ideals of Israel, we insist on equality, not just at the Kotel (at the Western Wall), but also in rabbinical courts, under the bridal canopy, at funerals and conversions, and the founding and funding of our congregations… It cannot be that the great ingathering of the exiles will result in the only democratic state in the world that formally does not grant equal rights to the majority of the Jewish people.


Rabbi Steven Wernick: … the challenges that we believe are important both for our Jewish brethren in Israel, as well as for us in the Diaspora. And that is having the sense when we come to Israel, when we talk about Israel, when we advocate and support Israel, that Israel is indeed the homeland for all the Jewish people; that all of us – no matter which methodology, … it is one that is acknowledged, accepted and supported with full equality and in equal pluralism for all Jews around the world… Rabbi Heschel who was brought to this country, saved from the Nazis by the Reform movement, and found his home within the Conservative movement, in Israel would not be afforded the same rights as our Orthodox brethren in the State of Israel. Can’t do marriages, can’t do divorces, can’t do conversions, and other things.

President Rivlin: The Jewish communities of the United States also have their own special flame and their own special character. I believe it is very important for the State of Israel to show full respect and sensitivity to all American Jews. It is important that we remember… that we are all one family. All feeling ahavat Yisrael – the love of Israel. That simple love for all the Jewish people of all groups and all streams. I know that all of the communities represented here share ahavat Yisrael and a deep commitment to the future of the Jewish people and to the positive image of the State of Israel. We must never forget that even the major differences between us are an honest expression of concern shared by all of us, whether Orthodox, Reform or Conservative… Jews of the United States and Jews of Israel – left and right – right and left – conservative and liberal – we all share concern for the Jewish people all around the world. We can, and we should, argue aggressively, but from the position of respect – of fairnesswithout denying anyone’s Jewishness, without denying the place of one approach or another within Jewish dialogue today… Jewish culture is a culture of dispute through listening – and that is the most important thing: to listen to one another, even though sometimes we cannot agree or we are not ready to agree, we have to listen to one another – all together.

This side-by-side comparison of the three speakers’ words clearly illuminates the difference between the thrust of Rabbis Jacobs’ and Wernick’s demands, and the intent of President Rivlin’s response. Whereas Jacobs and Wernick were direct and earnest about their specific demands for equal religious status for Jews of all streams in Israel, Rivlin did not express support for any of those specific expectations. The President spoke instead of Jewish peoplehood and love, dialogue, respect, listening, acknowledging disagreements, commitment to maintaining the positive image of Israel, etc.

It should be noted, for example, that the President mentioned twice that no one’s Jewishness should be denied. This welcome message should not be misunderstood, however. Rivlin was alluding to the derogatory comments by Minister Azoulay of Shas, who said: “I cannot allow myself to say that he [a Reform Jew] is a Jew.” These comments brought about much ire throughout the world, and brought PM Netanyahu to publicly declare his commitment to ensure that “all Jews may feel at home in Israel,” followed by an even more explicit pronouncement by Netanyahu at the JFNA GA: that he would “ensure that all Jews — Reform, Conservative and Orthodox — feel at home in Israel.” Rivlin is clearly adding his endorsement to the implied rebuke of Shas’s minister Azoulay’s public insult to Reform Judaism. However, here too we should be careful of the pitfalls of terminology. Rivlin’s kind statement should not be understood as saying “We should not deny the Jewishness of anyone who is considered Jewish by the different streams of Judaism.” Rather, his statement is along the tautological nature of Minister Bennet’s reaction to Azoulay’s slur: “All Jews are Jews. Whether Conservative, Reform, Orthodox, Haredi or secular. And Israel is their home. Period.”

Neither Bennet nor Rivlin are about to acknowledge that they consider Reform converts, for instance, as Jewish. If were to happen, then we would truly be on the verge of “messianic times.” Until then, we should be aware of the fact that in some of the critical “Who is a Jew” debates held in the Knesset in the past, MK Rivlin’s comments were some of the most vicious and anti-Reform ever heard in the Knesset. So while the leaders of Reform and Conservative Judaism listed specific grievances regarding exclusionary laws and policies that discriminate against their movements in Israel, the President responded to none of their specific complaints, skirting the question of concrete policy changes entirely.

While President Rivlin used gentle, inclusive, even loving, language, and while he addressed Rabbis Jacobs and Wernick by their rabbinic titles, his response actually gave no indication whatsoever that he supports religious freedom and equality for all in Israel. Rivlin has surely come a long way since his time as a Knesset Member who called Reform Judaism akin idol worship. Yet, it is too early to attribute to him a genuine change of heart on these matters. It was not long ago that he chose to cancel a bar mitzvah ceremony for boys with special needs, which was to be held at the President’s residence and co-officiated by a Conservative rabbi. This naturally led to a very public outcry among the proponents of pluralism. While Rivlin realized the damage he had done, and later hosted a multi-denominational learning event just before the fast of Tisha b’Av, the rabbis he invited to represent the three major streams were never given the opportunity to hold a dialogue among themselves and with the audience, as many had expected. Rather, they were each invited to speak, and as soon as they finished sharing their individual thoughts – the program was brought to an end.

While there have been clear signs of progress, it would still be an exaggeration to regard Rivlin’s words and actions as an embrace of pluralism, or to believe that he has come to subscribe to the virtues of religious freedom and equality. In fact, while President Rivlin is to be greatly lauded for championing the equal rights of Israel’s Arab citizens and standing up against racism, his activism in these arenas makes his lack of support for pluralism all the more glaring. So while we’re hopeful that he will someday “come around,” the disparity between the wording of Rivlin’s response and the clear language used by Rabbis Jacobs and Wernick leaves very much to be desired.

Read more: the RRFEI advocacy strategy for religious freedom

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