Ruach Hiddush protests Otzma Yehudit’s Inclusion in the Israeli Election Process


Press release:

We, members of Ruach Hiddush, representing the full spectrum of Jewish denominational life, join with lovers of Zion and supporters of Israel in expressing grave concern and dismay regarding the alignment of the Jewish Home and National Union parties with the Kahanist Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) party in order to improve their chances of gaining parliamentary seats in the upcoming Israeli elections.

Generally, Ruach Hiddush is exclusively engaged in pursuing the vision of the State of Israel fully upholding the promise of religious freedom, diversity, and equality in shouldering the civic burden. We refrain from entering the partisan fray. But the Otzma Yehudit party denigrates the rule of law, the civil judiciary, the civil rights of non-Jews in general and Arabs in particular, and militates on behalf of religious coercion in the name of the Jewish religious tradition. Given the gravity of this situation and the attempt to hijack the Jewish religious imperative, we feel compelled to add our voice to those who have condemned this development.

For us, the significance of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state stems from our ancient and ever-renewing Jewish tradition. The thrust of this tradition is expressed in Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which speaks of the Jewish State as anchored in the “principles of liberty, justice, and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel, upholding full equality of social and political rights to all its citizens, regardless of religion, race, or gender.”

Clearly, the founding vision of our beloved Israel is the antithesis of racism, discrimination, and injustice towards any of its residents, whether Jewish or not, whether religious or not, whether male or female.

Therefore, we join together with other major mainstream Jewish organizations in decrying the abuse of the Jewish tradition in the service of racial discrimination, violence, and inequality.

The strength and future of Israel and the mission of the Jewish people will be served best by honoring the Image of God in each human being which equalizes us all, as Rabbi Akiba taught, “Beloved is humanity for it was created in God’s Image. Humanity is even more beloved because God gave it dignity by informing it that it was created in God’s Image, as it says, ‘For He made humanity in the Image of God’ (Genesis 9:6).” (Avot 2:14)

Statement approved by:

Rabbi Uri Regev, Founder and CEO of Hiddush, the Israeli patron of Ruach Hiddush
Rabbi Dr. Michael Chernick, Chair, Ruach Hiddush Executive Committee

Executive Committee of Ruach Hiddush
Rabbi Les Bronstein

Rabbi Pam Frydman
Rabbi Elliot Kleinman
Rabbi Mark Howard Levin
Rabbi Asher Lopatin
Rabbi Gordon Tucker

Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky: Words from a Broken, Loving, and Hopeful Heart

The recent explosion in anti-Semitic expression including acts of anti-Semitic violence in numerous quarters around the world is not only frightening and alarming, it is eerie and perhaps even ominous. The inevitable and logically-necessary descent of rabid anti-Zionism into the exclusion and even hatred of Jewish people is in plentiful evidence, and rabid anti-Zionism continues to provide an obscene, self-righteous veneer to anti-Semitism. Which is not to say that the “left” is the only worrisome quarter, for plainly it is not. We are living in a time when we need to be vigilant, to be unflinching in calling out anti-Semitism, to be strengthening old friendships and actively cultivating new ones. It’s a serous time.

Human nature is such that when a particular group feels besieged and targeted, when it feels that the world has abandoned its ethical and civil codes in its behavior toward it, that this group then responds by loosening its own commitment to these very same ethical and civil codes. Not out of the belief that “two wrongs make a right” or that “you have to fight fire with fire”. Rather out of the belief that the rules just aren’t the rules anymore, that we have entered an amoral jungle, a time and space which simply exists outside our normal ethical commitments. This is a very human response. It is the way of human nature.

And this is precisely the reason that God gave us religion. Religion’s revolutionary and radical claim is that there is no such time and there is no such space, that there is no such thing as the amoral jungle, that human beings – even when engaged in a state of warfare – are always accountable to the norms of God-fearing, God-loving, God-revering behavior.

Last week’s appalling decision by Habayit HaYehudi, the political party representing Religious Zionism, to join electoral forces with Otzma Yehudit, the Kahanist political party whose platform is rooted in and founded upon racial hatred, is a precise manifestation of this awful tendency of human nature that religion was intended to correct. (Much has been written in recent days about Otzma Yehudit’s ideology and politics. I think that Yossi Klein Halevi’s essay summarized it best. See The defense that HaBayit HaYehudi is offering is that the State of Israel and Zionism itself are under siege from enemies both within and without the State, and electoral victory must be assured even at the cost of bringing the racists out from the political cold and into cabinet-level power. This represents of course, nothing less than the utter rejection of the mantle and responsibility of religion, rendering HaBayit HaYehudi’s claim to be the “Religious Zionist” party a mockery and a sham.

And frankly, it renders its claim to be a Zionist party at all to be a mockery and a sham, certainly in the sense that Israel’s Declaration of Independence which guarantees that the State “will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture”, is considered a foundational Zionist document.

It is heartening that numerous important and influential thinkers within the Religious Zionist community have condemned this turn of events. Rabbi Moshe Lichtenstein and Rabbi Benny Lau have been among the most public and courageous. And it is heartening that many America Jewish organizations, including AIPAC, and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations (through Malcolm Hoenlein, its executive vice chairman) have expressed their grave concern, in particular over the Prime Minister’s catalytic role in the political merger. (The National Council of Young Israel is one of the few organizations that has expressed its support for what has happened, and individual Young Israel synagogues must now express outrage at their leadership.) More voices of ethical and religious clarity are still needed. Absolutely including yours. Perhaps the worst outcome can still be averted.

There’s no underestimating the importance of this political moment in the history of our beloved Medinat Yisrael, and even in the history of Judaism as a great world religion. Yes, we must love and support Israel, and confront anti-Semitism, but לא כך – not this way. For the sake of all that we hold sacred, never this way.

As rabbis of all denominations, we say it is time to abolish Israel’s Chief Rabbinate

Originally posted on JTA

Israel’s Chief Rabbinate holds absolute power in key areas over the religious definition of what – and who – is Jewish. This monopoly — empowered, funded and perpetuated by the state — has given the haredi Orthodox-controlled body the license to exclude major segments of the Jewish community within and outside Israel, including adherents of varieties of Orthodoxy, such as Modern Orthodoxy, of which they disapprove.

In the latest example of such power, the Chief Rabbinate has issued a list of criteria for the overseas rabbinical courts that it recognizes in the areas of divorce, conversion and Jewish status. While some praised the Chief Rabbinate for transparency, critics said the list is outdated and omits rabbinical courts that operate in Modern Orthodox communities. The Chief Rabbinate’s new initiative is intended, among other things, to undermine Modern Orthodoxy by denying recognition to conversions performed by some of the leading lights of that stream of Orthodoxy.

In reaction, some Orthodox critics have committed themselves to fight via legal and public avenues until the Chief Rabbinate becomes more inclusive of the broad swath of present-day Orthodoxy.

We offer a radically different, more inclusive response. As rabbis representing the full spectrum of Jewish denominational life, including the non-Orthodox denominations long excluded by the Chief Rabbinate, we no longer expect any flexibility, decency or inclusiveness from a body controlled by a monopoly that represents such a small, fundamentalist sliver of the Jewish rainbow. .

Further, we view it as inappropriate to seek relief through the civil court system. Diverse interpretations of Jewish law are natural. Using civil law to force religious authorities to validate procedures against their religious conscience is an act of religious coercion.

Recent developments underscore the need to move on to a different model of religion-state relations — and abolish the Chief Rabbinate as an arm of the state.

The existence of the Chief Rabbinate as an arm of the state violates the core principles of democracy. It is rejected by the overwhelming majority of Israeli Jews. No contemporary democratic Jewish community would submit itself to a monopolistic Orthodox rabbinic authority. Only in today’s Israel, under the pretense of maintaining Israel’s identity as a Jewish state, has the government put a system of religious exclusivity in place. This allows the Chief Rabbinate to impose its will on the religious practices of Jews in Israel and now abroad.

A number of months ago, an alternative model was proposed – one that is unifying, Jewish and democratic in character. “A Vision Statement: Israel as a Jewish and Democratic State” was written by a Reform rabbi and an Orthodox rabbi and signed by rabbis and communal leaders of all denominations and diverse political views. It addresses all the key areas of contention regarding matters of religion and state. It is anchored in love, support and commitment to Israel’s well-being and Jewish peoplehood.

The Vision Statement proposes the following:

  • “Those who wish to convert to Judaism must have the right to undergo this process with rabbis of their choice, by rabbis who are duly ordained and recognized by their respective major religious movements. These conversions must be accepted as valid proof of Jewishness by the State of Israel, even as we respect the prerogative of the different religious groups to apply their own criteria for conversion.
  • “Those who wish to adjudicate their cases before religious courts may do so on a private basis, with no governmental participation or interference.”
  • “The State of Israel must grant its citizens the right to choose their own religious leadership so that they are not compelled to adhere to a State-sponsored religious establishment.”
  • “The State should not grant governmental authority to ‘Chief Rabbis’ — whether on the national or local levels. Rather, each Jewish community must be free to employ the rabbis of its choice.”

A section devoted to marriage and divorce illustrates how responsible and inclusive this model is. It lays out a process — already supported by Modern Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, Renewal and secular groups and leaders in Israel and in the Diaspora — by which Israelis may choose between a religious and a civil avenue for marriage and divorce. If they choose a path in accordance with halacha, or rabbinic law, the dissolution of their marriage will be conducted according to halacha. Those who choose a civil path will not be subjected to a rabbinical court’s authority.

We hold that it is high time that a broadly defined coalition of Jews across the world, representing the rich Jewish spectrum that reaches from Modern Orthodoxy to the unaffiliated, joins together in recognizing that for Israel to be truly Jewish and democratic, for Jewish peoplehood to be respected, and for Jewish unity to be strengthened, Israel must move away from a coercive religious model of a Chief Rabbinate to one that celebrates religious freedom and equality.

Rabbi Prof. Michael Chernick (Chair), Orthodox
Rabbi Lester Bronstein, Reconstructionist
Rabbi Pamela Frydman, Renewal
Rabbi Elliott Kleinman, Reform
Rabbi Mark H. Levin, Reform
Rabbi Asher Lopatin, Orthodox
Rabbi Gordon Tucker, Conservative
Rabbi Elyse Wechterman, Reconstructionist
Rabbi Uri Regev, Hiddush

(The signatories are the members of the executive committee of Ruach Hiddush–Rabbis and Cantors for Religious Freedom and Equality in Israel.)

Response to the tragedy at Tree of Life synagogue

Special Statement

Response to the tragedy at Tree of Life Synagogue

Ruach Hiddush Executive Committee
Rabbi Prof. Michael Chernick (Chair), Rabbi Les Bronstein, Rabbi Pam Frydman, Rabbi Elliott Kleinman, Rabbi Mark Levin, Rabbi Asher Lopatin, Rabbi Gordon Tucker, Rabbi Elyse Wechterman, Rabbi Uri Regev (Hiddush President and CEO)

Ruach Hiddush, the rabbinic and cantorial association working toward religious equality and freedom in Israel, and its Israeli patron, Hiddush, turns its attention to the tragedy that occurred at the Tree of Life synagogue this Shabbat. We mourn the loss of life and injuries sustained by the Tree of Life family and the suffering of the larger Pittsburgh Jewish community. We beseech God to spare them and all of us from further sorrow due to senseless hatred which leads to acts of violence and murder.

We thank the law enforcement agencies that came to the rescue of our fellow Jews and pray for healing for those of them who suffered wounds on our people’s behalf.

To our great sadness, demonization of the Other has become an almost worldwide scourge. It is true here in the United States, in Europe, and most tragically for the Jewish people, true of the political, religious, and social scenes in Israel.

Ruach Hiddush condemns in no uncertain terms the underlying causes of this plague: religious intolerance, racism, sexism, xenophobia, and denigration of the Image of God which grants inestimable value to every human being.

We ask each of our members to speak out forcefully against the descent into tribalism and incivility here and abroad that has become rife in today’s world.

May our words and actions put an end to tragedies of the sort that occurred at Tree of Life synagogue. Then we and those who join us on this path will be among those who become partners with God in bringing salvation to a world much in need of it.

May God grant comfort to the Tree of Life family, and may we all merit God’s greatest blessing: Shalom.

Rebbetzin Rivkah Lubitch’s Facebook response to the treatment of Rabbi Dubi Haiyun

With all due respect to those who are now coming out with declarations that they will continue to marry outside the framework of the Rabbinate – Let us hear you express an opinion about the marriage of mamzerim. Rabbi Dubi Haiyun was not arrested for having performed outside the Rabbinate, but because he did so for a mamzer (according to the Rabbinate). But Rabbi Dubi Hayoun, with all due respect, would not conduct a wedding for somebody that he considered a mamzer. I’m calling upon you – those who conduct weddings outside the auspices of the Rabbinate – to declare that you have done so, will do so, and believe that it is necessary to marry people who are considered mamzerim by all standards. The concept of mamzerim must be eliminated. Judaism must be freed from the stigma of boycotting people for no fault of their own, and we must say that there are no mamzerim. People are not born mamzerim.

Rivkah Lubitch, is a veteran rabbinic pleader who writes and lectures extensively about feminism and religion. In her former capacity as Director of Center for Women’s Justice (CWJ)’s Haifa office and social awareness coordinator, Rivkah helped redefine the public discourse on aginut through her compelling depictions of the issues and women she represented in rabbinic courts through more than 300 blogs and articles.

Yair Sheleg’s Facebook response to the treatment of Rabbi Dubi Haiyun

The arrest of Rabbi Dubi Haiyun for conducting a chuppah and kiddushin ceremony without a permit from the Rabbinate is a shocking disgrace. Indeed, Haiyun broke the law, but in this case the law itself is a disgrace, a law with a black flag flying over it. A law that states that marriages, even Orthodox, outside the framework of the Rabbinate, will not only not be registered, but they will constitute a criminal offense punishable by up to two years in prison, is a law that had no right to exist in the first place, a law that should be deleted as soon as possible from the Israel’s book of laws, and until that happens, we must ensure that it will not be enforced, just like the law that in the past that defined sex as a criminal offense, which was also not enforced until it was simply canceled.

By the way, this law illustrates how critical the Supreme Court’s power of disqualifying is, because our politicians do not hesitate to exercise the tyranny of the majority, and in this case even the tyranny of the minority that holds the government by the throat. After all, there is really no majority in the public that supports such a delusional law, and it came into the world only because of the surrender to the ultra-Orthodox and the Zionist ultra-Orthodox. And who knows, perhaps the true outcome of this day will be the final burial of the override clause and of the Orthodox monopoly in the field of marriage.

Yair Sheleg is a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute, journalist, author, and publicist. Yair Sheleg has been an astute observer of the religious-Zionist world for many years. He served as a reporter for the newspaper Nekuda and was a member of the editorial board of Haaretz.

Rabbi Benny Lau’s Facebook response to the treatment of Rabbi Dubi Haiyun

Stop this now. The Haifa police arrested Rabbi Dubi Haiyun, the rabbi of the Conservative community of Moriah in Haifa for (listen carefully): conducting a chuppah and kiddushin ceremony without the approval of the Rabbinate. Red line crossed. Someone there wants to burn down the nation’s home on us, and just before Tisha B’Av. Someone there does not understand what a unique historical window in time this is, in which the Jewish people have returned to Israel and begun to live there. Someone there thinks that in constitutional violence he will subjugate liberal Judaism and remove it from the face of the earth. That’s what hatred of brothers looks like. That’s how the house was destroyed in the past. My brothers and sisters, Jews who believe in the vision of the return to Zion and who hear the sound of the wings of history. Help stop it. Share this with all your might and prevent this violence.

Binyamin Tzvi (Benny) Lau, (born October 20, 1961, Tel Aviv) is an Israeli Orthodox rabbi, community leader, activist, author, and public speaker who lives in Jerusalem. He is also the head of the Human Rights and Judaism in Action Project at the Israel Democracy Institute.

Special Tribute In Memory of Rabbi Aaron Panken z”l

Rabbi Gordon Tucker sent this tribute to members of his congregation on Sunday, May 6, 2018.
We share it today on behalf of Ruach Hiddush.

Ruach Hiddush Executive Committee
Rabbi Pam Frydman (Chair), Rabbi Mark Levin (Newsletter Editor), Rabbi Michael Chernick, Rabbi Elyse Wechterman, Rabbi Gordon Tucker, Rabbi Uri Regev (Hiddush President and CEO)

I write with the deepest of sadness at the tragic death of Rabbi Aaron Panken, of blessed memory. Rabbi Panken has been the President of Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion for the last 5 years. More than that, he was a model rabbi, scholar, and community leader. Rabbi Panken was a personal friend and professional colleague to me, as he was to several members of this community, both lay and professional. And he was a powerful spokesperson for Jewish pluralism and tolerance throughout the world – a true “Ohev Yisrael.” The many students who were trained on his watch, and by him directly, will never forget the gifts that they received from him.

As I consider the horror of the accident that took him from us, I am reminded of a profound teaching that comes from the Talmudic rabbis. They said that when a righteous teacher is lost, he is lost to his entire generation. And that is true. Rabbi Panken’s death is a blow not just to the Reform Movement, which he helped to lead, but to the entire Jewish world of our time. But our ancient sages went further. They said that what they meant was not only that the pain of the loss is felt by the entire generation, but that, in a real sense, it is only felt by that generation. “When a jewel is lost by its owner,” they said, it has not disappeared, and “wherever it is, it is still a jewel.” Future generations, unlike ours, will not feel the sting of this loss, just as we do not feel the sting of the loss of those teachers who died in generations previous to ours; instead, they will only have the benefit of the teachings and the legacies of this gem, who will surely remain a gem for all time.

Rabbi Gordon Tucker is Senior Rabbi of Temple Israel Center, a Conservative Egalitarian Synagogue in White Plains, New York.

In defense of the right to care – by Rabbi Pam Frydman*

Rabbi Pamela Frydman, Executive Committee Chair, Ruach Hiddush

I believe it is unfair to claim that Jews of the Diaspora have developed an obsession for the Kotel, the Western Wall, as Peter Joseph stated in his article in The Forward. Love of the Kotel has been a carefully cultivated interest and passion fostered by Jewish leaders for centuries in order to keep our people connected with the only remaining remnant of the structure that surrounded the hill on which the Holy Temple stood in ancient times. Prior to the founding of the Modern State of Israel, the Kotel was known as the Wailing Wall. After the Wall became part of Israel during the Six Day War, its name was intentionally changed to Western Wall in order to continue to inculcate the strong connection to the Wall among Jews both in Israel and in the Diaspora.

Even today, the Kotel is precious to millions of Israeli Jews, in particular, those who embrace an Orthodox Zionist or Haredi lifestyle. Tragically, many such Jews not only love the Kotel and visit often, but they also viciously harass Women of the Wall and Reform, Conservative and other Jews who visit the Kotel to pray and connect each in their own way. See, for example, the school girls who blocked a busload of Women of the Wall worshipers while flipping them the bird on Rosh Hodesh Shevat. (

I believe Joseph is right that there is also a preponderance of Israelis who do not care about the Kotel and it is also true that these tend to be the very Israelis who are struggling with not being able to marry in their own homeland. I believe, however, that the problem is one of perception and not reality. Modern non-Orthodox Israelis have lost the connection that previous generations had with the Kotel because the Kotel no longer provides a venue where children and teens can visit during school-based field trips because secular educators feel uncomfortable bringing their classes to a place where boys and girls must gather separately and everyone must cover up in ways that are foreign to them. Not only do school children miss the age-old opportunity to visit the Kotel, but non-Orthodox families visiting Jerusalem also tend to avoid the Kotel because they also do not feel safe in a gender-separated environment where their clothing and lifestyle are shunned.

Were the Kotel compromise to have been implemented, there could be a new atmosphere fostered by a single unified entrance and signs that tout both gender separation and egalitarian worship as though these two venues were each facets of the same faith, which they actually are. It is this very diversity and the accompanying empowerment of those who practice non-Orthodox forms of Judaism side by side with the continuing empowerment of those who practice Orthodox and Haredi forms of Judaism that would help to heal the rift and allow non-Orthodox and Modern Orthodox Jews to return to the Kotel in safety as they refine and redefined their connection to the site.

I fear that the divide between Israeli Jews and North American Jews is a divide being fostered by those who wish to insist that they are right. The fact is, however, that no one is right and yet everyone is right. Haredim are right that there must be a place at the Kotel for gender separate worship, including a space where women may pray alone and in silence or low voice. Egalitarian Jews are also right that there must be a place at the Kotel for people of all genders to pray together. North American Jews are right that when they visit Israel, they are entitled to visit the Kotel in safety and with women being allowed to wear tallitot and tefillin and read from Torah scrolls just as men do.

Telling people that they are wrong has never been good for retail sales. Tourists are not going to flock to Israel and spend their money there because we tell them that the tourist view of Israel is flat out wrong and they should worry instead about the needs and sensibilities of the natives. Instead of telling North American Jews to mind Israel’s business by trying to get into the Israeli Jewish headspace, why not tell North American Jews to “come as you are, be Jewish the way you are and while you are there, hang out with Israelis and see what it’s like to live in our Jewish homeland.”

Israel is a nation of strong vibrant contributors in many fields, including science and agriculture. A procedure honed at Rambam Hospital in Haifa helps people with Parkinson’s to overcome tremors. Kibbutz Yotvata enjoys lower temperatures and higher humidity than its Negev surroundings through agricultural techniques that help the desert to bloom. Yet despite the excelling of Israelis in the fields of science and agriculture, Haredi public schools do not teach science to boys. It is a well-known fact that the Rambam, Maimonides, whose teachings are basic to modern Judaism, was himself a physician. It is noteworthy, however, that science is not denied to Haredi boys in order to keep them from being like the Rambam. Rather, they are denied science in order to keep them focused on the Haredi lifestyle.

When tour groups start learning about the Haifa based procedure that cures tremors and the southern Kibbutzim that keep the desert blooming together with the plight of Israeli citizens who must leave their homeland to get married or who live together and raise children without being able to marry, then, and only then, will we start to develop a common language among Israeli and Diaspora Jews of non-Orthodox persuasions.

Haredim are already sharing their ideas and realities across the Israel-Diaspora divide. It is high time that Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Renewal and secular Jews do the same. Developing connections between like-minded and similarly-practicing Israelis and Diaspora Jews will be good for Israel because it will increase the possibility that Israel will have strong Jewish allies in the Diaspora for hundreds of years to come. It will also be good for Diaspora Jews to feel assured that in 50, 100 and 500 years from now, their descendants will still be considered Jews under the Law of Return so they can make Aliya if they wish, or if, heaven forbid, their Diaspora surroundings require them to flee.

A fine education must be available for all Israelis regardless of whether they are Jewish or of another faith or of no identified faith. Among Haredi Jews, a fine education that includes math, science and technology might also turn out to produce future Talmudists and Chassidic thinkers who will do their people proud. As we have seen, however, we cannot legislate this into reality as evidenced by the fact that newly approved legislation requiring math and science in Haredi schools for boys was overturned as soon as Haredi parties returned to the government coalition. Other methods must be found. I do not know what those other methods might be, but if we open to the notion of welcoming all Jews to the conversation together with their values and interests in tact, rather than telling large swaths of the Jewish world that their values and interests are wrong because they care about the Kotel and not the lack of freedom to marry, we might just find that Jews in Israel and the Diaspora will come up with the answers and implement them before our very eyes.

What if the tour of the Parkinson treatment center at Rambam Hospital was accompanied by a Herzl-type “im tirtzu ein zu agaddah,” “if you will it, it is not a dream” speech telling tourists that just as scientists found this miracle cure to eradicate tremors, so Israel must find miraculously ingenious ways to evolve Judaism under the careful scholarship of future Rambams who parse Jewish law and values in accordance with science, mathematics and halacha. As James Bond says, “never say never.” It could happen and we can be part of hastening its arrival by doing just what we are doing now, but with a positive spin such as the one offered by the Bat Kol, the feminine mystical voice, that announced to the divergent Schools of Hillel and Shammai, “these and these are the words of the Living God.”

*Rabbi Pam Frydman is Chair of Ruach Hiddush, Rabbis and Cantors for Religious Freedom and Equality in Israel. Pam writes, “I dedicate this article to my friend and teacher Rabbi Uri Regev who is a shining example of how to walk our talk and talk our walk, and with gratitude to Rabba Sara Hurwitz who points out that needing to be right stands in the way seeing from the point of view of the other, and to Rabbi Les Bronstein, Rabbi Marcia Prager and Rabbi Simkha Weintraub whose commitment to a Jewishly diverse Israel and Clal Yisrael are breathtaking.

The Shabbat bill controversy: A focused perspective on the religious debate and the conduct of religious politicians

Rabbi Uri Regev, Hiddush President and CEO; Executive Committee, Ruach Hiddush

In Hiddush’s last newsletter, we highlighted a number of aspects involving the current controversy over the Shabbat bill. What we would now like to share with you, our colleagues, is a more focused perspective on the religious debate and the conduct of religious politicians in this controversy. This will give you deeper insight as to how this controversy factors in the ongoing debate over religion and state. This account is not advocating that all stores be open on Shabbat. On the contrary, what Hiddush has been advocating for is a serious and responsible re-assessment of the social, economic, and legal aspects of Shabbat in the Jewish and democratic State. Only in this way can Israel establish a balance between these often conflicting values.

The Israeli public discourse and news bulletins were dominated by the updates and reports on the status of the Shabbat bill. Below, we are highlighting the views of the religious participants in the debate. This debate helps us understand the positions of the religious players in Israel’s religion-state debate.

It’s important to appreciate how heated the debates over this Shabbat bill were. There was a record setting filibuster effort on the part of the opposition, with extremely contentious and sensitive crisis points that brought out some of the most contentious issues – and some of the most objectionable initiatives – due to the pressure to deliver the adoption of the bill.

Minister Rabbi Deri (Leader of Shas) quoted Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef who supposedly ruled that one should rise from mourning one’s loved ones to vote. He even turned to MK Glick’s (Likud) rabbi in Otniel, asking if MK Glick could come in to vote on the bill, despite the death of his wife. On the one hand Deri tried to justify it, on the other hand he apologized for it. This bill created a mess of multiple dimensions, raising a number of questions, involving religion-state, halakha, nature of Shabbat – the incident with MK Glick was only one example.

MK Rabbi Israel Eichler (United Torah Judaism), speaking at the Committee of Internal Affairs in a key meeting held on Dec. 28, 2017, said the following: “Anyone who says that it is possible to observe Shabbat in multiple ways is like someone who says that you can maintain your diet and continue eating starches – don’t lie to yourselves.”

He then drew special attention to American Jewry: “we need to remember that most of American Jewry is assimilating, and at the end there won’t be even a remnant left because they have not observed Shabbat. There was no way to make a living there without working on Shabbat. This is how millions of Jews were annihilated. President Herzog called it the silent holocaust of the USA. This is an annihilation of Judaism. The only ones that will keep American Jewry are those who observe Shabbat and their offspring. All the rest will disappear without a trace…. the sages say that Jerusalem was not destroyed, other than for the fact that they desecrated Shabbat. You presume to speak on behalf of the prophets (turning to the MKs from the left). The prophets warn that if Shabbat is not observed there will be no Jewish people.”

Just as Eichler sees no future survival of the Jewish people without observing Shabbat, so does MK Rabbi Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism) maintain that without Shabbat there is no existence for the state of Israel. Gafni said: “If, God forbid, there isn’t Shabbat here, there will be no state.”


Where are traditional Israeli Jews on this controversy?

The controversy over the bill covers a number of issues that come into play in both public and political debates. For instance, there is a highly popular media personality (Sivan Rahav-Meir), a formally secular journalist who married a Haredi media figure, became religious, and now actively pursues religious outreach. She wrote an article in a Haredi news portal, stating: “The battle over Shabbat is not theirs (Orthodox Jews). It is the battle of a very large population that is being very silenced – the traditional public. They are the ones who are being trampled and are forced into undergoing reeducation.”

Many politicians pushing the bill have similarly claimed that they are supporting it for the sake of Israel’s traditional Jews, but Hiddush’s ongoing polling reveals that as catchy as these claims are, they are not borne out by the facts. This is simply demagoguery – “don’t confused me with the facts, my mind is made up,” which is repeatedly exemplified by politicians and ideologues who really don’t care about the facts – but are quick to invoke claims that support their preconceived positions.

In Dec. 2017 Hiddush conducted a poll, asking: “There is an intense struggle in the political and public arena over Shabbat. The ultra-Orthodox political parties are initiating initiatives to prevent commercial activity, maintenance, and transportation on Shabbat, and they demand the authority to stop even the limited activity that exists today (such as the Convenience Store Law that passed this week in the Knesset on its first reading). What is your position on this struggle?”

72% of Jewish Israelis supported allowing diverse activities on Shabbat, and 28% supported the ultra-Orthodox position. A closer look at the break-down of public positions, by religious self-identification, shows that the clear majority of those who define themselves as traditional support the position held by secular Jewish Israelis. 86% of Jews who identify as “traditional, not so close to religion” (the larger group) supported this position. Even 69% of Jews who identify as “traditional, close to religion” agreed with the secular Jewish population.

The results of an earlier May 2017 poll (following the Supreme Court upholding the Tel Aviv municipal ordinance that allowed a number of markets to be open) were similar. Among the general public, 73% were opposed to bypassing the Supreme Court via counter-legislation, pushed by Minister Deri and his colleagues. This included 91% of “traditional, not so close to religion” and 60% of “traditional, close to religion” Israelis.

As for allowing essential maintenance work on Israel’s railways on Shabbat (Nov. 2017), 71% of the general public supported this. This includes 87% of the “traditional, not so close to religion” and 65% of the “traditional, close to religion” Israelis. Lastly, when it comes to permitting public transportation on Shabbat in Israel (Dec. 2017), 69% of the general public supported this. This includes 85% of the “traditional, not so close to religion” and 56% of the “traditional, close to religion” Israelis.


How should Israel deal with Shabbat?

Another popular Orthodox journalist, Sarah Beck, took it further in an article she wrote about the debate, claiming that “the will to trample to the Jewish character of Shabbat in the public domain emanates from one essential and deep root. Zionism from its inception is divided into two streams – those who see in it the desire of the Jewish people to be “a nation like all nations” (as Herzl stated), or in other words: to continue in the Land of Israel the process of assimilation that due to antisemitism failed in Europe. And those who wanted to see in it the realization of Judaism by creating a model society that would be ‘a light unto the nations’ (as envisaged by Ehad Ha’am and Bialik)”

So, resolves Beck, “The real discussion is whether we share a desire to have a Jewish state. The vocal proponents for opening the stores,” says Beck, “want Israel to let them quietly assimilate, or, as they call it in it in their updated politically correct style, ‘a state of all its citizens.’” Beck maintains that the “purpose of our existence here and of the unique historical story of our people is creating a more humane and a more just society, which draws from our (Jewish) sources.”

I could not agree more with Beck’s noble aspiration to see Israel as anchored in a commitment to a model society, committed to justice and humanity. The truth, though, is that her characterization of the current debate as continuing the dichotomy between the assimilationists and the “light unto the nations” proponents is false and self-serving. We cannot do justice here to an analysis of the current ideological trends within Israel and Zionist society, but suffice it to say that I cannot recall in recent years any of the religious parties, especially not the Haredi parties, speaking about model society or just society, and acting to advance these notions in their political capacities.

Nor is Beck doing justice to a large segment of Israeli secular Jewish society who vehemently oppose religious coercion but are fully committed to Jewish culture, national values, and maintaining the Jewish character of the state of Israel in a variety of ways that are anything but buying into the notion that Israel should be like the USA or France.


Blaming the Supreme Court

Minister Ze’ev Elkin (Likud) hangs the need for the bill on the harsh criticism he and other politicians, mostly in the Haredi and the right-wing political parties, aim against Israel’s Supreme Court. He said: “the bill attempts to minimize the harm caused by the Supreme Court ruling (on the Tel Aviv ordinance)… the Supreme Court interferes in matters of religion-state in a very brutal manner, and it does not enable the Knesset and the Government to make decisions in such delicate matters.”

MK Gafni (United Torah Judaism) said: “all the problems in the area of religion-state start with Supreme Court rulings. The Supreme Court has always ruled against Judaism, from the founding of the state. There wasn’t one ruling in favor of Judaism. Soon we will lose the Jewish character of the state, and even its democratic character.” (This is a favorite line with MK Gafni – see his comment about the Supreme Court in relation to its ruling on Israel’s Mikva’ot)

MK Eichler (United Torah Judaism) said: “… comes the Supreme Court, which is a dictatorial gang rule, which has illegally gained control of the state, and they invalidate the authority of the Minister of the Interior to close stores in Tel Aviv… We are in a state of occupation rule of the anti-religious dictatorship of the Supreme Court…”


Passing the bill by threatening

Deri, Litzman, Gafni made it clear throughout the recent controversy – that if the bill did not pass the government would fall. They also alluded to further demands that if not met would bring down the government, such as the draft bill (the demand that exempting yeshiva students from IDF service be enshrined in law in spite of the contrary supreme court ruling).

For instance, Gafni said: “If the markets bill does not pass, we will cause a crisis whereby we will not support bills of the other coalition parties. The government will continue to survive, but without legislation. If there is no markets bill, there won’t be any other laws.” He also indicated that he is waiting for the right opportunity to bring forth another amendment to apply retroactively and include T.A.


Making non-religious, moralistic arguments

While it is clear that enforcing Shabbat observance is the primary motivation of the religious political proponents of the bill, sometimes other arguments were thrown into the mix to make their demand more palatable – and seemingly more social-oriented. One such attempt was Sivan Rahav’s reference to the traditional public, which was trampled on (according to her).

Another example is of Rabbi Gafni, who said: “there is also the social-democratic issue – of hurting people who work that have stores in Tel Aviv, and would not be able to compete commercially because they observe Shabbat.”
While invoking social-democratic considerations, there is very little in the record of the haredi parties to indicate that they are actively pursuing the advancement of these principles. A compelling example of the hypocrisy in raising this claim could be seen this week:

In reacting to the despicable account of the Prime Minister’s son’s conduct (as revealed in a secret taping of a night on the town, in which he a couple of his friends were chaperoned from one strip club / whore house to another in T.A. by his security detail in a governmental security car, on Friday night a couple of years ago), Rabbi Gafni’s reaction to this scandalous conduct was “it’s not right – and I hope it stops. This reality in which you drive a governmental car on Shabbat is not right.. It has to stop.