Analysis

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.

“Religionization” in Israel secular public schools

The challenge of Jewish education and forging Jewish identity is dear and near to all of us. The challenge associated with these subjects in the modern era in an environment of an open society, which embraces Jews on the one hand – and in the State of Israel where only a minority defines itself as religious on the other hand – is self-evident. Both the Jewish community in the diaspora and in the State of Israel are seeking solutions and new avenues to address this exacerbating challenge. With that as the background, we felt the need to share with you the debate taking place in Israel – both in the formal educational arena, as well as in other arenas such as the Jewish identity educational programs taking place in the IDF.

The most recent symptomatic example of this debate, which reflects much of the drama and the emotions that play a role in it, can be seen in an interview given this week to Channel 10 (Israeli TV) by Naftali Bennett, Minister of Education and leader of the Jewish Home party. We highly recommend that you listen to the interview (Hebrew, starting at 10:30). Under Bennett’s leadership and inspiration, millions of Israeli government shekels are invested in funding activities of Orthodox religious NGOs that provide classes and programs in Jewish identity in secular public schools. These programs are often skewed and aimed at brainwashing, and the funding mechanism used by the government is fraught with questions and possibly with legal issues.

This phenomenon stimulates strong reactions from all directions. On the one hand, Bennett and his people flatly deny any intention of religious brainwashing. They minimize the severity of their initiatives (“what happened, so they’ll learn a bit of Judaism”). They accuse their critics of being driven by a will “to destroy Judaism” (this of course reminds us of ultra-Orthodox political leaders like MK Gafni who accuse the Supreme Court of being driven by a desire to destroy Judaism in the State of Israel via its rulings on matters of religious freedom & equality. Even more seriously – the efforts of Gafni, Bennett, and their allies to undermine the Supreme Court and limit and erode its authority). Bennett emphasizes the importance he attaches for every Jewish student to receive a rich and good Jewish education – “who Moshe Rabbeinu is, what Selichot are”.

Even though he also serves as Minister of Diaspora affairs, it is clear that he has no real interest in highlighting or similarly funding exposure for students (secular or religious) to outlooks and practices common in the Jewish pluralistic world. There is talk today in the Ministry of Education about a new, more pluralistic curriculum, which was initiated by Bennett’s predecessor, Rabbi Shai Piron, but it remains to be seen to what extent it will be funded, compared to the large amounts provided to Orthodox religious NGOs, as well as to the scope of Jewish pluralism that it will present. It is also important to mention in this context that Bennett and his people are not only concerned about the souls of Israeli Jewish children. They are also convinced that Diaspora Judaism is incapable of providing for the Jewish education of their children, and they know better what Diaspora Judaism is in need of. It is therefore that Bennett facilitated allocating tens of millions of dollars annually to strengthen the Jewish identity and solidarity with Israel of Diaspora Jewry’s next generation. What he considers the necessary and “true” Judaism can be seen from the fact that two-thirds of the funding will go to Chabad and Aish HaTorah-related organizations (and one-third for Hillel). On the other side, there is a growing push-back by activists and organizations such as the “Secular Forum” that is mentioned in the interview with Bennett. They are speaking up and demanding that secular Jewish education be guarded against processes of “religionization” in the curriculum, allowing outside elements with a religious agenda to enter into secular schools, and in the text books (see for instance: Haaretz)

Hiddush has recently surveyed the attitude of the adult Jewish population in Israel regarding the question of “religionization”. The survey demonstrates in a compelling way that the public does not “buy” Bennett’s strong denial (anyone who views the TV interview will sense the hysteria that characterizes Bennett’s reaction), and especially parents of children in secular public education affirm their view that such a process of “religionization” is in place and they oppose it.

At the same time, the most important finding is the wide majority support that these parents express, as well as parents of children in religious public education for pluralistic Jewish education, which will not stop at “who was Moshe Rabbebeinu, and what is Selichot,” as Bennett mentioned, but will enable the students to familiarize themselves the diversity of interpretations and approaches to Judaism from Haredi to secular, and will nurture in the students independent and critical thinking and an ability to choose their own Jewish paths.

Hiddush is looking into this matter and investigating claims regarding “religionization”. Hiddush has recently received a partial and evasive response from the Ministry of Education, and we will keep you informed as more information unfolds.

The Chief Rabbinate vs. The State of Israel and the Jewish People

Rabbi Uri Regev, Hiddush President and CEO; Executive Committee, Rabbis for Religious Freedom and Equality in Israel

Criticism of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate is nothing new. It has often been voiced in the RRFEI newsletter and resources, as well as in Hiddush’s materials. It covers a myriad of issues, which in recent years include its delegitimization of Modern Orthodox attempts at addressing the Rabbinate’s failures in the areas of conversion and kashrut certification.

Developments in the last few days regarding the Kotel controversy bring me to focus again on the Chief Rabbinate, pointing to the fact that the institution itself stands in sheer conflict with the notions of democracy and the rule of law in Israel, as well as the realities and interests of the Jewish people worldwide. A lengthy document presented by the Chief Rabbinate this week manifests a real threat to the State of Israel and the Jewish people, which is frequently underestimated and misunderstood by both Israelis and Diaspora Jewish leadership.

For the benefit of RRFEI members, the original 13 page document submitted by Chief Rabbi Lau’s team, in Hebrew, can be download HERE. The document is intended for public consumption and was presented at a Knesset hearing. It is presents the Chief Rabbinate’s position on the pending Supreme Court case regarding the Kotel and the demand that the Rabbinate be allowed independent representation before the Supreme Court, rather than be represented by the Israeli AG who represents all agencies of the state.

In assessing the threat emanating from the Chief Rabbinate, beyond its attempt to dictate norms of worship for all Jews at national sites like the Kotel, one should only look at the Rabbinate’s recent initiative to establish a global ‘Jewish lineage’ database (already in motion, funded by the State of Israel) and Chief Rabbi Yosef’s public lashing out at Rabbi Dweck in London, who dared to present the complexity of Orthodox attitudes towards homosexuality and the need for sensitivity and embracing of homosexuals. Chief Rabbi Yosef came out with a public pronouncement, declaring that he is “amazed and angry at the words of nonsense and heresy that were said about the foundations of our faith in our Torah.”

The selection of quotes below from the Rabbinate’s lengthy document will illustrate the wide chasm between its views and those associated with a democratic society. I dare say that no RRFEI members would tolerate the mindset and demands of the Rabbinate, if they were made in the USA or elsewhere. As you also know from Hiddush’s systematic public opinion polling, Israelis don’t endorse this outlook either; the lack of political backlash can only be explained by the cynicism and utilitarianism of Israel’s political infrastructure, as opposed to the public will.

Quotes

  1. “The Supreme Court does not have the authority to adjudicate the petitions regarding the Kotel… matters pertaining to prayer arrangements at the Kotel, the tradition, the halakhic rulings and that which they allow or forbid, are distinctly matters of halakha and religion, which the court does not have the capacity to decide on. The authoritative element for deciding halakhic matters, including for instance, the question of whether a particular act constitutes a desecration of a Jewish holy site (as is the matter at hand) is the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. Deciding these matters pending before the Court is not judicial at all, but rather halakhic and/or purely subjective – principled.”
  2. “Maintaining prayer and ceremonies in ways that are not compatible with the custom and the Jewish law as has been transmitted, along the Kotel (namely: including the Robinson’s Arch area – UR) constitutes a desecration of the most holy place for Jews… These are religious-halakhic controversies, which have no place in the Court.”
  3. “The position of the Rabbinate is that the Government resolution on the division of the Kotel, known as the “Kotel Compromise”, has no validity, stands in complete opposition to halakha, and constitutes a desecration of a holy place.”
  4. “The Chief Rabbinate is ‘the highest halakhic authority in the State’ (quoting from the Supreme Court ruling re: the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism 1982 petition regarding marriage), and ‘State religious authority of the whole Jewish population’ (quoting from the Supreme Court ruling in the 1989 petition of the Women of the Wall).”
  5. “Determinations by an authority, which is not the Chief Rabbinate, in any matter regarding the conduct of the holy places goes beyond its legal powers and constitutes a prohibited trespass into the areas of the authority of the Chief Rabbinate.”
  6. “The core position of the Chief Rabbinic Council is against the groups that are called ‘liberal’ and ‘progressive’ who have raised the flag of uprooting the Torah from its essence and uniqueness, and the results of their acts speak for themselves. Whoever monitors the assimilation prevalent among world Jews who are connected with these groups, as well as mixed marriages and uprooting of everything holy, will patently see that they have no connection to authentic Judaism…”
  7. “The Government decision (namely: the Kotel Compromise – UR) is void for a number of reasons. The decision, which allows for conducting prayers in the Southern part of the Kotel in a way that is contrary to halakha (for instance, holding mixed prayer services of men and women without a partition), constitutes a desecration of a holy place, and thereby violates the Basic Law: Jerusalem the Capital of Israel, and the Law Regarding the Protection of the Holy Places. So does the part of the resolution, which forfeits the administrative authorities granted to the Chief Rabbis with regard to a section of the Kotel area (the section of the Southern plaza) and transfers them to an authority that is not the recognized / authorized Israeli religious authority – constituting a desecration of the holy place. This forfeiture, in and of itself, is a desecration of a holy place in contradiction to the Basic Law: Jerusalem and the Law of the Holy Places.”

The above quotes are both a grievous misperception of the Chief Rabbinate’s authorities, reflecting a disregard for the law and the State authorities and perception of itself as standing above the law and the government. This document misrepresents past Supreme Court rulings, and forces Israel to move further and further (if the Chief Rabbinate’s position prevails) onto a collision course with world Jewry.

To begin with, the Chief Rabbinate has never had any authority over the Southern part of the Western Wall, beyond the Mughrabi Bridge known as the Robinson’s Arch area. It functioned as an archaeological garden under the antiquities authority, and was not used for regular worship until parts of it were designated for egalitarian worship and later recommended as a solution for the challenge posed by the Women of the Wall. The Chief Rabbinate never really claimed any authority or interest in this area, and its recent outburst has little to do with the sanctity of the Wall, but rather their desire to exclude both non-Orthodox and women’s minyanim. Therefore, the maps that define the boundaries of the Wall, attached to the official rules of conduct, only ever covered the traditional area known as the Wall.

As to the latter – if the Chief Rabbinate comes to be accepted as the highest religious authority for all Jews in Israel, and is guided by the view that ‘liberal’ and ‘progressive’ Jewish groups around the world are heretical, disconnected from Judaism, and their practices constitute desecration of holy places… then obviously, the result would be that the State of Israel will maintain that the overwhelming majority of world Jewry, which absent of religious coercion freely chooses to associate with non-Orthodox Jewish religious streams, are illegitimate, should be barred from Israel’s Jewish religious sites, and should be viewed with disdain and rejected. This conclusion, if the Rabbinate is not stopped, is an imminent threat to the future of Israel-Diaspora relations, in which the Kotel is merely a token reflection.

However, what should be emphasized by Diaspora Jewish leadership to Israel’s political leadership is that not only is the Rabbinate’s misrepresentation of world Jewry and contemporary Judaism offensive and anachronistic, but it is an expression of undue self-aggrandizement, which has no basis, even in Israeli law.

The Rabbinate’s quotes regarding its being the ‘highest halakhic authority in the State’ and ‘religious state authority of all Jews’ are taken out of context, representing only the view of a single (Orthodox) Justice on the panels that heard the cases, and are an ‘obiter dictum’. As a matter of fact, the law governing the operations of the Chief Rabbis and the Chief Rabbinical Council is very specific, and it does not crown any of them ‘the highest halakhic authority in the State’. Rather, in halakhic matters, the law describes their role as ‘providing responsa and opinions in halakhic matters for those who seek their advice.’

Similarly, their implied assault on the Supreme Court and the Government shows a misunderstanding of the Rabbinate’s true role and its relationship with the judicial, the executive, and the legislative branches of government. The Chief Rabbinate, as such, has no existence and no authority outside the scope of the law, which created the institution and defines its authorities. Clearly, in every other democracy, individual rabbis and rabbinic leaders gain trust and following by virtue of voluntary choice and association. That is how the role of the rabbi ought to be in a democratic society. The anomaly of an official state Rabbinate is not only a departure from Jewish tradition, but it is therefore confined and limited to the authorities and powers granted it by the state.

The laws cited by the Rabbinate regarding ‘desecration’ are actually intended to ensure access for all members of all religions to their sacred sites, as well as to ensure that they be respected. The pretentious view of the Rabbinate that they can define what constitutes ‘desecration of a holy place’ clashes with Israel’s own foundational promise of freedom of religion and conscience for all. Moreover, in the Supreme Court ruling on the 1989 petition regarding the Kotel, it was only the Orthodox Justice Elon who held that the ‘custom of the place’ should be interpreted as the manner of worship customary in Orthodox synagogues. The majority of Justices held that there is no necessity to interpret the ‘custom of the place’ according to Orthodox halakha.

The Rabbinate claims that no state authority has the right to regulate the administration of holy Jewish places, and that such a decision, whether made by the government or by the Minister of religious services, are outside their authority and constitute trespassing. The law they misquote and misinterpret regarding the protection of the holy places says in Article 4: “The Minister of Religious Services is in charge of the implementation of this law, and he MAY, after consulting representatives of the religions involved or according to their proposal, and with the consent of the Minister of Justice, establish regulations as to the execution of the law.” Thus, the authority is vested in the hands of the civil Minister of Religious Services and requires the consent of the Minister of Justice. The representatives of the different religions, including the Chief Rabbis, according to the law, should be consulted, but in no way is the Minister limited by them. That is the proper of authority in a normal state that upholds the rule of law, but as far as the Rabbinate is concerned, it is neither of significance, nor is it binding.

It was reported that the leaders of the ultra-Orthodox Knesset factions – Rabbis Deri, Litzman and Gafni held a phone consultation with the Chief Rabbis of Israel who “instructed them that they may not agree to the compromise proposed by PM Netanyahu to suspend the implementation of the Kotel compromise, and that they must demand the revocation of the compromise in a formal governmental resolution.” Clearly, not only do the Chief Rabbis understand their limited authorities, but they feel that it is appropriate for them to instruct political functionaries on how to act. While Hiddush does not advocate the American model of separation of religion and state, clearly the Chief Rabbis giving instructions to Ministers and Knesset Members is an unacceptable blurring of the essential boundaries of politics and religion.

A lot more could be said, quoted, and analyzed, but even these limited snippets demonstrate that regardless of one’s view of what constitutes legitimate prayer worship for Jews, the growing demands and pressures of the Chief Rabbinate pose a real threat, which requires strong counter measures, both within and outside of Israel.

NEW public opinion studies on marriage freedom in Israel

Exploring Israel’s Jewish and Arab sectors, as well as the Zionist Orthodox community

This week, new perspectives regarding Israelis’ views on marriage freedom and related issues were presented to the public.

After years of polling Jewish public opinion, Hiddush initiated a special study of both Israel’s Jewish sector and its Arab sector, and its findings were released on Valentine’s Day. On the same day, another study initiated by the Modern Orthodox NGO Ne’emanei Torah v’Avodah, which focused on the views of Israel’s Zionist Orthodox sector, was published. Since these issues are clearly high on the priority list of Israelis when it comes to matters of religion & state, and they directly impact world Jewry, we are making these reports available in the resource section of the RRFEI website. We’ll be glad to provide further insights and background to those who request more details.

  • Click HERE for Hiddush’s report on the 2017 Valentine’s Day marriage surveys of the Jewish and Arab sectors of Israel (Hebrew)
  • Click HERE for Ne’emanei Torah v’Avodah’s report on the views of Israel’s Zionist Orthodox community (Hebrew)

Hiddush’s dual study offers an eye opening perspective as to the differences between Jewish Israelis and Arab Israelis on these issues. The findings can be better understood given the great disparity between the percentage of Israeli Jews who define themselves as secular (~50%) and the percentage of Israeli Arabs who identify as secular (12%).

Also, of great interest is the fact that whereas in the Jewish sector, the principled embrace of the right to “marriage freedom” is carried into support for enacting civil marriage and divorce, while in the Arab sector, 76% embrace the principle, but only 43% support instituting a civil option for marriage and divorce. This may be attributed to the far lower awareness among Arab Israelis of the inadequacy of religious control over marriage. It may also indicate that if they were made fully aware of the extent to which the right to marry in Israel is infringed upon, they would lend their support to the necessary remedy. It’s encouraging that among younger Arab Israelis, one finds a great level of support for a civil choice (60%), even though the majority of them would prefer religious marriage for themselves. Further, the high levels of opposition within the Jewish and Arab sectors to polygamy; and the high percentage of support for a bride’s right to choose her partner are of great interest.

On a related issue, public attention was drawn in the last few days to the shocking case of a battered wife who was not granted a divorce by an Israeli rabbinic court. It is of little surprise, therefore, to see that among Israeli Jews, 66% do not trust the Rabbinic Courts, as was found in the Hiddush study.

For RRFEI members, the study of the views of the Zionist Orthodox sector in Israel is of great interest. Hiddush placed special emphasis the views of this sector and its subgroups in the 2016 Israel Religion & State Index. The new study further validates the growing openness of Zionist Orthodox Israelis to moving away from the current Orthodox monopoly over marriage & divorce. It also confirms the existence of a liberal subgroup within this sector whose views on such matters are far closer to those of traditional and secular Israeli Jews.

At the same time, it should be pointed out that the methodology adopted by the pollsters of this Zionist Orthodox survey and the drafting of the questionnaire pose some challenges. Hiddush’s study points to a level of 23% support among the religious sector (excluding the ultra-Orthodox) for instituting civil marriage & divorce. However, the media headlines on the Zionist Orthodox sector study declared a cumulative level of 49% support for the various alternatives to the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly that were presented to the respondents. This wide gap can be understood, given the following qualifications of the latter study:

  1. The sample was not presented with the option of maintaining the status quo. This report does not really provide information as to the extent of support for breaking the Chief Rabbinate’s control, but only the level of support for different alternatives, assuming that an alternative will be established.
  2. The alternatives were not presented side by side, not only in comparison to keeping the “status quo”, but also not in comparison to each other. The questionnaire did not ask which of the following alternatives do you support (if one of them is to be chosen), but rather presented each independently and measured support for each of them individually.
  3. An interesting and challenging common thread can be found in comparing the responses to the different questions. The views of the younger segment of the sample seem to be consistently more conservative than the average. It will be of great interest to bear this in mind when we analyze further studies of the Zionist Orthodox sector to see whether this is indeed a consistent.

All in all, these studies reaffirm what we have seen in previous ones: There is a growing openness among Israelis to changing the age old, restrictive marriage & divorce framework. A clear majority support the enactment of a civil alternative, and there is a widespread resentment on the part of the public towards the policies pursued by their respective political representatives.

Rabbi Uri Regev responds to “How to Finally Get Egalitarian Prayer at the Western Wall” (Tablet Magazine – Nov. 22., 2016)

Liel Leibovitz’s “How to Finally Get Egalitarian Prayer at the Western Wall” can be found HERE.

Rabbi Uri Regev’s response follows below:

Rabbi Uri Regev, Hiddush President and CEO; Executive Committee, Rabbis for Religious Freedom and Equality in Israel

Rabbi Uri Regev, Hiddush President and CEO; Executive Committee, Rabbis for Religious Freedom and Equality in Israel

As  Liel Leibowitz (LL) suggests, the non-Orthodox movements should broaden their appeal and avoid unnecessary conflicts. Nevertheless, I have strong reservations as to the specifics of LL’s perspective on what is “unnecessary conflict” and *who* the appeal should be broadened to include. I fear that LL, in as much as his credentials are impressive, may not be as authoritative on the relevant questions involving the Kotel controversy and the politics of religion & state in Israel, as he assumes in prescribing to the non-Orthodox movements how they should conduct their affairs.

LL suggests that the impasse over the Western Wall Agreement (WWA) was generated by the Nov. 2 demonstration by liberal North American rabbis, but this had very little to do with it. The impasse was ironically precipitated in party by the victorious Torah service at the Wall celebrated on February 25 during the CCAR (American Reform Judaism’s rabbinic umbrella) convention in Israel, which, by chance or Divine providence, took place shortly after the WWA was announced. Israel’s ultra-Orthodox leadership dug its feet into the ground at that point, and demanded that PM Netanyahu not implement the agreement. This was not a regular case of slow-paced Israeli decision making. Rather, the WWA was an exceptional case of an agreement slow in the making (more than 3 years of intensive deliberations), which received tacit endorsement from the political leadership of the Haredi parties, as well as the Rabbi of the Western Wall. It was achieved because it was viewed by the Haredi operatives as the lesser of all evils. What neither they nor the PM took into consideration was the extent to which this agreement would play into the hands of disgruntled Haredi rabbinic leaders in both the Sephardi and Ashkenazi communities who were looking for an opportunity to challenge the movements’ leadership, as well as the sensationalist urges of some key Haredi media outlets that refused to hold their peace in the face of an agreement.

While LL probably does have experience with “buearucratic Israel,” as he claims, this conflict has nothing to do with that, but rather with a theological conflict, which can only be won by “hard-sell tactics,” which LL objects to.

The more than 3 years of negotiations factored in all the normal measures of bureaucracy and more. We are left with an unfortunate arm wrestling between both Ashkenazi and Sephardi leadership who abhor non-Orthodox Judaism, and view it in Satan-like terms. Having publicly committed themselves to prevent even the slightest measure of State recognition of the non-Orthodox movements’ legitimacy, they are therefore (being pushed by their own grassroots vengeful rabbinic figures and) going back on their initial tacit consent by threatening the PM with the potential demise of his Government.

In the face of this kind of confrontation, no gentle touch will do the trick. Behind the scenes renegotiation will only result in further delay that will last as long as the non-Orthodox movements and their allies refrain from the “hard-sell tactics” that LL warns against.

None of this is intended to challenge the good will and sincere intentions of PM Netanyahu. I believe he genuinely wished to reach a compromise, and he sincerely desires to implement it. To his credit, one should add that he was the only PM to have open high level negotiations with the non-Orthodox movements of American Jewry over the primary bone of contention between the two communities – namely, “who is a Jew.” While Labor-led governments may have been more sympathetic towards liberal Judaism, they nevertheless refrained from creating the likes of the Ne’eman commission, which Netanyahu appointed to seek a solution to the conflict.

If Netanyahu is halting the implementation of the WWA, it is because its foes have put him on notice; as Rabbi Wernick noted, this is about Netanyahu not being willing to “risk the coalition over these issues.”

Frankly, unless the Haredi parties are bluffing (which they very well may be, given their State funding, governmental portfolios, and battalions of political appointees), one should realize how unlikely it is for Netanyahu to give up his government coalition over the symbolic Western Wall battle.

One possibility for non-Orthodox Judaism, along the lines LL suggests (to “broaden their appeal”), is to pressure the Labor and Yesh Atid parties as well as Netanyhu to consider establishing a civil Government Coalition, excluding the Haredi if they disband the Government. This would go a long way to addressing the unholy alliance of religion & politics in Israel, not only regarding the Kotel, but a whole array of truly critical issues involving the right to family, security, the economy, gender equality and much more. This is something a large majority of the Israeli public strongly favors – a civil government without the Haredi parties’ extortionist practices.

LL seems to omit one crucial factor regarding Israeli public opinion. He chooses to quote an Israeli official, with an implied endorsement to his views, as to the non-Orthodox movements being either clueless about Israeli politics or consciously sabotaging a resolution – or both. Readers may not be aware of the fact that such statements by Israeli officials often have very little to do with reality on the ground, and are primarily aimed at intimidating or de-legitimizing challengers to the Israeli political establishment. This Israeli official was engaged first and foremost in self-serving rhetoric, whereas the consistent truth regarding the Israeli Jewish public is that by an overwhelming majority, it rejects all aspects of the Haredi demands and pressures, opposes the Governmental policies on relgion & state, supports the views of the non-Orthodox movements regarding religious freedom & equality, and supports the Kotel compromise.

The Prime Minister and other political figures are pushing the non-Orthodox movements to keep quiet and have patience. This is not intended to help implement the agreement, but rather to get the non-Orthodox movements’ public pressure off their backs. The aim is not to reach a satisfactory resolution, but rather to gain time and refrain from upsetting the Haredi leadership. The negotiations will last as long as the non-Orthodox movements are willing to keep their peace. No resolution will be forthcoming without real pressure.

I, like LL, am very concerned about the growing rift between Israel and American Jewry. This threat is greater than the Kotel controversy and will not be healed merely by reaching a new compromise over the prayer arrangements. For as long as the majority of the children growing up in the American Jewish community today would not be treated as full Jews by the State of Israel (i.e. would not be able to legally get married in Israel due to the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly over Jewish marriage), Netanyahu’s publicly proclaimed promise that he “will always ensure that all Jews can feel at home in Israel — Reform Jews, Conservative Jews, Orthodox Jews” will not be realized. The WWA is simply not enough to make that larger looming issue go away.

Lastly, while the challenge of worship freedom on top of the Temple Mount and at the bottom of the Temple Mount (i.e. at the Western Wall) are seemingly analogous, as LL suggests, they are worlds apart in reality. LL is right that freedom of worship should be supported regardless of whose freedom it is and where the worship takes place, but his analogy is unfortunate because whereas prayer on top of the Temple Mount is faced with serious security challenges, which go way beyond the limited question of freedom of worship, the challenge to prayer at the Western Wall raises no security question. Rather, it’s simply about a particular Jewish group that hates the non-Orthodox movements and the Women of the Wall, to the point of abusing the power invested in it to ban worship of a manner that is not prescribed by the Chief Rabbinate… even though this is in accordance with the way the majority of world Jews consider acceptable and legitimate.

The Supreme Court landmark ruling to allow non-Orthodox converts access to all Mikva’ot in Israel – There is more to it than you may think by Rabbi Uri Regev

You may download my highlighted version of the Supreme Court ruling here.

Uri-Regev-profile-photo-e1425932791183This unanimous ruling of the Supreme Court is an important addition to the chain of rulings that uphold the principles of religious freedom & equality. Its importance is not only to the matter at hand (access to the public mikva’ot for the purpose of non-Orthodox conversions), but also for future litigation over matters of religious freedom and equality in general.

On the other hand, a close look at the ruling reveals a number of elements of a mixed nature, which we need to be aware of, as they too will weigh on future litigation involving the clash of religion and state.

While the legal saga is over (10 years after it commenced!), and the final ruling has been handed down, a new front, far more vicious and perilous, has opened up. Now the Chief Rabbinate and ultra-Orthodox politicians are in Pavlovian reaction mode, gearing up to fight back and prevent the implementation of this ruling, as they launch a campaign to further undermine both the Supreme Court and demonize the non-Orthodox movements.

 

1. The State could have avoided this ruling

The bottom line of the ruling is an order to the religious council in Beer Sheva and the administrator of the mikva to allow access to Reform and Conservative converts for ritual immersion, as part of the process of conversion, including permission for a non-Orthodox bet din to be present at the immersion. Similar access should be allowed, stipulates the ruling, at other public mikva’ot where immersion of converts is conducted, but it would not have taken much for the Court to have decided differently and hand down a much more limited victory for the non-Orthodox movements. In the course of the deliberations the justices repeatedly urged the State to offer a pragmatic solution to the movements’ immersion needs for conversions. The State’s and religious authorities’ uncompromising mindset and obfuscation of the facts ultimately led the court to hand down a much stronger and more encompassing ruling than it preferred.

Justice Rubinstein opined: “If it were possible for the appellants to have dignified and orderly access in Omer, Modi’in and Hannaton (A suburb of Beer Sheba in the south, a city in the center, and a Conservative Kibbutz in the north), as seemingly presented to us, ‘dayeinu’ – this would have sufficed because according to the appellants’ information, [the need] involves fewer than 300 individuals per year, and one mikva in each major region of the country would have sufficed. We have no interest in entering into an ideological dispute in this context. What we sought were pragmatic solutions. [But seeing that the facts as attested to by the appellants stand in contrast to the ambiguity that characterizes the State’s affidavit] there is no recourse other than making a decision on the merits of the case. Such a need to decide the merits of the case could have been avoided if the unfolding of this case [and this is not the only such case] was not a situation of (in Hebrew –(מנעת מרובה לא מנעת: ‘when you try to block them at every turn, you will not block them at all’.” [a play on words on the known phrase: תפסת מרובה – לא תפסת ‘caught lots, got nothing’]

Chief Justice Naor agrees : “Indeed, as we commenced the process, we held that it would be desirable to find a pragmatic solution to answer the problem raised by the appellants (the non-Orthodox movements). A solution that would render a legal decision unnecessary in matters that tend to split the public. At times there are many advantages to pragmatic solutions that do not require that ‘justice pierce the mountain.’ … if mikva’ot were available within a reasonable driving distance, it might have been sufficient.”

This reminds us of the nature of the compromise over the Kotel, in which the Haredi rabbinic and political leadership feared that if a compromise were not found, the court might allow the Women of the Wall to pray in the actual space of the traditional Kotel. Agreeing on the ‘alternative Kotel’ compromise exempted the Orthodox Kotel authorities from having to accommodate the women and non-Orthodox movements at the Kotel itself. The difference being, of course, that in the case of the Kotel, Netanyahu and Mandelblit could come up with an alternative Kotel, which was not controlled by the Orthodox rabbinate, whereas, in the case of the mikva’ot we were dealing with locations that were all controlled by the Rabbinic establishment. Therefore, the refusal of the religious powers that be to compromise and allow access to merely 2 public mikva’ot, resulted in an overarching ruling that orders the authorities to accommodate the non-Orthodox movements in all public mikva’ot where converts immerse.

 

2. “Religious freedom” with more than a grain of salt

Much of the media’s reporting on the ruling focused on the principles of equality and religious freedom, as reiterated in the ruling. Such statements included: “We state the fundamentals – the principle of equality is one of the core principles of our legal system – its roots are deeply embedded in our identity as Jewish and democratic state… once the state has established public mikva’ot and made them available to the public, including for the purpose of conversion, it cannot practice discriminatory policy in using them. This also emerges from the freedom of religion and freedom of worship granted to all in the State of Israel… the principle of equality constitutes an essential building block in the existence of religious freedom… religious freedom includes within it two imperatives directed at the state – ‘Do’ and ‘Do not do,’ similar to ‘turn away from evil and do good’ (Ps. 34:15). First, to refrain from interfering in a person’s religious life; and second, to provide appropriate infrastructure for maintaining religious life.” This reiteration is of obvious importance. It is praiseworthy for its own sake, especially coming from the Orthodox justice Elyakim Rubinstein; but with all due appreciation for these important statements, we should be reminded of the fact that the justices would not have refrained from imposing severe limitations on these principle of equality and religious freedom if only the State’s religious authorities had been sufficiently forthcoming in offering a meager compromise of two mikva’ot in addition to Hannaton in the north. Just to illustrate the quantitative context, in Beer Sheva alone there are 13 public mikva’ot.

 

3. Counter-legislation already in the works, but will it do the trick?

The Haredi politicians are already gearing up to pass counter-legislation that will explicitly subject the function of the mikva’ot to the Chief Rabbinate according to the Shulchan Arukh. Their assumption is that such explicit legislation regarding the rules and authority over the mikva’ot would suffice to block the implementation of the Supreme Court ruling. The Haredi opponents would be wise to realize that such legislation may not do the trick. The respondents (the State and Religious Council) already argued before the court that the law governing religious services requires that the Religious Council operate according to the rulings of the local and Chief rabbinates. Justice Rubinstein points out that such a provision in the law “cannot make kosher” the exclusion of non-Orthodox converts from public mikva’ot, because “the Rabbinate is not authorized to establish a discriminatory policy. The court holds respect for the Chief Rabbinate, but it is clear that as with all administrative authorities, it is subject to the rules of administrative law, which forbids discrimination. The claim that one administrative authority has the power to instruct another administrative authority to exercise discriminatory policy is incompatible with the basic principles of public law.”

 

4. This ruling has nothing to do with whether the Supreme Court accepts non-Orthodox conversions

While we may be tempted to interpret the ruling as giving credence to the legal acceptance of non-Orthodox conversions, we should realize that the ruling explicitly rejects such interpretation. It makes a clear distinction between the extent of legal recognition of non-Orthodox conversions, which is still pending before the Court, and has been for many years now, and the exercise of religious freedom regarding religious rituals. Moreover, Rubinstein alludes to his own preference for universal norms for conversion in Israel that would be acceptable to all. While not explicitly referring to it, we should recall that Rubinstein, while he was Attorney General, was behind proposed legislation that attempted to enforce the outline proposed by Prof. Ya’akov Ne’eman, which would have led to the exclusion of State recognition of Israeli Reform and Conservative conversions. Ne’eman misrepresented this framework as a mutually agreed upon recommendation of the ‘Ne’eman Commission’, while in truth the Reform and Conservative movements had not consented to the framework, which was vehemently rejected by the Chief Rabbinate. I served at the time as the representative of the Reform movement to the Ne’eman Commission and watched with fascination Prof. Ne’eman’s total commitment to see his vision through, regardless of whether it was endorsed by all members of the commission, as had been stipulated when it was founded. There is no surprise Ne’eman, a cabinet minister at the time, was able to get the Government to embrace the recommendations as if they were formally agreed upon by the Ne’eman commission. He had no interest in acknowledging that was not the case. Given this, we should be aware of a number of comments that Rubinstein makes, reflecting his own continued preference for a “unified”, Orthodox, conversion process:

  1. “When a person wishes to immerse for the purpose of conversion, why deny him that, so long as there is no – unfortunately, as far as I am concerned – a State conversion acceptable to all?”
  2. In rejecting the State’s argument that was based on the distinction between a ‘State sanctioned conversion’ and a ‘private conversion,’ Rubinstein maintains: “I fear that these arguments, even though they cannot be ignored in some respects, and, as stated above, if we merited appropriate legislation maybe it would be possible to achieve conversion harmony, which is ‘not in heaven’, cannot justify preventing immersion for private conversions in public mikva’ot… This is stated before the Court has ruled on the pending conversion cases (where the extent of legal recognition of non-Orthodox conversions is being debated – UR), and of course our decision here is subject to the decisions that may be made there, without predicting what that ruling may be.” (This somewhat cumbersome language may actually mean that if the ruling on the substantive recognition of non-Orthodox conversions will be against the Movements, it may impact affect the future of this ruling on mikva’ot.)

 

5. A disturbing side issue

One of the things that emerged from the facts outlined in the ruling is that the Jerusalem Religious Council does not allow the use of the many Jerusalem mikva’ot for the purpose of conversion at all (even by the governmental Conversion Authority). While this is a side issue, it is a very disturbing revelation, which points to the fact that the Jerusalem Rabbinate follows an extreme religious path, probably based on their ambivalence (to say the least) regarding the validity of the somewhat more lenient Conversion Authority process. It’s difficult to understand what reason may account for this rigid policy, other than halakhic ambivalence as to whether even the State Conversion Authority’s conversions are legitimate. Hopefully this will be further explored because it represents an intolerable void between one State authority and another, both funded by taxpayers’ funds, especially if it is based on a fundamentalist, extreme interpretation of halakha that not only rejects the non-Orthodox movements, but also modern Orthodoxy. In this context, we should also remember the battle that is being waged over the entitlement of non-married Orthodox single women to use the mikva, and the intrusive conduct of the mikva attendants at many of the public mikva’ot.

 

In conclusion

This landmark ruling is very important on its own merits. A closer look at the details reveals that it’s more complex than first meets the eye. It reveals the reluctance of the court to fully pursue all-encompassing principles when a pragmatic, practical solution can be found, even if it’s only partially satisfactory. In the face of the obstinacy and the withholding of the truth on the part of the State and religious establishment, the court felt forced “to do the right thing.” Yet even this ruling, beyond the welcomed interim impact, hints to the uncertainty that still lies ahead, as to the substantive recognition of non-Orthodox conversions performed in Israel. This is quickly becoming the battleground for a larger State/religion clash in which not only the Orthodox establishment’s animosity towards non-Orthodox Judaism is reflected, but also its deeply rooted rejection of the basic principles of the rule of law and democracy. Israeli policymakers as well as diaspora leadership would be well advised to understand that these reminders (such as this ruling, the recent Kotel debate, the battle over drafting yeshiva students, the enforcement of core curricular studies, etc.) are testing Israel’s democratic character and exposing who its foes are.

This is a battle we cannot afford to lose, and while many of us would like to avoid confrontation, I believe, for the sake of ensuring Israel’s future, it cannot be avoided. This is not only my conclusion, but a similar conclusion was offered by Israel’s first President Chaim Weitzman, as he anticipated the inevitable clash between religion and state even before Israel’s founding, as did Herzl before him: “There will be a great struggle. I foresee something which will be perhaps reminiscent of the kulturkampf in Germany, but we must be firm if we are to survive.”

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.

Click here to read the RRFEI advocacy strategy

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