Rabbi Michael Chernick
As a new member of RRFEI, I am honoured by the opportunity to contribute to this learned discussion.
At first, I endorsed and used pre-nuptial agreements, seeing in them exactly what Rabbi Chernick sees. Over time, however, I became unsatisfied with this and the other options he lists. My concerns with seeing both pre-nuptials and civil marriage in Israel as solutions to the problem of divorce inequality and the agunah include:
Since “Pie in the Sky” options have already been proposed, I suggest the following:
The vision of Hiddush and the Rabbis for Religious Freedom and Equality in Israel opens with these words:
Imagine an Israel where Judaism blossoms in all its nuanced shades and colors; where religious and secular movements flourish side-by-side and those who explore beyond Judaism in search of meaning are able to forge new spiritual paths within Judaism.
We are the only organization in the Jewish world with the single mission of bringing pluralistic Judaism to the world’s only Jewish state. We take no sides in the competition between religious or secular Jewish movements. We believe that Israel is the State of all of the Jewish people who choose to live there, and we seek to enable Judaism to flourish by removing the interference or official state sponsorship of one stream or philosophy of Judaism over another. All Jews who believe Israel to be the homeland not only of Jews but of Judaism have a place among us.
A debate has flourished recently over ordination of women in the Orthodox world. Many of us possess strong opinions one way or another. Indeed, these ideas cross the streams. There are individuals within all of the movements who stake their claim on either side. Officially, according to the recent OU statement, the Orthodox movement opposes ordination of women as rabbis who issue piskei din, while the more liberal movements officially favor women’s ordination to be called by the title rabbi.
But the debate is considerably more nuanced within all of the streams. There are Haredim and Orthodox Jews who favor women’s ordination, and indeed there are women who function on a practical level as though they hold smicha. We used to say about Torah commentator Nehama Leibowitz, affectionately called just Nehama by all, that were she a man she’d have been Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi of Israel. Clearly the ferment in the Jewish world over this highly politicized issue roils, and feelings sometimes even set friends against one another.
Certainly we as individuals have our separate preferences and practices. But RRFEI has no dog in this fight. Our sole concern is that all of the Jewish people have the equal opportunity to practise Judaism according to their belief and conscience in the one place in the world dedicated to Jewish history and destiny. Judaism in Israel must be freed of state interference or intervention. The State of Israel must not favor one Jewish stream over another. To paraphrase Evelyn Beatrice Hall, “I disapprove of what you believe, but I will defend to the death your right to believe it.”
Let Israel fulfill her declared purpose of being the homeland for all Jews in which:
THE STATE OF ISRAEL will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it 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 … (Declaration of Independence, emphasis mine)
Originally posted on Times of Israel blogs:
The latest escalation in the attacks upon women praying as a group at the Kotel on the second day of Rosh Hodesh Adar is as remarkable as it is perverse. Senior rabbinic figures summoned hundreds of dati leumi (religious Zionist) teenage young women from their high schools to the Wall to protect its sanctity from women performing a religious act of quiet devotion.
I don’t think this has been done before in the religious Zionist world, to set women against women, by drowning out the voice of the prayer group with their own. In the laws of prayer, we have a principle that shtai kolot lo mishtamei – 2 voices can’t be heard so that a prayer leader must be of one voice. Applied here, we can be astonished at the implication that God will hear only the protesting, bused in girls’ voices. Are not their voices also drowned out by din and roar of their own opposition?
The perversity is of course deeper. This is the month in which we follow the story of Esther who emerged to save all Jews and began with calling upon all to fast and pray. Esther is classically celebrated as performing all her daring do with great tzniut (modesty). And I’m sure that is how these young women certainly have been raised and taught. Tzniut is always understood as going beyond the notions of what body parts are to be concealed. It is an all-encompassing stance, in which one does not put themselves first or shine a light upon their own performance. No Jewish ethical system can condone this mad Purim inversion of tzniut to mean infringing upon other women’s space to intimidate, shame, or frighten. And tzniut education has never meant to cause hatred. Senior rabbinic figures who ordered these girls to perform shamelessly do not allow the same girls to costume themselves as men for Purim fun. By what right do they order their students to don “manly” garb to attack women at prayer? Shame!
And the men leading the whistles and jeers at the women at prayer, way beyond the noise they create upon hearing the name “Haman” during the Megilah reading? Aren’t they commanded with the same tzniut? Of course, and every yeshiva curriculum teaches that quality intensively. I suppose they are more interested in the quality of their gevurah (heroism). But they really need to think about this. Jewish male heroism is expressed in several ways, especially: learning intensively, working and supporting a family, defending our country in battle. If they are bothered by women praying as a group then let them go back to the Beit Midrash, join the army, or go to school and get a job. Or all of the above. At the least they should consider the fourth definition, as found in the teachings of the Rabbis: “Whoso is a Gibor (hero)? One who conquers his passion,” and recognize the not so latent sexual obsession revealed by their violent responses to women.
As an Orthodox Jew, I have prayed individually and in a minyan in a wide variety of locations – valleys and hilltops; on a New York subway car headed to Brooklyn, in which someone needed to say Kaddish; resolutely seated during Kedushah in an El Al seat even though the other 9 wanted me to stand (but our teacher the late Rav Shlomo Zalman Aurbach maintained that one should not stand and inconvenience the other passengers and staff). I have prayed in a few Young Israels with record ear shattering decibel chattering. All Orthodox Jews, and others, have the know-how – keep your eye on the text, and your heart fixed on God. So, young, religious Zionist women, you know better than to let your teachers force you to act in a non-tzniut fashion like bratty boys. And young men, if disturbed by the women, just calmly walk away. You don’t really want to throw a hissy fit, now do you?
Liel Leibovitz’s “How to Finally Get Egalitarian Prayer at the Western Wall” can be found HERE.
Rabbi Uri Regev’s response follows below:
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.
Originally posted in the Jerusalem Post [LINK]
While much international and political discourse focused in the past few days on the “Outposts Bill,” another highly controversial bill was also moving forward in the Knesset, having obtained the approval of the Ministerial Legislative Committee, and may come up for a preliminary vote Wednesday. It too has attracted political, legal and international attention, but has also generated heated religious argument. I’m referring to the Muezzin Bill (a more appropriate name than its formal title: the “Bill Forbidding the use of Public Address Systems in Houses of Worship”).
This bill, which aims at banning the use by mosques of public address systems for the daily call to prayer, is a masquerade, which all participants are party to. Nobody really thinks that those who proposed this bill aren’t actually motivated by nationalistic and religious considerations (the bill’s explanatory note states its intention to forbid “the use of PA systems to call worshipers, to convey religious or nationalistic messages, and sometimes even words of incitement”). Likewise, some of the bill’s opponents disregard the real disturbance muezzins cause for non-Muslims and present the issue as an exclusively racist and anti-Muslim initiative and therefore not requiring reassessment.
A closer look at the matter reveals that restrictions on use of PA systems by mosques exist in many countries, including Arab states, and therefore it is clear that this bill is not simply the invention of fevered minds seeking to harm Islam and its followers in Israel. On the other hand, there seems to be no real and definitely no urgent need for new legislation relating to noise pollution, because current law prohibits unusual and unreasonable noise levels. Therefore one would assume that those concerned with noise pollution would first attempt to deal with the nuisance, such as it is, using the legal tools available to them rather than promoting a new law. Failure to do so rightly leads many to suspect ulterior motives.
On a personal note, I returned a few days ago from New York, and the apartment I stayed in there overlooks the largest mosque in the city. Many Muslim worshipers attend it, but the local residents do not hear loud calls from the top of its minaret. Clearly the local Muslim community understands and accepts the required norms of coexistence, as well as the concepts of mutual consideration and tolerance. At the same time, there is an ongoing debate concerning the Brooklyn mosque, whose neighbors strongly protest its high-volume loudspeakers.
Loudspeakers obviously did not exist in antiquity, indicating the use of powerful PA systems by mosques is not religiously mandated and other solutions can be considered, and compromises reached. These might include applications for smartphones and computers, which would allow those interested in hearing the muezzin to do so while at the same time feeling comfortable that they are not disturbing their neighbors. Such a development could bring peace between the warring parties, and the state should invest in developing something like this and implementing it in the Muslim public domain.
Instead, Israel’s masquerade continues, and the politicians on both sides of the issue continue to paint the matter in black and white.
While the Muezzin Bill was unanimously approved by the Ministerial Legislation Committee, its path to becoming law has now encountered an interesting entanglement. Objections have been expressed by Minister Yaakov Litzman (UTJ) with support from Minister Arye Deri (Shas). News of collaboration and dialogue between the ultra-Orthodox parties and the Arab political leadership was also reported, though not long-lived.
Lest one think the ultra-Orthodox intervention to derail the bill is grounded in a commitment to religious freedom, a radio interview with Minister Litzman revealed the truth. He expressed concern that a muffling of the muezzin’s call to prayer could jeopardize the use of citywide sirens heralding the coming of Shabbat, and possibly other Jewish religious high-volume public events. He was quite clear, stating that if the threat to the Shabbat sirens were removed, he would have no problem voting for the bill.
Of course, the bill’s proponents would not conceive of applying these measures to the weekly Shabbat sirens, regardless of what they preach concerning the nuisance of noise pollution. It is therefore no surprise that after hearing the concerns of the ultra-Orthodox politicians, it is already being reported that Shabbat sirens may be explicitly excluded from the bill.
Ultra-Orthodox circles have established a long record, both in Israel and overseas, of demanding respect for religious freedom whenever challenges to their privileges and rituals are involved. Examples include kosher butchering and circumcision (and metzitza) in countries where these customs have been challenged as inhumane and in conflict with public health and order. Similarly in Israel, claims of religious freedom have been widely made with regard to the mass exemption of yeshiva students from military service, refusal to implement core curricular studies in schools and demands for excessive state subsidies for tens of thousands of non-working yeshiva students. Needless to say, just as with the Muezzin Bill, these demands are not evidence of sincere commitment on their part to universal values of religious freedom and equality.
It is the Litzmans and Deris of the religious Jewish leadership that have never hesitated to deny these very freedoms to fellow Jews and non-Jews whenever they have had the political ability to do so. The recent battle over the Western Wall and the Ritual Bath Law, denying use and freedom of worship to fellow Jews, and Litzman’s quick clarification on the rationale for opposing the Muezzin Bill make it, once again, patently clear.
Originally posted on the Jerusalem Post HERE
A new study released Thursday morning reveals that 74 percent of Israel’s Jewish public is interested in having an egalitarian wedding ceremony, with an exchange of rings that carries mutual and equal obligations between spouses. Just 26% are in opposition.
The survey, conducted by the Smith institute for the NGO Hiddush: For Religious Freedom and Equality, interviewed a sample of 700 people by telephone. The report specifies that the survey questions were regarding personal preferences and not theoretical support regarding egalitarian marriage.
Ninety-two percent of secular respondents and 81% of traditional expressed interest in an egalitarian ceremony. Though 69% of religious respondents were against such a ceremony, that means 31% were in favor. More surprising is the fact that 51% of Bayit Yehudi voters, a far-right nationalist party, would like an egalitarian ceremony, likely due to the party’s high percentage of non-religious voters. Overall, 100% of the left responded that they would like an egalitarian ceremony, 95% of the center, and 58% of voters on the right.
In response to the findings, Hiddush’s Rabbi Uri Regev said, “The survey shows how the Jewish community, including a growing percentage of religious people, are moving away from the Rabbinate’s rigid institution. The public is clearly saying that we no longer want ceremonies that are irrelevant and anti-egalitarian. Many want a Jewish ceremony, but one that matches their values and their way of life; namely an updated, egalitarian ceremony. The Chief Rabbinate and the religious politicians who back it are the number one enemies of Judaism, and they breed hatred against the Jewish public.”
Regev decried the way that traditional Jewish ceremonies confine men to active roles and women to passive (mostly silent) ones. In traditional ceremonies, he said, a man is a temple to the woman, he buys her and takes her as his property. Regev noted that it is on Tu Be’av, the Jewish equivalent of Valentine’s day, that Hiddush chose to examine the demand for ceremony options sans discrimination.
According to Regev, “The obvious solution is to demand that our civic bodies pass civil marriage and divorce laws. Unfortunately, right now we have a government which sets new records in submitting to Ultra-Orthodox blackmail, and the opposition is making great efforts to win the favor of religious parties. We must not accept a continuation of the situation in which Israel is the lone western democracy that denies its citizens the right to marry as they wish. As long as the Rabbinate’s monopoly on marriage and divorce is not ended, we should take matters into our own hands and get married in equal ceremonies, even if such ceremonies in Israel are not yet recognized by the State.
This week we marked Tisha b’Av (the ninth of Av), a date commemorating a series of horrific events throughout Jewish history. According to rabbinic tradition, these spanned from the destruction of the first Temple in Jerusalem in 587 BCE to the 1942 liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto. While one common thread binding these calamities is persecution by gentiles, the rabbis of old also turned inward for explanations.
They were perceptive and bold in attributing responsibility to the Jewish community. Was their soul searching merely an exercise in history, or should we draw contemporary lessons relating to these very days? Rabbinic introspection left us with the following mind-boggling statement in Tractate Bava Metzia 30b: “Jerusalem was destroyed because the rabbinic courts strictly applied din Torah [Jewish legal judgments] rather than allowances of lifnim meshurat hadin [equity].”
The Talmud acknowledged that the Divine Torah law, strictly applied, may cause destruction! The other classic rabbinic explanation for the second Temple’s destruction is sinat hinam (baseless hatred). The famous story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza, oft quoted, demonstrates the extent to which intolerance and hatred can deteriorate into destruction.
The rabbis did not spare their predecessors the lion’s share of responsibility, claiming that such instances of abuse and humiliation took place in the presence of the rabbinic leadership, who held their peace rather than counter the hatred and heal the community.
The first example placed the responsibility upon the overzealousness of the adjudicating rabbinate. In the second example, responsibility was attributed to the rabbinic leadership due to its inaction in the face of social strife.
Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin of Volozhin (The Natziv, 1816-1893) critically describes people in second Temple times who deviated from the Divine Will, as they labeled fellow Jews “Sadducees” for pursuing a religious path not identical to their own, and at times did not even refrain from bloodshed “for the sake of Heaven,” bemoaned the Natziv. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Israel faces numerous challenges.
Many come from outside, stemming from anti-Semitism, the refusal of neighboring countries to acknowledge the Jewish people’s right to a national home, the lack of natural resources, security costs, etc. These are well known, and Jews throughout the world support Israel in facing them. However, to do justice to Israel’s existential challenges, especially during these days of Jewish soul searching, we must emulate the rabbis of old, look boldly at our own religious scene, and identify the threat it poses to Israel’s social cohesiveness and Jewish unity.
The hateful rhetoric and theocratic pressures stemming from today’s self-righteous Israeli rabbinic and political leadership, aiming to delegitimize the “other,” is reminiscent of the Talmud’s focus on sinat hinam and the threat of Din Torah as a catalyst in weakening society.
In the past year, deputy minister Meir Porush of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism Party called for the Women of the Wall to be thrown to the dogs, and his colleague MK Moshe Gafni proclaimed Reform Jews (a catchall phrase for all Jews who are non-Orthodox) a bunch of clowns who stab the holy Torah. MK Yisrael Eichler (also of UTJ) labeled Reform – “mentally ill” and secular Jews – “two legged animals.”
Shas Party leader Aryeh Deri announced, “They will not get any recognition. In Judaism there is only one stream”; and his Shas colleague Minister of Religious Services David Azoulay said that he has difficulty considering them Jewish. Not to be outdone, Rabbi David Yosef, son of the late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, charged that the Reform movement “is a collaboration with idolatry”; while Rabbi Yig’al Levenstein, cofounder of a renowned, state-funded pre-military academy publicly said that “Reform is a stream of Christianity” and homosexuals are perverts.
These are the modern parallels of the label “Sadducees,” which led to the Netziv’s lament, of sinat hinam.
Today’s “others” include not only the non-Orthodox Jewish streams, but also women, LGBT Jews, modern Orthodox Jews, as well as Orthodox Jews with differing views; shortly after Rabbi Ovadia Yosef approved of conversions done in the IDF, graffiti was seen in Mea She’arim which dropped his rabbinic title and labeled him “Reform!” Hiddush’s polling has shown that 71 percent of Israeli Jews perceive the rabbinical courts’ rigid rulings, as well as the anachronistic Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly over kashrut, burial, marriage, divorce, etc., and their refusal to accept the legitimacy of even modern Orthodox conversions and kashrut supervision, as distancing people from Jewish tradition. Clearly, strict application of Din Torah today results in social alienation and strife.
The Jewish people’s challenges today are profound. The threat posed to Jewish unity by our religious leadership steadily gains momentum, unrestrained by a government reliant upon the ultra-Orthodox parties’ political support. On Tisha Be’av, even as we mourn the many historic calamities that befell us, we must also draw brave lessons from our sages of old and reject theocratic fundamentalist pressures and sinat hinam, especially when it’s spewed “for the sake of Heaven”! We need equity, tolerance and compassion.
Only the deepest soul searching and bold action will stave off today’s threat of growing erosion from within.
Originally posted in Haaretz HERE
In the last six months, Israel’s ultra-Orthodox parties have gone on an extremist rampage. They have infuriated Diaspora Jews in two ways: First, by blocking a compromise on non-Orthodox worship at the Western Wall; and second, by passing legislation that bars Reform and Conservative converts from using state-run ritual baths for their conversions.
There was no religious justification for either of these acts. In both cases, the purpose was simply to express scorn for Reform and Conservative Jews and to deny the two non-Orthodox movements even the slightest measure of recognition by the Jewish state.
Haredi politicians, by the way, did not hesitate to acknowledge their motivations. Moshe Gafni, a member of the United Torah Judaism Party and a font of contempt for his fellow Jews, was the sponsor of the bill restricting access to ritual baths. In the Knesset committee considering the bill, Gafni was challenged by members of the opposition who noted that immersion in ritual baths by Reform and Conservative Jews did not detract in any way from the suitability of the baths for religious use by Haredim. No one can argue that halakhah – Jewish religious law – requires barring non-Orthodox Jews from the baths.
Gafni did not deny this, and he also made no attempt to suggest that the bill in question was intended to promote the cause of Torah or advance the sacred character of Israel. The bill’s purpose, he acknowledged, was to prevent Reform Jews from making use of the ritual baths to gain “legitimacy” in Israel.
There is something sad, pathetic, and even tragic about all this. These are the actions of small men with small minds, and Diaspora Jewry looks upon such pettiness with a combination of astonishment and despair. Israel faces a multitude of problems: Her relations with the American administration are strained, terrorism is a daily threat, and Iran is spewing hatred of the Jewish state. Is it really necessary for so-called religious parties to defame the Judaism practiced by the great majority of American Jews? Might their time be better spent on making Jews more Jewish and bringing them back to Torah?
Prohibiting Jews from praying at the Western Wall or using ritual baths is bad enough, of course. But even worse is the bill now being pushed by the Haredi parties that would allow Haredi schools to eliminate virtually all secular studies from their curriculum and still receive government funding. In other words, not only do the Haredim intend to alienate the Jews of the world by deriding their Jewish practice and belief. They also intend to undermine Israel’s economy by denying ultra-Orthodox children the tools they need to function in a modern economy.
And once again, there is no religious justification for such a drastic act of ghettoization. Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik studied economics and philosophy in Berlin, and the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, studied mathematics and physics in Berlin and at the Sorbonne. In France today, in addition to religious studies, Haredi schools are obligated to teach the entire public school curriculum. In most communities around the world, in fact, secular authorities impose general education requirements on Haredi schools. Why should this not be the case in Israel, where 10 percent of the population is Haredi and the stakes for the economy are much higher?
To be sure, there are voices that offer a defense of the Haredi position. Evelyn Gordon, writing in Commentary, argues that there is a younger generation of Haredim that disagrees with the current, elderly rabbinic leadership and that over time will promote secular education for their children, along with traditional Torah study. Gordon makes the case that bottom-up change is always better than top-down change. Therefore, she says, it would be best not to impose a secular curriculum on Haredi schools through legislation, as was done by the last Knesset, but to allow the process to develop on its own.
Gordon is correct that younger elements of the Haredi population are more open to secular studies. But she is wrong to suggest that no legislative mandate is needed to bring about truly meaningful change. Even she admits that it would take a very long time for such change to occur, and it could be decades until younger rabbis who favor secular studies rise to positions of leadership. This means that the current law must be kept in place or a similar one enacted. Under any circumstances, abolishing requirements for secular study will be disastrous.
Top-down change is difficult, of course. But given that half of Israel’s fast-growing Haredi population remains out of the workforce, Israel does not have the luxury of waiting a quarter century for its Haredi leaders to come to their senses.
When specific requirements are considered, my own preference would be a grand bargain. For Jewish students, the task of the schools is to help Israel understand its Jewish mission. That is a complicated business, to be sure, and one that is far from defined. But the best way to get there is to pass a core curriculum law that requires Haredi children to study English, math, science, and Shakespeare, and that requires secular children to study Rambam, Shulchan Aruch, Tanach, and Buber. The goal: Serious secular studies for the Haredim and all religious children, and serious religious studies for secular children. If Israel needs a top-down approach, and she does, that’s a good place to start.
In addition, Gordon says nothing about Haredi Diaspora-bashing. World Jewry will not tolerate 25 more years of Haredi-led public attacks. If the ultra-Orthodox do not like Reform and Conservative Jews, that is their business, but the Knesset must not be the instrument that Haredim use to pour out abuse on Israel’s most devoted supporters. Prime Minister Netanyahu, are you listening?
Originally posted in the Jerusalem Post HERE
Leading Israelis, quite properly, have been paying increased attention to recognizing the importance of Mizrahi (Sephardi) music, poetry, culture and overall contributions to Jewish life. Both the Education Ministry and Culture and Sports Ministry have created new committees and prizes to stress the significances of Mizrahi contributions to all aspects of Israeli life, and to Jewish life throughout the world.
All of this is wonderful – and surely deserved. But think for a moment about another community, ironically generally Ashkenazi, that has also for years been subject to neglect and even scorn. I refer to American Jews, half the Jewish population of the world.
American society is pulsating with Jewish life, culture and scholarship.
Yet Israeli government ministers, with impunity, refer to large numbers of American Jews as clowns or dogs. And what happens then (if anything)? Perhaps an exceedingly gentle slap on the wrist. Can you imagine what would happen if the same government officials made the same comments about Mizrahi Jews? Are American Jews, largely Conservative and Reform and historically so supportive of the State of Israel, the only ones upon whom it is permitted for Israeli officials to heap abuse and disdain? What a wonderful Jewish history there is in America. Jews first arrived in America after the expulsion from Spain, but the largest movement occurred between 1880 to 1935. Two million Jews (yes, two million) emigrated from Europe to the US. That is the largest wave of immigration in Jewish history. For the sake of comparison, in exactly the same years, the first to fifth aliyot (waves of immigration based on the Zionist ideal) arrived in Palestine; altogether, they numbered 300,000 (and a considerable number of them went back to their land of origin). Our Israeli education system, quite rightly, taught us about the individual characteristics of each and every one of these five waves of immigration. That is how these mass movements became legendary.
But that same education system patronizingly largely ignored the “mass aliya” and grouped all the Mizrahi Jews together under one wave of immigration. Today, therefore, the promotion of Mizrahi Jewish culture to a distinguished place in the educational syllabus is truly the correction of an historical wrong.
But has the cultural heritage of only one diaspora been ignored? While most American Jews remained in America, Masorti and Reform Jews are no longer an insignificant minority in Israel. More than seven percent of Israeli Jews today describe themselves as Masorti and Reform (about the same number as call themselves Haredi). Polls clearly show that a majority of Israelis want to see government recognition of Masorti and Reform and acceptance of their rabbis, conversions and marriages.
If Israel is, indeed, the national homeland of the Jewish people, can half the Jews in the world be ignored? Why is it more legitimate to be excited about a Tunisian hymn that has been lost, and then found, than to remember fondly the grace after meals from Camp Ramah or the tunes of the wonderful singer Debbie Friedman, a cantor on whose tunes half the Jewish people grew up? Why are the moderate, learned judgements of Mizrahi rabbis worthy of investment, and not the egalitarian religious revolution which enabled women to become rabbis, and has changed the Jewish people for generations? This is no accident. This is an intentional cultural rejection of half of the Jewish people, simply because in North America there grew a form of non-Orthodox Judaism that is both religiously committed and liberal; a form of Judaism that, heaven forbid, has proven that there is more than one way to be a Jew.
And what have we missed? Goodness, so very much. Rich, Jewish culture, with music, instructive literature, amazing rabbinical judgements, revolutionary attitudes toward religion, which have written a significant chapter in the dialogue between man and God (and at the same time saved the Jewish people from assimilation); but, most of all, we have missed the substance of the State of the Jews. The national home of a people is a place that knows, that must know how to respect and to appreciate the culture, the customs and the heritage of all Jews.
Otherwise it is not a national home.
Yes, the “American Jewish Community” is also a worthy ethnic group.
It might sound funny, but it most assuredly is not.
You will forever be remembered as a valiant warrior for freedom, and now as head of the Jewish Agency for Israel, you have the opportunity to take up the mantle of bold leadership in the battle for religious freedom, Jewish diversity and equality, whose time is long overdue.
Last week, you spoke before hundreds demonstrating for full recognition of Rabbi Haskel Lookstein’s conversions. To the assembled crowd (which I was part of) you said, “At a time when… our enemies attempt to sever the ties between young Jews and the Jewish state…the Jewish Agency fights to strengthen Israel’s stature among world Jewry, and we protest this unacceptable blow to the vital bond between Israel and Diaspora Jewry….” In an interview you clarified that the Chief Rabbinate should accept all Orthodox conversions performed by rabbis ordained at recognized Orthodox seminaries.
You praised the rabbinate for “connecting the Jewish state with Judaism.” Sadly, you are wrong, for the monopolistic and coercive rabbinate is alienating Israeli Jews from Judaism.
It is no surprise that the Rabbinic Court of Appeal refused to recognize Rabbi Lookstein’s conversions in spite of your pleading.
Your support for Rabbi Lookstein is appreciated, as is your past advocacy against the infamous “Rotem Bill” and your push for the Western Wall compromise. So is your willingness to have the Jewish Agency undertake to build ritual baths for non-Orthodox converts in light of the ultra-Orthodox parties’ pending legislation aimed at undoing the Supreme Court ruling allowing non-Orthodox converts access to the state’s publicly funded ritual baths.
You’ve done remarkable damage control, helping Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, which is under competing pressures from world Jewry and its ultra-Orthodox coalition partners, but hasn’t the time come to take a stand for what is truly needed to realize the noble principles you espouse? While you have repeatedly demanded that Israel and its rabbinate recognize liberal Orthodox conversions, you have never clearly articulated a parallel demand that Israel fully recognize non-Orthodox conversions.
As head of the Jewish Agency, doesn’t non-Orthodox Judaism deserve that you urge the State of Israel, if not the rabbinate, to do so? For Israel’s sake and for the relationship between the Jewish state and the Diaspora, these converts must be able to be fully absorbed into Israeli society! How can they, if they are not allowed to marry in Israel? As the state handed total control over marriage of Jews in Israel to the Chief Rabbinate, which does not recognize them as Jews, none of them can legally marry here. Neither can some 350,000 Israeli citizens from the former Soviet Union, born to Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers. Don’t they deserve that you, as head of the Jewish Agency, demand that Israel grant them the right to family, and not subjugate them to the anachronistic rabbinic establishment that refuses to accept even Rabbi Lookstein’s legitimacy? Even with your goodwill, the Agency’s funding and the handful of lenient Orthodox rabbis willing to defy the rabbinate’s intransigence, few will undertake Orthodox conversions.
Can a Jewish Agency committed to the successful absorption of the miraculous Russian Aliya close its eyes to this mistreatment, which renders them second class citizens? In rightly stressing the need for Israel to welcome the young generation of Diaspora Jewry, you must know that the majority of that youth will not be accepted as Jewish by Israel’s rabbinate, and would similarly be excluded and humiliated.
Many among them converted (or their mothers converted) with non-Orthodox or modern Orthodox rabbis like Lookstein, or were born to mixed marriages.
As there is no legal option for civil marriages in Israel and neither do non-Orthodox rabbis have the authority to officiate at marriages in Israel – the majority of Judaism’s next generation would not be able to marry in Israel! As Hiddush polling repeatedly demonstrates, the overwhelming majority of Israeli Jews support equal status for non-Orthodoxy and state recognition of all forms of marriage.
The non-Orthodox make up the overwhelming majority of Diaspora Jewry, as you well know. Shouldn’t the primacy of Jewish unity and inclusiveness, Israel’s founding principles of religious freedom and equality, and the overwhelming support for Jewish diversity among both Israeli and Diaspora Jews compel you to mobilize the Jewish Agency toward this goal? This may not come easily for you. I recall an interview you gave in the past, explaining that Israel must have a single rabbinic authority to achieve Jewish unity. When you served as interior minister you submitted an affidavit to the Supreme Court expressing your opposition to recognizing Reform and Conservative conversions performed in Israel, even in the civil arena. Fortunately, the Supreme Court rejected your position and accepted ours. Much time has passed since then, and, in your current position, I know that you have gained many additional insights and sensitivities toward the Jewish Diaspora, your Agency’s stakeholders.
During your tenure, significant developments indicate growing concern about the lack of religious freedom in Israel.
One example is the Jewish Federations of North America adopting the “Israel Religious Expressions Platform,” in support of marriage freedom in Israel. A resolution focusing on this issue was submitted to the Jewish Agency, but is dragging and has yet to gain your support.
Sadly, even the resolution adopted by the Jewish Agency over a year ago on the “establishment of ongoing working groups for religious freedom in the State of Israel” still awaits implementation.
The Western Wall compromise and the Agency’s willingness to build ritual baths for non-Orthodox Jews follow the problematic and long discarded principle of “separate but equal.” Now that the rabbinic establishment is discriminating even against modern Orthodoxy, shouldn’t we breathe life into the fundamentals of our Jewish and democratic state promising religious freedom and equality to all? Shouldn’t you hold Prime Minister Netanyahu accountable to his praiseworthy declaration at the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America a few months ago, committing to “ensure that all Jews can feel at home in Israel – Reform Jews, Conservative Jews, Orthodox Jews?” Damage control is not enough. Mere tweaking will not suffice. The rabbinate’s coercion, anachronism and extremism are distancing Israeli Jews from Judaism. Giving them exclusive authority over marriage and divorce of all Jews in Israel is undermining Jewish peoplehood and alienating world Jewry.
Dear Natan, I urge you to act further on your stated vision of Jewish inclusiveness and diversity! Lead the Jewish Agency towards the real, bold changes necessary so that all your stakeholders in the Diaspora and all Israeli Jews can feel themselves partners, working together to create a rich Jewish tapestry, which represents and respects the diversity of the Jewish people of the 21st century. As much as support for Rabbi Lookstein and his liberal Orthodox colleagues is justified – nothing short of upholding the right to marry and respecting religious freedom and equality for all will do!
Rabbi Uri Regev
Hiddush – Freedom of Religion for Israel