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.

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 ‘Muezzin Bill’ – a masquerade by Rabbi Uri Regev

Originally posted in the Jerusalem Post [LINK]

Uri-Regev-profile-photo-e1425932791183

    It’s 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.

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.

‘Jerusalem’s destruction – past events and current concerns’ by Rabbi Uri Regev, Head of Hiddush

Originally published in the Jerusalem Post
and the Jewish Daily Forward

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

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.

An open letter to Mr. Natan Sharansky from Rabbi Uri Regev, Head of Hiddush

Originally posted at JPost.com HERE
and eJewishPhilanthropy.com HERE


Dear Natan,

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!

Sincerely yours,
Rabbi Uri Regev
Hiddush – Freedom of Religion for Israel

71% of Israelis attach importance to Marriage and Divorce Freedom

Uri-Regev-profile-photo-e1425932791183Having been immersed for some decades now in Israel-Diaspora relations, I often reflect upon a short story that Martin Buber included in his iconic “Tales of the Chassidic Masters;” one Jew asks his friend, Yankel, do you love me? And Yankel responds, Moishe, how can you ask such a question? Of course I love you. Moishe replies: But Yankel, how can you say that you love me if you don’t know what pains me?

I thought of this brief, piercing exchange when we at Hiddush received the findings of our most recently commissioned poll (see below). Hiddush conducts many polls, but this one, in my view, has some of the most important implications for the Israel-Diaspora partnership in addressing Israel’s challenges of religious freedom and equality. We share it with you in this RRFEI bulletin so you may not only consider it and reference it in discussions, sermons and public statements about Israel, but also share with us (RRFEI) your thoughts on these findings in the context of our mutual desire to see Israel advancing the goals of religious freedom and equality. I encourage you to use our RRFEI Facebook group [link] (or offline exchange), as an intimate, discreet forum to discuss this very delicate and often explosive topic.

You don’t need to be a big maven to see that Israeli Jews prioritize Israel’s religion-state conflicts very differently than the Reform and Conservative Movements have in their now three year almost exclusive advocacy focus on egalitarian Services (and Women of the Wall) at the Kotel. How do you feel about this radical gap? How do you view the irony that it’s been mainstream Jewish organizations with strong Israel credentials such as the JFNA and AJC, which have acknowledged the strategic priority of personal status matters and the need to actively advocate for the advancement of freedom of choice in these areas, while the major religious streams have been mostly playing the role of back benchers, as they invested considerable time, energy and advocacy capital on the Wall?

The other questions covered in the poll are of clear corollary importance. We so often hear reservations from American colleagues and community leaders, who ask: what right do we, living in America, have to interfere with these internal Israeli issues? Do Israelis listen to us? Is this the right time to raise questions of religious freedom and equality? The nuanced, yet compelling survey data underscores the eagerness of the clear majority of Israeli Jews for American Jewry to enter the battlefield, and join Israeli groups and activists in the fight for marriage freedom. The level of support and its intensity differs between challenges of utmost importance and concern, such as the right to family on the one hand, and, on the other hand, issues of lesser importance or greater ambivalence on the part of Israelis. Our polling serves as resounding endorsement for those in the American Jewish community who have taken up the cause of marriage freedom in Israel, and should stimulate further reflection, as to the almost exclusive advocacy focus of recent years on the Kotel.

Let me make clear that I am not questioning the justice of the cause of freedom of worship at the Kotel for egalitarian groups and for WOW. I wholeheartedly support this. My question is that of individual and communal priorities in a reality in which nobody seems to be able to advocate effectively for multiple social causes (For obvious reasons I am not referring here to the controversies over security, settlements and the peace process). I am also concerned with the related question of the degree to which we should place great value on seeking a common front with Israelis who share our values of a democratic and religiously diversified Israeli society, as well as the degree to which identifying a cause, to which both our communities attach high levels of importance, should be a primary consideration in making our choices.

 


 

Hiddush Public Opinion Survey on Religion-State priorities

60% of the Jewish Israeli public supports the involvement of American Jewish organizations in advancing marriage freedom in Israel. There is no doubt that for Israelis – breaking the yoke of the fundamentalist Orthodox Rabbinate in marriage and divorce is a top priority among the religion/state battles. Israelis welcome American Jewish partnership in advancing this cause, both for the sake of Israel and for the sake of world Jewry!

The survey results demonstrate the support of Israelis for American Jewish involvement in the struggle for religious freedom in Israel in general and for marriage freedom in particular. It is critical as a counterbalance to the political extortion of the Haredi parties, which is antithetical to the clear will of the people and to the core principles of democracy and civil society. As long as the Orthodox Rabbinic establishment controls marriage of all Jews in Israel, hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens are denied the right of marriage in Israel, and the majority of children growing up in today’s American Jewish community would be ineligible to get married in Israel, should they wish to make their home there.

Israel – pushed towards theocracy

Contrasting visions for the State of Israel on matters of religion and state

Minister Rabbi Litzman: “Netanyahu either loves the Reform Jews of the Diaspora, or the Haredim of Israel; it’s either-or. There are no two ways about it… The Supreme Court is destroying everything good related to religion & state, and… the only way to stand against it is by passing legislation.” [Hebrew link]

Uri-Regev-profile-photo-e1425932791183Last week, I emphasized that the battle over the Kotel agreement and Supreme Court ruling to allow non-Orthodox converts access to Israel’s public mikva’ot is not really over the Women of the Wall’s prayer services or the non-Orthodox movements and their converts. Rather, it is over contrasting visions for the State of Israel on matters of religion and state.

The recent Pew report, as I wrote at length, indicates that the population represented by Gafni, Litzman, Azoulay, Deri and their colleagues, strongly desires to turn Israel into a theocracy, or as close to one as possible. In such cases when religious edicts clash with the rule of law and democratic principles, they believe themselves to be obligated to follow their interpretations of halakha, rather than civil law. Their political clout allows them to “dance between the raindrops,” and bend the law to suit them, even if this flies in the face of democracy, religious freedom, equality, etc. They aim to fashion Israel into a state not unlike those run by sharia law. Minister Azoulay’s declaration that he would not sign the regulations passed by the Government in the Kotel agreement “because his rabbi told him not to sign” is only one more recent example of this intolerable situation.

PM Netanyahu finds himself a rock and a hard place, for he does not support the vision for a theocracy, and would like to make good on his promise to Diaspora Jewry that “all Jews should feel at home in Israel.” However, the threat to the integrity of his coalition government is rising due to forces that aim to unravel Israel’s democracy; forces for whom Israel-Diaspora relations and the rule of law are meaningless; forces whose only considerations are utilitarian. The clearest expression of this is that the battles against the non-Orthodox movements and against the supreme court are the same battle. This was made utterly clear in a radio interview with Minister Rabbi Litzman (quoted above) about the upcoming vote to reverse the Supreme Court’s ruling on the mikva’ot (you may read about the details of the vote and its outcome here (in Hebrew), including responses from Hiddush, the non-Orthodox streams, and representatives of the Jewish Home and Kulanu parties).

These issues are again rising to the fore, which is why we believe it is so urgent for RRFEI members and friends of Israel in the Diaspora to mobilize in this existential battle. This is not simply a struggle for the rights of the non-Orthodox streams. It is a battle for the future of Israel’s soul, and the extent to which the Jewish state will be able to sustain its partnership with the Diaspora.

Rising flames of resistance to the Western Wall agreement

The platform for egalitarian prayer at Robinson's Arch, under fire

The platform for egalitarian prayer at Robinson’s Arch, under fire

Uri-Regev-profile-photo-e1425932791183Since last week’s RRFEI bulletin [link], the flames of religious detraction against the Kotel agreement have been rising. This has been covered widely in the Anglo Jewish and international media; below, RRFEI provides you with the original Hebrew pronouncements of: the Chief Rabbinate, the Ashkenazi Council of [Great] Torah Sages [link], the Sephardic Council of [Wise] Torah Sages [link], Rabbi Shlomo Amar [link] (current Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem), Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach [link] (a leading Ashkenazi Lithuanian posek), and Rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron[link] (former Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel).

There is no doubt that both Shas’ and UTJ’s key political leaders were involved in the Kotel agreement process and gave it their (quiet) nods, even as it was stipulated that they would vote against it (knowing that their nays would be in the minority). They did not anticipate the extent to which the ultra-Orthodox media would drum up resistance and anger, nor that some key rabbinic leaders (particularly those with an axe to grind against the ultra-Orthodox political powers that be) would be stoking these flames.

For instance, In the case of the Sephardic ultra-Orthodox, while the Council of [Wise] Torah Sages continues to back Minister Rabbi Aryeh Deri, their anti-Reform rhetoric is quite vitriolic. In the case of the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox, Rabbi Auerbach has been consistently opposed to the leading forces of Ashkenazi Haredi Judaism on IDF draft issues. In both cases, discontented rabbinic elements are riding the issues of the Western Wall and the Supreme Court’s ruling on mikva’ot under the guise of religious purism.

As we read these sources, let’s note the following:

  • The ugliness of the rhetoric;
  • Both the Kotel agreement and the Supreme Court ruling on the mikva’ot have been assailed – so the operative byproduct is both anti-Reform, as well as anti-civil judiciary and the rule of law;
  • The Zionist Orthodox Jewish Home party has once again emerged as a religious smorgasbord, with its party chairperson continuing to back the Kotel agreement, which is essentially an expansion of his own initiative three years ago when he was Minister of Diaspora Affairs. On the other hand, the party’s stauncher religious and political right, represented by Minister Uri Ariel and MK Smotrich [link] are expressing a more aggressive and rigid stance, challenging the agreement and, implicitly, Bennett’s leadership;
  • All in all, one cannot begin to understand this chaos without understanding the subtext, which goes beyond the Kotel, into personal, political and ideological rivalries. The makers of this deal had hoped it would fly under the radar, but these internal interests and the intense media attention caused by the confluence of events, including the CCAR conference in Israel, which presented the Kotel agreement as a major victory, elicited to these responses.
  • While these voices are attacking the “Reform,” they have a very limited idea of what “Reform” is, and use it as a generic label to describe anybody with whom they have religious disagreements.

Before consenting to this agreement, Rabbi Rabinovitch, the Rabbi of the Western Wall, sought guidance from leading Ashkenazi Lithuanian Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky who instructed him to turn to Rabbi Avigdor Nebenzhal. Nebenzhal instructed Rabinovitch to support the agreement so that non-Orthodox and liberal Orthodox prayer practices would have no place at the traditional Kotel plaza. However, Nebenzhal [link] did not expect the extent of the backlash, and is now buckling under the pressure. Short of retracting his opinion, he is saving face and making a half-turn, saying that the agreement should be sabotaged by finding a “better way.”

Following this, a meeting was supposed to take place yesterday, on Sunday, between PM Netanyahu, the Chief Rabbis, Minister Deri, Minister Shaked and some additional Haredi leaders. The meeting was postponed [link] after the harsh pronouncements against the agreement were issued over the last several days, with the understanding that the Chief Rabbis would attempt to propose an alternative approach to the agreement.

Additionally, a number of elements including a rabbinic group associated with the Chief Rabbinate have hired a senior attorney[link] who has presented a legal challenge to the validity of the agreement to the Attorney General. His claim is that the law requires that the Chief Rabbinate be consulted before the Minister of Religious Services institutes such regulations, according to the Law of Preserving the Holy Places of Israel.

Beyond this, in yet another classic clash of religion and state in Israel, Shas’s Minister of Religious Services David Azoulay [link]has declared that he will not sign the regulations, indicating that he’s not answering to the majority Government decision, but rather to the rabbis who control him. Sadly the fragile set-up of Israel’s rule of law breaks when it comes to fundamentalist religious functionaries.

Everyone expected that the Ashkenazi political leadership would voice strong objections to the Kotel agreement, but not that they would seriously consider leaving the coalition over these issues. However, recent statements indicate that the ante has been raised, and they have come under greater pressure from their rabbinic masters. Therefore, they have explicitly threatened to leave the coalition if the Government does not take tangible measures that assert that non-Orthodox Judaism will not gain any traction and recognition in Israel.

All of this leaves Netanyahu between a rock and a hard place. He meant well, but he now realizes that these dynamics may cause a greater challenge to the well-bring of his coalition than he had considered. He is clearly still acting on the logic and strategic direction that led him to accommodate the non-Orthodox American movements in the first place, namely appeasing these key forces in the American Jewish community critical for Israel’s strategic interests, but the political pressure he now faces is only intensifying.