The recent explosion in anti-Semitic expression including acts of anti-Semitic violence in numerous quarters around the world is not only frightening and alarming, it is eerie and perhaps even ominous. The inevitable and logically-necessary descent of rabid anti-Zionism into the exclusion and even hatred of Jewish people is in plentiful evidence, and rabid anti-Zionism continues to provide an obscene, self-righteous veneer to anti-Semitism. Which is not to say that the “left” is the only worrisome quarter, for plainly it is not. We are living in a time when we need to be vigilant, to be unflinching in calling out anti-Semitism, to be strengthening old friendships and actively cultivating new ones. It’s a serous time.
Human nature is such that when a particular group feels besieged and targeted, when it feels that the world has abandoned its ethical and civil codes in its behavior toward it, that this group then responds by loosening its own commitment to these very same ethical and civil codes. Not out of the belief that “two wrongs make a right” or that “you have to fight fire with fire”. Rather out of the belief that the rules just aren’t the rules anymore, that we have entered an amoral jungle, a time and space which simply exists outside our normal ethical commitments. This is a very human response. It is the way of human nature.
And this is precisely the reason that God gave us religion. Religion’s revolutionary and radical claim is that there is no such time and there is no such space, that there is no such thing as the amoral jungle, that human beings – even when engaged in a state of warfare – are always accountable to the norms of God-fearing, God-loving, God-revering behavior.
Last week’s appalling decision by Habayit HaYehudi, the political party representing Religious Zionism, to join electoral forces with Otzma Yehudit, the Kahanist political party whose platform is rooted in and founded upon racial hatred, is a precise manifestation of this awful tendency of human nature that religion was intended to correct. (Much has been written in recent days about Otzma Yehudit’s ideology and politics. I think that Yossi Klein Halevi’s essay summarized it best. See https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/the-desecration-of-israel/) The defense that HaBayit HaYehudi is offering is that the State of Israel and Zionism itself are under siege from enemies both within and without the State, and electoral victory must be assured even at the cost of bringing the racists out from the political cold and into cabinet-level power. This represents of course, nothing less than the utter rejection of the mantle and responsibility of religion, rendering HaBayit HaYehudi’s claim to be the “Religious Zionist” party a mockery and a sham.
And frankly, it renders its claim to be a Zionist party at all to be a mockery and a sham, certainly in the sense that Israel’s Declaration of Independence which guarantees that the State “will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture”, is considered a foundational Zionist document.
It is heartening that numerous important and influential thinkers within the Religious Zionist community have condemned this turn of events. Rabbi Moshe Lichtenstein and Rabbi Benny Lau have been among the most public and courageous. And it is heartening that many America Jewish organizations, including AIPAC, and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations (through Malcolm Hoenlein, its executive vice chairman) have expressed their grave concern, in particular over the Prime Minister’s catalytic role in the political merger. (The National Council of Young Israel is one of the few organizations that has expressed its support for what has happened, and individual Young Israel synagogues must now express outrage at their leadership.) More voices of ethical and religious clarity are still needed. Absolutely including yours. Perhaps the worst outcome can still be averted.
There’s no underestimating the importance of this political moment in the history of our beloved Medinat Yisrael, and even in the history of Judaism as a great world religion. Yes, we must love and support Israel, and confront anti-Semitism, but לא כך – not this way. For the sake of all that we hold sacred, never this way.
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.”
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.
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.
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…”
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.
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.
Rabbis for Religious Freedom and Equality in Israel has changed its name to Ruach Hiddush which stands for:
רבנים וחזנים למען חופש דת ושוויון
Ruach Hiddush was founded as a rabbinic organization in 2015. Beginning this week, we are also accepting cantors. Ruach Hiddush is a project of HIDDUSH, a nonprofit based in Israel and the U.S. Our membership roster is available at http://rrfei.org/about/members/.
Membership is free of charge and includes a weekly subscription. Every other week, we receive a Ruach Hiddush newsletter or other email. On alternate weeks, we receive the Hiddush newsletter.
Ruach Hiddush — Rabbis and Cantors for Religious Freedom and Equality in Israel — is a network of Rabbis and Cantors working to fully realize the promise of Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which guarantees religious freedom and equality. The fulfillment of this promise is vital for strengthening Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, and for maintaining the solidarity of world Jewry.
רוּ”חַ חִּדוּ”שׁ — רבנים וחזנים למען חופש דת ושוויון — היא ארגון של רבנים וחזנים הפועל למימוש מלא של הבטחת מגילת העצמאות לחופש דת ושוויון. מימוש הבטחה זו חיוני לחיזוק זהותה של מדינת ישראל כמדינה יהודית ודמוקרטית ולהמשך השותפות עם העם היהודי לתפוצותיו
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 spirit of our people desires further development; it wants to absorb the basic elements of general culture which are reaching it from the outside world, to digest them and to make them a part of itself, as it has done before at various periods of its history. But the conditions of its life in exile are not suitable for such a task. In our time culture expresses itself everywhere through the form of the national spirit, and the stranger who would become part of culture must sink his individuality and become absorbed in the dominant environment. In exile, Judaism cannot, therefore, develop its individuality in its own way. When it leaves the ghetto walls, it is in danger of losing its essential being or – at very least – its national unity; it is in danger of being split up into as many kinds of Judaism, each with a different character and life, as there are countries of the dispersion.
Judaism is, therefore, in a quandary: It can no longer tolerate the Galut form which it had to take on, in obedience to its will-to-live, when it was exiled from its own country; but, without that form, its life is in danger. So it seeks to return to its historic center, where it will be able to live a life developing in a natural way, to bring its powers into play in every department of human culture, to broaden and perfect those national possessions which it has acquired up to now, and thus to contribute to the common stock of humanity, in the future as it has in the past, a great national culture, the fruit of the un-hampered activity of a people living by the light of its own spirit. For this purpose Judaism can, for the present, content itself with little. It does not need an independent State, but only the creation in its native land of conditions favorable to its development: a good-sized settlement of Jews working without hindrance in every branch of civilization, from agriculture and handicrafts to science and literature. This Jewish settlement, which will be a gradual growth, will become in course of time the center of the nation, wherein its spirit will find pure expression and develop in all its aspects to the highest degree of perfection of which it is capable. Then, from this center, the spirit of Judaism will radiate to the great circumference, to all the communities of the Diaspora, to inspire them with new life and to preserve the over-all unity of our people. When our national culture in Palestine has attained that level, we may be confident that it will produce men in the Land of Israel itself who will be able, at a favorable moment, to establish a State there – one which will be not merely a State of Jews but a really Jewish State.
If you add to that the dislike that many feel for Israel’s right-wing/religious coalition government, one can see why many Reform Jews in North America and elsewhere are lukewarm about the Jewish State. That having been said, the High Holy days are approaching and it is time to put the record straight.
Reform Judaism in Israel is, by and large, an amazing success story. Thirty years ago there were only a handful of congregations and not one single purpose built Reform synagogue anywhere in Israel apart from at Leo Baeck in Haifa and HUC in Jerusalem. We were viewed as an American outpost, whose supporters were almost entirely from English speaking countries. There were maybe two or three couples a year who dared have a Reform rabbi officiate at their wedding.
Fast forward thirty years. There are some 50 Reform congregations across the country. Religious pluralism is part of the landscape much to the dislike of the charedim. Many Reform synagogues are being built on public land. The Reform Movement runs a national conversion programme reaching out to over 200 gerim per year. Their conversions are recognized by the State of Israel for registration purposes. We are inundated by couples wishing us to officiate at their weddings. These requests, and indeed all of the Bar Mitzvah ceremonies at which we officiate, come from so-called “secular” Israelis disgusted by the religious establishment and looking for a liberal Jewish alternative.
Of course, many people don’t like Bibi. (I know one or two people who aren’t that happy with Donald Trump either!) However, that doesn’t stop us from loving our country and working for a better tomorrow.
I hope many of you will feel that this is a message that you can share with others.
A recent detailed interview with Rabbi Shlomo Riskin appeared in the original Hebrew in Makor Rishon earlier this month, with select paragraphs translated into English below.
“If I could ask God one thing, I would ask: How is it possible that the Talmud is the most pluralistic piece of literature, but those who study it are the most narrow minded?” says Rabbi Shlomo Riskin. “It’s a shame, and it destroys and distorts the halakhah. Without adhering to halakhah [the Jewish people] cannot hold out, but in my opinion the greatest praise [due to] the Torah is that it is not singular. Our halakhah is pluralistic. The Chief Rabbis of the past understood this as well. Chief Rabbis Herzog and Goren did brave things when necessary. That’s how halakhah has always been, and that what we teach our students.”
“You’re opening a Pandora’s box,” says Rabbi Riskin when I ask him whether he believes that this chain of events proves that religion and the state must be separated. “I will say this in the clearest possible way: “When there is a Chief Rabbinate that is exclusivist, and it is not willing to accept rabbinical courts that rule such and such, within the framework of halachah, this is a problem. I certainly would not want to see conversions that are not halakhic. The aspiration is for every Jew in Israel to be able to marry any other Jew in the country, and for that purpose we must give [state recognized] power to conversion projects. We do not want a society in which there are Israelis who are ‘good Jews’ and Israelis who are not properly Jewish. Unfortunately this is what will happen if they [continue to] limit opportunities for conversion. And that would be a shame, a pity, a shame. So I think separation would be better. And I say this in tears.”
If the rabbinate recognizes Halakha in a singular, closed, or even [exclusively] ultra-Orthodox way, is it necessary to separate religion from state?
“I say it with tears, but yes.”
On the other hand, you can probably understand the concern regarding private courts for conversion. After all, there is no uniformity in case law, and there is no control over the entrance gate to the people of Israel.
“But there was never uniformity or control, and in the past they understood that there was a need for a House of Hillel and a House of Shammai, and ‘these and those are the words of the living God.’ If other Orthodox rabbis have halachic-based sources, how dare you say they are not Orthodox?”
In the Conservative movement, there are rabbis who call for recognizing Judaism as ‘passing’ from the father [to the child], and not only through the mother.
“I do not know about that. I respect the members of the Conservative movement, and I also think that the way the Chief Rabbinate expresses itself regarding them is very unfortunate. On the other hand, many of them do not see themselves as committed to the Talmud and the Shulchan Aruch. I also think it’s legitimate that the establishment Rabbinate here in Israel is Orthodox.”
“… In many matters I am more stringent than the ultra-Orthodox, but unlike them, I do not invalidate the conversions of others. If you are an Orthodox rabbi, your conversion should be acceptable. There should not be a blacklist…”
“The great miracle of the Land of Israel is that it belongs to all the people of Israel: to the collective. Anyone that is there. I have no problem that the establishment be Orthodox, but it should include those who are not Orthodox.”
“Rabbi Lau once said something like ‘Rabbis Riskin and Stav will convert anyone who wants to convert.’ I spoke to him and explained that I’ve never converted anyone without his/her acceptance of the Jewish religious commandments, and he apologized, but he does not understand the reality of American Jewry.”
Is there indeed a crisis with American Jewry surrounding the Western Wall and the new conversion law, or is it an exaggerated media spin?
“There is a very big crisis,” he replies without thinking twice. “I’m not sure it will be possible to resolve this.”
The solution that was reached in the first place regarding the Western Wall – the establishment of an egalitarian plaza in the southern part, near Robinson’s Arch, is “an excellent option.” Rabbi Riskin was even pleased by the Reform and Conservative demand that one entrance lead to three sections – for men, women, and a mixed one. “They wanted joint entry for all the people of Israel together, and that’s exactly what I want. Where is your ‘love of Israel’?”
To what extent is the left wing of Orthodoxy far from the right side of the Conservative movement? In Efrat there are synagogues that are very reminiscent of other streams, allowing women to read the haftara, for example.
“First of all, we in Efrat perform prayers with a divider between women and men, which is the greatest difference; and we observe the laws of prayer as written in the Shulchan Aruch. I oppose Conservative Judaism, and I do not accept what they call their ‘halachot’. But, Lord of the Universe, I must love them, respect them. I also call them my partners. We have a lot to do together, especially in the war against anti-Semitism. You have to understand that conservative Jews reach people that an Orthodox rabbi, even a Chabadnik, will never reach. They try to bring them closer in their own way. I also call Reform Jews my partners. I do not accept their synagogues, which use electrical appliances during Shababt, but even if we disagree – [our] task is the same.”
“I do not understand how the rabbinical establishment calls them ‘goyim’ or ‘apikorsim’. This is not okay. It cannot be a question of the face of halakhah, and I will not agree that this is my establishment. They are part of the Jewish people, and they, for example, do not declare that Orthodox Jews are ‘not religious’.”
The positive attitude towards Reform and Conservative Judaism, says Rabbi Riskin, can also benefit Orthodoxy. “Many graduates of their schools and camps eventually came to me. Before participating in those same Conservative activities, they were not ready to reach me. Minister Naftali Bennett visited a Conservative school in New York, one of the Chief Rabbis of Israel said that he should not have gone (Rabbi David Lau). Why not? I receive with open arms every invitation from a Conservative institution. I speak halacha and Torah to them. What could happen? Thank God, many times they started praying at my synagogue after such visits. There was also a well-known Reform rabbi who began visiting his mother, who prayed in my synagogue. He would come to us on every ‘Yom Tov Sheni’ holiday of the diaspora, and as a result he decided to become Orthodox.”
“The marriage covenant between Judaism and politics destroys religion and destroys politics. That’s the big problem. Religious MKs must have values that are above politics, above voting, but that is not what happens.”
On another issue, Rabbi Riskin found himself in the camp under attack. Criticisms were leveled against him and against the Rabbis of Tzohar, Beit Hillel, and the RCA (the umbrella organization of the Orthodox rabbis in North America) for supporting halakhic pre-nuptial agreements, which are supposed to prevent [women from becoming] agunot. “I think that what is happening in this regard is a scandal,” Rabbi Riskin explains the need for such agreements, “There is a serious problem regarding the refusal of divorce. It is written in the Torah, ‘And he wrote her a book of separation,’ and from this it follows that the husband gives [his wife] the gett [divorce document] in a unilateral manner. I believe with all my soul in Torah from heaven. Four thousand years ago, when God gave His Torah to Moses, there was no chance that a woman would want a divorce; She did not have social or economic status so the man would give the gett. But our wives are not captive to their husbands. We have to find a solution to this phenomenon of husbands who refuse to divorce their wives, and there are many solutions. I wrote an entire book about it. There is also disagreement in the Gemara as to whether this stems from the Torah or from rabbinic law. At the time of the Talmud, the solution was to ‘beat him until he says I want [to divorce her]’, but this is impossible to implement today.”
Would you support beating the husband if it was legal?
“If there was no other way – and the reality is that there is another way – I would advocate for it. What can we do? The rabbinical court may require a gett (divorce document), and if the husband refuses – he can be put in jail, and his license to practice his profession can be revoked, if he is a doctor, and so on. There is also the issue of a prenuptial contract, but the rabbis are not willing to use it for the most part. The prenuptial contract actually says that anyone who does not want to give or receive a gett must pay a high sum every month until (s)he cooperates. I wrote about this in the books of Yad L’Isha, which received the consent of Rabbi Yaakov Bezalel Zolty, who was the chief rabbi of Jerusalem. And now the rabbis say that this creates a “fake gett” (Which does not stem from the husband’s will, and is therefore not kosher) and should not be used. Maimonides himself, on the basis of the Gemara, used a mock gett when he ruled halachically: ‘Force him until he says, I want [to divorce her].’ The reason for this is that ‘our wives are not captives under their husbands’. Moreover, the Rambam writes about the verse, ‘good and righteous judgments,’ and explains that our halachah must be good and just, which, for Maimonides, is the essence of the Oral Torah.”
Rabbi Riskin notes another objection that he has from the Maharam: “Some [women rabbis] call themselves a rabbi or a rabba. This is not forbidden, but I do not think that a woman can be equal to a man like the ‘master’ of a synagogue. After all, the main function of the synagogue is to pray in public and to read from the Torah, and a woman cannot fulfill a man’s religious obligation because she herself is not obligated.”
Can she lead the ‘Kabbalat Shabbat’ service?
“I do not see this as a halakhic problem, since even a minor can conduct the Kabbalat Shabbat prayer, but from an educational point of view I would not recommend that a woman do it. If you begin with Kabbalat Shabbat, you may also get to the evening prayer service – and that’s problematic, because a woman cannot fulfill the religious duty of the community in matters of holy prayers.”
Recently, the issue of halakha’s attitude towards homosexuals has been raised again and again – both on the public level and within religious communities. What is your position on the subject?
“We can not allow what the Torah forbids. On the other hand, there is the principle of ‘God exempts in cases of coercion/force’.” [referring to the prevailing scientific view that homosexuality is an inherent orientation, not a choice]
“The Torah exempted the ‘forced one’ from the obligations stemming from what he did. I want to suggest something: In the verses that speak of homosexuality, the word ‘abomination’ is written, and in this context the Gemara defines it as ‘wrong with you.’ In the days of Socrates and Plato, many Greeks were bisexual, and the philosophers actually preached to be gay, because then there is no complexity of [having] children. They did not believe in childbirth at all. I think that’s what the Torah is talking about: Someone who could be heterosexual, and choses to be a homosexual, it is said ‘you are wronging God.’ The religious concept of ‘the forced one’ only relates to those who cannot be [sexually] satisfied any other way.”
“My approach is that every Jew should be loved, wherever he is. We must permit homosexuals to receive religious honors at the synagogue. I do not ask them what they do in their privacy; it’s not my business. Judgment is for God.”
Would you marry them?
“A wedding would not be correct [according to the Torah], but a contract of couplehood is possible. It is better in my eyes that they should live together than have to go around meeting in public places. That’s certainly not good.”
Rabbi Michael Chernick
In 1776 , in Germany, a young man named, Isaac, son of Eliezer Neiburg of Mannheim, was engaged to marry Leah, daughter of Jacob Guenzhausen of Bonn. In the week leading up to the wedding, Isaac seemed pre-occupied exhibiting some strange behavior. The wedding, however, took place in the groom’s home town with much celebration, on the 8th of Elul 5526, August 14, 1766, and all seemed to bode well.
A week later, on Saturday night, after they had spent several days in Bonn, Isaac Neiburg told the community rabbi, that his life was in danger and that he must leave Bonn immediately, but in order not to leave his young wife an agunah, he wished to give her a divorce. He did admit that he had not found the bride to his liking, but noted that he was not divorcing her for this reason, rather because of the mortal danger threatening him. Rabbi Copenhagen’s attempts to dissuade him were to no avail, and therefore it was agreed by both sides that Isaac Neiburg would divorce his wife. Financial matters were agreed to, including payment of expenses by the husband, and Isaac consented to everything. Since there was not a recognized rabbinical court in Bonn, it was decided to turn to the rabbinical court in Cleves, a city on the border between Germany and Holland.
The rabbi of Cleves, Rabbi Israel Lipschuetz, met with both parties, and sanctioned the divorce and also a written monetary agreement, determining that Isaac was firmly resolved to give his wife a divorce, and that if it were not done on the spot his wife might be left an agunah.
Several weeks later it became known to the father of the groom that his son had divorced his wife and left the country. The father was incensed both because in his opinion his son had been forced to give a get, despite, in his words, “his delicate emotional state, and because the financial arrangements were to his disadvantage.” He turned to Rabbi Tevele Hess, who then turned to the rabbinical court of Frankfurt, a large and highly esteemed community, headed by Rabbi Abraham Abusch of Lissau, both of whom ruled that the get was indeed invalid.
What ensued was a 2 year heated and acrimonious debate that put two rabbinical bodies at odds with one another, with both Leah and Isaac, caught in the middle. Leah’s status kept changing, depending on the rabbinic ruling, from “divorced” to “possibly married,” and later to “certainly married.” And Isaac, at times was determined to be “of sound mind and therefore able to grant the get, and at other times, emotionally disturbed, and unable to authorize the writ of divorce. The fierce controversy was accompanied by accusations, insults and name-calling.
The battle did not subside until over two years later, with the death of the head of the rabbinical court of Frankfurt, Rabbi Abraham Abusch.
Today, there are hundreds and hundreds of disheartening and unjust stories of aggunot, women who are chained to unwanted marriages, of open cases that have found no resolution.
The source, for the procedure of divorce is found in our parsha. The Torah: (Devarim 24:1) says:
א כִּי-יִקַּח אִישׁ אִשָּׁה, וּבְעָלָהּ; וְהָיָה אִם-לֹא תִמְצָא-חֵן בְּעֵינָיו, כִּי-מָצָא בָהּ עֶרְוַת דָּבָר–וְכָתַב לָהּ סֵפֶר כְּרִיתֻת וְנָתַן בְּיָדָהּ, וְשִׁלְּחָהּ מִבֵּיתוֹ.
“When a man takes a wife and marries her, and it comes to pass that she does not find favor in his eyes because he has found some unseemly thing, then he writes her a bill of divorce and gives it to her in her hands and sends her out of the house.”
The Torah places the power to decide to divorce solely on the husband. And in fact, during the period of the Mishnah and Talmud it was possible to divorce a woman against her will. Recognizing the inequity that a woman could be forcefully thrown out of her own home Rabbenu Gershom living in the 10th century enacted a takkana, a decree that prohibited divorcing a woman against her will. A woman must accept the get in her hand in order for the get to be valid. The takkana of Rabbenu Gershon sought to protect the rights of women, however, there was one major flaw. Although a man can initiate a divorce, there is no parallel right for her to do so.
Therefore, if a woman demands a divorce and her husband refuses, her only hope is for the beit din, a court to compel him to divorce her, as stated in the gemara, Tractate Yevamot (106b): “Pressure is put on him until he says he is willing [to divorce his wife].”
For me, here in lies one of the problems. Much like Leah and Isaac, we too must rely on the halakhic wisdom and compassion of a beit din, a court of judges to dissolve the marriage and force the husband to give a get. And therefore, the Get of Cleves, as it has become to be known by scholars, is indicative of a deep flaw of the rabbinic court system.
It is true, the laws surrounding the circumstances of giving a get are quite complex. In our case, the issue at hand was whether Isac was of “sound mind” at the time of the get. And since the Get of Cleves, and even before that, Rabbinic authorities, aggunah activists, and academics have sought to find solutions to solve the aggunah crisis. Many solutions have in fact been found and written about, and Rabbi Chernick outlines several possibilities. I will briefly lay out a few:
The most commonly accepted solution is the halakhic pre-nup, which stipulates that a husband must monetarily compensate the woman for each day that he refuses to give her a get. Today, most Modern Orthodox rabbis will not officiate at a wedding unless the couple agrees to sign a pre-nup.
Another solution is creating a kiddushin tanai, or conditional wedding ceremony, where the couple signs a document saying that if the couple should civilly divorce, and a get is given within 6 months, then the kiddushin, the marriage is valid. But, if the get is not granted within 6 months of the civil divorce, then the marriage is not considered valid, and a get becomes unnecessary.
Yet another solution is kiddushin ta’ut, a marriage entered into under mistaken assumptions, including lack of knowledge of a defect in the husband that pre-existed the marriage. A beit din may declare this marriage to have never been validly established, so the need for a get to end the marriage does not apply.
Another solution worth mentioning is Hafka’at Kiddsuhin, where the marriage is rendered invalid because of a technicality, such as witnesses who is not considered to be kosher. Here again, a get is rendered unnecessary.
With each of these solutions, there are challenges. What does it say about the sanctity of marriage, of kiddushin, if one is creating a condition for eventual divorce, or poking around for technical reasons to negate the marriage entirely. But, with healthy debate, I do believe that the solution exists.
So why then, are so many women still aggunot? Why can we not once and for all, solve the aggunah crises?
Much like the Case of the Get of Cleves, the many existing rabbinic batei din cannot agree on a universal solution, let alone publicly accept the solutions available to them. But what stands out about the Get of Cleves, is the seemingly arbitrary force and power with which the beit din forces its rulings.
The rabbinical court in Frankfurt, brought its full weight to bare in order to impose its position and invalidate the divorce, even though the event did not take place within its area of jurisdiction and the Cleves rabbinical court was not subordinate to it. In addition, contrary to accepted practice, the court was unwilling to publicize the any of the testimonies it had taken, or the halakhic arguments for invalidating the get.
The Cleves Get episode rocked the Jewish and rabbinic world of 18th-century Europe, having far reaching ramifications in the rabbinical court systems of Germany, England and Poland. Each court, each rabbi, digging in their heels, and refusing to collaborate to find a solution, and save a young couple from pain, hurt, and public humiliation.
Something has to change.
The founding of the International Beit Din (IBD) is helping. Made up of courageous Orthodox rabbis who bring to bare an expertise in the halakhic analysis as well as deep compassion for women, and men, who are struggling through a potentially acrimonious situation. It is a court that has deep integrity and sense of justice, devoid of corruption. And on a case by case basis, they work to apply one of the available solutions to not only free each and every aggunah, but to prevent women in the future from ever becoming chained to their unwanted husbands. That, is the first step.
An essential ingredient to sustaining such a beit din, is gaining community wide acceptance. Through advocacy work, we must commit to finding 100 community rabbis and scholars to support the decisions of IBD, to trust their public decisions of when to dissolve a marriage, and when to grant a get. We must support rabbis who will honor the gittin performed and agree to officiate at a women’s 2nd marriage. Who will accept the children into their schools and synagogues.
We have already come so far. The Torah’s principal of allowing a husband to willfully divorce his wife against her will was mitigated by the takkana of Rabbenu Gershom a millennium ago. It is now time to extend Rabbenu Gershom’s takkana one step further, by supporting the IBD and it’s decisions.
If the batei din of Frankfurt, Cleves, England and Germany in the 18th century had worked together towards accepting one another’s solutions, much heartache and distress would have been avoided. And then, the intention of Rabbenu Gershom’s takkana, of protecting the rights of women and families, will truly be upheld.
Let’s pray that the Leah’s of our world will once and for all be free from unwanted marriages.
Rabbi Michael Chernick
The ongoing existence of agunot in the aftermath of World War I and the inadequate responses of modern rabbinical authorities to the unjust and painful situation of these women were critical factors that impelled Rabbi Mordecai M. Kaplan to move beyond a halakhic system and begin to articulate a Reconstructionist approach to Judaism. In his 1936 essay “The Status of Woman in Jewish Law,” Kaplan analyzed ways that halakhah mandates women to second-class status, most especially around marriage (“it is in the marriage relationship chiefly, where the woman’s inferior status is fraught with tragic consequences to her”) and divorce (“the woman experiences the worst effects of her status when she can no longer continue to live with her husband”). After assessing contemporaneous efforts to resolve this problem as either regressive or ineffective, Kaplan concluded that halakhah was an insufficient medium of repair and declared: “[S]ocial justice, rather than immutable precedent, must govern the civic life of Jewry and underlie…juridical institutions…”
More than 80 years later, contemporary Reconstructionist practice builds on Kaplan’s original analysis and falls squarely within the feminist critique articulated by Rabbi Chernick, which points to why for most Reconstructionists his solution feels ultimately inadequate. In a post-halakhic approach, Jewish divorce becomes an opportunity to enact ritual in the service of the spiritual and emotional transition of the people involved. The focus becomes meaning seeking rather law observance.
The problem of agunot is eliminated by empowering women as actors within this ritual, preferably in an egalitarian procedure where both partners divorce each other rather than investing all power in one individual (historically and halakhically, the man in a heterosexual relationship). In the instance when a man refuses to give a woman a get, she is then empowered to initiate on her own (and vice versa—post-halakhic Judaism has also created the possibility of agunim and must accommodate same-sex Jewish marriages). Since single-initiated divorce can be disempowering to the person who does not agree, the Reconstructionist movement has also created a ritual of release from relationship to accompany civil divorce—not identical to a get, but clearly communicating that the ritual enacts the desires of only one member of the relationship.
Even before the establishment of the State of Israel, Reconstructionists have been concerned about the potential totalitarian implications of religious authority married to state power. The persistence of agunot in Israel despite the power of local authorities to resolve them highlights the problematic nature, rather than revealing redemptive possibilities. For these and other reasons, most Reconstructions insist on religious pluralism in Israel and prefer, as does Hiddush and RRFEI, separation of synagogue and state.
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.
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.