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.’
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”
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
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
Rabbi Michael Chernick
This special series of RRFEI articles features an original work by Orthodox Rabbi Michael Chernick, Professor Emeritus of Rabbinic Literature at HUC-JIR, New York, with responses from Rabbis Mark Washofsky, Elliot Dorff and Daniel Siegel. Rabbi Washofsky’s affiliation is Reform; Rabbi Dorff’s is Conservative and Rabbi Siegel is with Jewish Renewal.
We hope you will respond and air your voice also on this essential issue of egalitarianism and halakhah. (I want to note that we invited two women scholars to respond, and neither had the time; but we hope for responses from our women colleagues and a robust discussion of these ideas.)
As we all know, being a “chained” woman (agunah) causes untold suffering, and justice demands we create a solution to this oppression. You will see in today’s article by Professor Michael Chernick an analysis of the problem, a review of the historical remedies and suggestions for moving forward.
In addition, we are bringing you responses from 3 current halakhic authorities:
Rabbi Mark Washofsky, Freehoff Professor of Jewish Law and Practice at HUC-JIR Cincinnati; Rabbi Elliot Dorff, Chairman of the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards; and Rabbi Daniel Siegel, Founding Director, Integral Halachah Institute.
Shall we stay within the halakhic system to resolve the issues, or turn to civil courts? What is the appropriate role for civil courts in the Diaspora, and what is their role in the Jewish State? Some believe there should not be civil courts in Israel, that all law must be according to halakhah. Some would have that law change in structure, for example: that women be able to not only receive a get but give one as well, that both parties in a divorce should receive a divorce decree (get) from their spouse.
Clearly not only has the role of the streams of Judaism not been resolved in Israel, but the questions of which legal system to follow: civil or Jewish, who decides on halakhah, and how innovative can halakhah be in the modern context demand resolution.
RRFEI and Hiddush prefer a separation between religion and state, and in the case of marriage law, the possibility of civil marriage and divorce for those who choose. Clearly, as you will read in these articles, reasonable and reasoned rabbis may disagree,
This week, new perspectives regarding Israelis’ views on marriage freedom and related issues were presented to the public.
After years of polling Jewish public opinion, Hiddush initiated a special study of both Israel’s Jewish sector and its Arab sector, and its findings were released on Valentine’s Day. On the same day, another study initiated by the Modern Orthodox NGO Ne’emanei Torah v’Avodah, which focused on the views of Israel’s Zionist Orthodox sector, was published. Since these issues are clearly high on the priority list of Israelis when it comes to matters of religion & state, and they directly impact world Jewry, we are making these reports available in the resource section of the RRFEI website. We’ll be glad to provide further insights and background to those who request more details.
Hiddush’s dual study offers an eye opening perspective as to the differences between Jewish Israelis and Arab Israelis on these issues. The findings can be better understood given the great disparity between the percentage of Israeli Jews who define themselves as secular (~50%) and the percentage of Israeli Arabs who identify as secular (12%).
Also, of great interest is the fact that whereas in the Jewish sector, the principled embrace of the right to “marriage freedom” is carried into support for enacting civil marriage and divorce, while in the Arab sector, 76% embrace the principle, but only 43% support instituting a civil option for marriage and divorce. This may be attributed to the far lower awareness among Arab Israelis of the inadequacy of religious control over marriage. It may also indicate that if they were made fully aware of the extent to which the right to marry in Israel is infringed upon, they would lend their support to the necessary remedy. It’s encouraging that among younger Arab Israelis, one finds a great level of support for a civil choice (60%), even though the majority of them would prefer religious marriage for themselves. Further, the high levels of opposition within the Jewish and Arab sectors to polygamy; and the high percentage of support for a bride’s right to choose her partner are of great interest.
Having 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
Since 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:
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
Two weeks ago, the RRFEI bulletin [link] included an analysis of the Supreme Court landmark ruling on access for non-Orthodox converts to public mikva’ot, demonstrating that there is a lot more to this than first met the media’s eyes. We reported on the immediate, horrific backlash from ultra-Orthodox circles. The three religious parties (namely the Zionist Orthodox Jewish Home and the two ultra-Orthodox parties) have joined forces in submitting a legislative proposal that would undo the Supreme Court ruling. This is their attempt to grant absolute control of the publicly funded mikva’ot to the Chief Rabbinate.
As Hiddush has noted [link], this is yet another case of Dr. Jekyll / Mr. Hyde syndrome, exemplifying the Jewish Home party’s head & Minister of Diaspora Affairs Naftali Bennett’s split personality. He goes out of his way to appear inclusive, tolerant and pluralistic outside of Israel, to you, our friends and colleagues in North America; but he has no problem swerving 180 degrees when it comes to our non-Orthodox colleagues, converts and movements in Israel.
An important, further development occurred in the last few days, as the Chief Rabbinate publicly turned to Israel’s religious councils that operate the public mikva’ot [link in Hebrew], instructing them not to abide by the Supreme Court ruling. What was self-evident to the Supreme Court, as Hiddush indicated in its analysis [link], namely:“the rabbinate is not authorized to establish a discriminatory policy” is not only not self-evident to the Chief Rabbinate (a state organ established by civil law and subject to the rule of law!), but it openly and rebelliously flaunts this! We have repeatedly suggested that the battle over religious freedom and equality is not merely a battle over religious diversity, but is -at the core- a battle over the rule of law and democracy. The Chief Rabbinate’s gall is but another compelling demonstration of the serious problem we face.
We would like to share with you another dimension of that very challenge; it so happens that this week the Israeli public radio commissioned a poll, which included the question “In a situation when Jewish religious edicts were in conflict with civil court rulings, which would you follow?” Looking at these graphs (above), we get a quantitative perspective of the extent of the challenge. While the overwhelming majority of Israeli Jews respect
Last week, more than 500 posters were put up in Israel in the neighborhood of Meah Shearim and other ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods that include the following quotes:
“We are shamed. Disgrace has covered our faces. Strangers have come into My Temple, Beit Adonai. The cry of the great rabbis of our time is that the Western Wall is to be desecrated and trampled upon.” – header of this pashkvil
“It is inconceivable to allow the etching of Reform synagogue names in iron pen and letters of lead for them to receive Shem Olam that can never be erased. We shall not honor them within the gates of our Temple.” – Yabia Omer, responsa by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef (1920-2013)
“We must unite as an un-breachable wall against our arch enemies that want to enter the Reforms into all areas of religion.” – Yabia Omer, responsa by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef (1920-2013)
“The holiness of the wall extends its whole length, from its most southern corner to its most northern corner. It is inconceivable to divide the Kotel or the area adjacent to it.” – letter to the Prime Minister, from the Chief Rabbis of Jerusalem
“The Reform shall shatter us to splinters and split us into factions. An abomination, unwanted by all, it shall be burnt in fire and consumed outside our camp and not enter the Holiness.” – Tzitz Eliezer, Rabbi Eliezer Yehuda Waldenberg (1915-2006)
“We need salvation in spirituality, especially now that the supreme court has intervened to allow the Reform into our land, and their essence is to take Jews and make them Goyim.” – Vizhnitzer Rebbe, Rabbi Moshe Yehoshua Hager (1916-2012)
“The Reform movement intends to sink its claws in the Wall of Jerusalem…We must hurry and fight the Lord’s battle against this hemlock and wormwood movement that has brought the fall of many and taken a huge, deathly toll.” – Tzitz Eliezer, Rabbi Eliezer Yehuda Waldenberg (1915-2006) quoting former Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem Tzvi Pesach Frank (1873-1961)
“This monster is worse than all the secular people we know. In their actions they bring chaos into the world and increase the power of Satan, God forbid…” – Tzitz Eliezer, Rabbi Eliezer Yehuda Waldenberg (1915-2006) quoting former Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem Tzvi Pesach Frank (1873-1961)