Sinat hinam, free flowing hatred between different branches of Judaism is not new, but it is once again virulent. As we watch the cauldron of intra-Jewish hatred boil over in the Israeli government and the Haredi and Orthodox Zionist establishments, many of us are at a loss for how to proceed toward Jewish unity. Perhaps it is time for the leaders of the major non-Orthodox movements to take the helm in Klal Yisrael and call for unity. Perhaps it is time for non-Orthodox leaders to declare that there is more than one valid form of Judaism and that Orthodox and Haredi Judaism are just as valid as non-Orthodox Judaism.
I have no doubt that this will cause our Orthodox and Haredi colleagues to laugh at us and mock us, but they are already mocking us and worse.
So why do this? I recommend doing this because it will address the sinat hinam in our own hearts and among our own non-Orthodox constituents and the unaffiliated. Look at the gender issue for example. Non-Orthodox women participate in “women only” Rosh Hodesh, sisterhood, Hadassah and secular activities. Yet many of them refuse to attend a worship service where women and men sit separately. Similarly, non-Orthodox men participate in “men’s only” activities sponsored by men’s clubs, brotherhoods, and secular organizations, yet they insist on sitting with their wife, mother or daughter during worship. I am not suggesting we give up egalitarian Judaism. Rather, I suggest that we focus on the empowerment of women as an issue that is separate from where we sit during worship and how we view the reasons for where we sit.
Gender based seating is just an example; we could accomplish the same goal by thoughtfully addressing kashrut, Shabbat or other forms of Jewish practice.
I do not suggest that our leaders call for unity while ignoring attacks on themselves and their movements. I do suggest, however, that our leaders take the lead in calling for unity while defending themselves, their colleagues and their movements.
I once asked a Haredi rabbi who works closely with non-Orthodox rabbis, “why do you work with us?” He said, “raising the water level helps to float all boats.” The more Jews affiliate and practice at some level or at any level, the more potential for Yiddishkeit to flourish. I like his answer because it is honest, it is not sugar coated, and the truth is that we need each other, and we should be supporting each other, regardless of whether we like each other or agree with each other.
My interest in Jewish unity increased after I experienced sinat hinam at the Kotel in 2010. I stood outside Kotel security holding Women of the Wall’s Torah scroll, because the security guards would not let us bring in our Torah for fear that we would read from it. So I held the Torah outside security while Women of the Wall and our male supporters prayed on either side of the mehitza. As I clutched the Torah, Orthodox and Haredi men on their way to and from the Kotel regaled me with venomous shouts of “Reform!” “Arab!” and “Whore!” Some even said that people like me caused the Holocaust.
When Women of the Wall and their male supporters finished Hallel, we all walked together to Robinson’s Arch where we read from the Torah and prayed musaf. After the service, a male colleague told me that while the men were praying in the Kotel Plaza, a large group of Orthodox and Haredi men suddenly, and without warning, body-pressed their full weight against our male supporters, crushing them against the mehitza. My heart ached from their abuse and mine, and I felt my heart fill with sinat hinam.
It took a great deal of effort to let go of the hatred that filled my heart that morning at Robinson’s Arch, but I finally did. I think it is important to view this kind of hatred as prejudice and to work to overcome it when it fills us.
Perhaps it is time for Masorti / Conservative and Progressive / Reform Jewish leaders to rise above the stench of hatred that is being lobbed on them and to call for Jewish unity as though they had the power to achieve it. Rather than waiting for Haredi and Orthodox Zionist leaders and Knesset Members in Israel to overcome their religious insanity, perhaps it is time for our leaders in the non-Orthodox movements to take the lead and show the world what Jewish religious sanity actually looks like.
RRFEI gives great credit to the Reform movement and Conservative movements, and the Women of the Wall for making the painful sacrifice of giving up their demands of being allowed to hold egalitarian prayer services and women’s minyanim at the traditional Western Wall plaza. While a section of the Wall, which hitherto functioned as an archaeological garden, and had never operated under the dictates of the Orthodox rabbinic establishment, has now been designated as a pluralistic prayer space, it must be underscored that this compromise stipulates that the main Western Wall prayer plaza will officially remain under ultra-Orthodox authority.
Most positive, from RRFEI’s perspective is that the vast majority of world Jewry, the liberal streams, will, at long last, possess an official area in which to pray according to the customs and theology of the modern Jewish world.
However, RRFEI remains concerned that in recent months, Prime Minister Netanyahu has sent very mixed messages regarding the equal status of the non-Orthodox streams in Israel – one for external consumption, abroad, and one for domestic Israeli policy. When Netanyahu speaks with leaders of the Diaspora Jewish community, he voices his support for equality, while the persistent discrimination and denial of key religious freedoms and equality within Israel only continues to degrade. The Ministry of Education’s recent, public freezing of funds designated in the State budget for Jewish renewal, intended for non-Orthodox and secular educational initiatives, serves as a clear reminder of this.
The Western Wall compromise, which requires no substantial concession on the part of the ultra-Orthodox, only further highlights the willingness of PM Netanyahu to trade away the core values of religious freedom and equality, in exchange for the religious parties’ votes, necessary to keep him and his party in power. Therefore, we fear that the Western Wall agreement will simply be used as a smokescreen, aimed at convincing Diaspora Jewry that this represents the implementation of the PM’s promise to ensure that every Jew will feel at home in Israel, while in truth it avoids addressing the real issues that impact the lives and dignities of so many Israeli and Diaspora Jews. So, as welcomed as the Kotel compromise is, it must not distract world Jewry from the need for dramatic changes in Israel in such critical arenas as freedom of marriage and divorce, Who is a Jew, and state-sanctioned, religiously-based gender discrimination.
Much praise should be extended to Rabbis Rick Jacobs and Steven Wernick for publicly airing the cause of full religious equality in Israel for all. Their exchange with President Rivlin at the 2015 Chanukah event sponsored by the UJA Federation of NY should encourage us to consider the issues they raised and the best strategy to be pursued in order to advance our shared interest of greater religious diversity and freedom and Israel.
While Rabbi Jacobs’ and Rabbi Wernick’s words certainly generated media attention, it should be remembered that the political reality of Israel is such that among Israel’s top leadership, the President is probably the least relevant when it comes to making official changes to the State of Israel’s policies. Further, even if this encounter had been with the correct official (such as Prime Minister Netanyahu), the question would remain whether the particular list of demands they set forth is most strategically appropriate.
One disadvantage of such a list, which includes representation on rabbinical courts, state authorization to perform weddings, divorces and funerals, and equal funding for non-Orthodox communities, is that the Prime Minister could elect to deal with these demands gradually – one at time – over an indefinite period of time, while claiming to be carrying out his commitment to pluralism and expecting our gratitude and patience on all other matters. He could present his initiatives as tangible progress, thereby deflating the push on the major issues, or prolonging them indefinitely.
This is exactly what happened when the non-Orthodox Movements chose to challenge him regarding the Kotel, following the plight of the Women of the Wall who are denied their right to read from the Torah in the Women’s section (or, for that matter, to light Chanukkah candles). An indication of this pitfall could be seen back in 2013 during the JFNA General Assembly, as well as during the subsequent Reform movement’s Biennial at the end of that same year, when Netanyahu focused his message to the religiously diversified Federation world and the Reform leadership on his initiatives regarding the Robinson’s Arch section of the Kotel. His words were met with great appreciation and applause, precluding (in both instances) any opportunity to address the audiences’ priorities, playing into Netanyahu’s hands by giving him the opportunity to present himself as a champion for pluralism, while the issue he chose to address was the most convenient for him and insignificant when compared to the hundreds of thousands in Israel and in the Diaspora who are denied the right to marriage in Israel, and whose Jewish status is labeled ‘second rate.’ This was most apparent in the case of the URJ Biennial when key demands were not presented for the Prime Minister to address when he was introduced, and when he completed his preferred message, he refused to take any questions.
More recently, Netanyahu felt increasing pressure due to the Women of the Wall’s public struggle and the derogatory remarks against Reform Judaism made by a number of his ultra-Orthodox Coalition partners, and made a welcome and dramatic statement about making all Jews, regardless of religious stream, feel equally at home in Israel. However, he ultimately translated his historic message into nickles and dimes (as important as they are) by committing to join the Jewish Agency in funding the building and maintenance of Reform and Conservative synagogues. This was a wonderful gesture, but it should not assuage supporters of true religious freedom, for the Prime Minister claims he is committed to making all Jews feel at home in the State of Israel.
Some demands are less realistic than others, which is important to consider. For example, it is not very realistic to expect that non-Orthodox rabbis will be represented on rabbinic courts in Israel. In fact, the position of the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel is to settle, for the time being, for a parallel civil path. This would consist of civil marriage and divorce, of allowing couples whatever religious ceremonies they prefer without interference from the State, and, should the need for legal remedy arise, it could be sought in civil family court. Further, setting up a multi-denominational judicial system is very unlikely in the foreseeable future, given the entrenchment of Israel’s Orthodox establishment, the complexity of this issue, and the questionable desirability of adding to the scope of religious courts that function as state courts. In setting our priorities as advocates, we must take such considerations into account.
Other issues, like performing funerals, are actually less a matter of pluralism in Israel than a matter of non-implementation of existing laws. The 1996 law regarding the right to an alternative civil burial was passed by the Knesset, but only a handful of such cemeteries were established. In these cemeteries, rabbis of all denominations may perform burial services. The State Comptroller has criticized the abysmal implementation of this law in very harsh language. Renewed deliberation on this matter is being debated in the Knesset at present. This is a good example of an issue that does not involve only the religious streams, but in truth, applies to the secular public as well. It thereby demonstrates the streams’ alliance with the majority of Israel’s Jewish population, taking it beyond the debate over pluralism into the further compelling realm of civil liberties. The crux in issues such as this is to implement existing legal frameworks so the advocates’ approach must be tailored accordingly.
Ironically, when it comes to conversions, it is the Modern Orthodox who are currently denied official recognition, such as the independent conversion courts running under the name of ‘Giyur k’Halakha.’ These rabbis find themselves treated no differently than their Reform and Conservative counterparts. Reform and Conservative conversions performed in Israel, for some years now, entitle the converts to be registered as Jews in the civil population registry. This was achieved and recognized after successful litigation, which Rabbi Uri Regev had the privilege of participating in, which resulted in the court ordering the state to register non-Orthodox conversions.
Unfortunately, these same converts who are registered as ‘Jewish’ by the State cannot get married as Jews in Israel, but neither can non-Orthodox converts or modern Orthodox converts who converted in the USA. If advocates of religious freedom and equality were to focus strategically upon the right to family – the right to marry – this would empower us to frame the debate as a matter of wider appeal and wider application. Freedom of marriage is not just a matter of religious pluralism, but truly a core civil rights issue, and is perhaps the most symbolic of the current state of religious affairs in Israel, which has given an official monopoly to the established, Orthodox Chief Rabbinate. This is true not only regarding Jews, but also non-Jews in Israel, whose marriages are exclusively controlled by their respective religious functionaries. (See, for instance, former Chief Justice Barak’s assertion that religion’s control over all marriages in Israel is a violation of civil rights, human dignity, religious freedom and equality: marriage.hiddush.org)
Strategically, we believe the issue of marriage freedom ought to be the primary focus for our efforts in Israel, in the USA, and across the Jewish world. Rather than presenting lengthy lists of demands, which often turn out to be as weak as their weakest items, we should be focusing on one key, symbolic and highly critical issue. Doing so would not only advance the rights of the streams, but also endear the non-Orthodox movements and their Modern Orthodox partners to Israeli society. We would demonstrate that what motivates us is not simply self-interest, but rather a shared vision of a religiously diverse and free society. We would be well advised to prefer non-sectarian causes, but rather those that serve broader society. It is encouraging that in just the past several years, the Jewish Federations of North America, the American Jewish Committee and the National Council of Jewish Women have all publicly committed to advocate for marriage freedom in Israel, as have several local boards of rabbis in response to Hiddush’s appeal.
We would love to hear back from you about this strategy, and speak further with you about how to get involved.