Israel’s Chief Rabbinate holds absolute power in key areas over the religious definition of what – and who – is Jewish. This monopoly — empowered, funded and perpetuated by the state — has given the haredi Orthodox-controlled body the license to exclude major segments of the Jewish community within and outside Israel, including adherents of varieties of Orthodoxy, such as Modern Orthodoxy, of which they disapprove.
In the latest example of such power, the Chief Rabbinate has issued a list of criteria for the overseas rabbinical courts that it recognizes in the areas of divorce, conversion and Jewish status. While some praised the Chief Rabbinate for transparency, critics said the list is outdated and omits rabbinical courts that operate in Modern Orthodox communities. The Chief Rabbinate’s new initiative is intended, among other things, to undermine Modern Orthodoxy by denying recognition to conversions performed by some of the leading lights of that stream of Orthodoxy.
In reaction, some Orthodox critics have committed themselves to fight via legal and public avenues until the Chief Rabbinate becomes more inclusive of the broad swath of present-day Orthodoxy.
We offer a radically different, more inclusive response. As rabbis representing the full spectrum of Jewish denominational life, including the non-Orthodox denominations long excluded by the Chief Rabbinate, we no longer expect any flexibility, decency or inclusiveness from a body controlled by a monopoly that represents such a small, fundamentalist sliver of the Jewish rainbow. .
Further, we view it as inappropriate to seek relief through the civil court system. Diverse interpretations of Jewish law are natural. Using civil law to force religious authorities to validate procedures against their religious conscience is an act of religious coercion.
Recent developments underscore the need to move on to a different model of religion-state relations — and abolish the Chief Rabbinate as an arm of the state.
The existence of the Chief Rabbinate as an arm of the state violates the core principles of democracy. It is rejected by the overwhelming majority of Israeli Jews. No contemporary democratic Jewish community would submit itself to a monopolistic Orthodox rabbinic authority. Only in today’s Israel, under the pretense of maintaining Israel’s identity as a Jewish state, has the government put a system of religious exclusivity in place. This allows the Chief Rabbinate to impose its will on the religious practices of Jews in Israel and now abroad.
A number of months ago, an alternative model was proposed – one that is unifying, Jewish and democratic in character. “A Vision Statement: Israel as a Jewish and Democratic State” was written by a Reform rabbi and an Orthodox rabbi and signed by rabbis and communal leaders of all denominations and diverse political views. It addresses all the key areas of contention regarding matters of religion and state. It is anchored in love, support and commitment to Israel’s well-being and Jewish peoplehood.
The Vision Statement proposes the following:
A section devoted to marriage and divorce illustrates how responsible and inclusive this model is. It lays out a process — already supported by Modern Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, Renewal and secular groups and leaders in Israel and in the Diaspora — by which Israelis may choose between a religious and a civil avenue for marriage and divorce. If they choose a path in accordance with halacha, or rabbinic law, the dissolution of their marriage will be conducted according to halacha. Those who choose a civil path will not be subjected to a rabbinical court’s authority.
We hold that it is high time that a broadly defined coalition of Jews across the world, representing the rich Jewish spectrum that reaches from Modern Orthodoxy to the unaffiliated, joins together in recognizing that for Israel to be truly Jewish and democratic, for Jewish peoplehood to be respected, and for Jewish unity to be strengthened, Israel must move away from a coercive religious model of a Chief Rabbinate to one that celebrates religious freedom and equality.
Rabbi Prof. Michael Chernick (Chair), Orthodox
Rabbi Lester Bronstein, Reconstructionist
Rabbi Pamela Frydman, Renewal
Rabbi Elliott Kleinman, Reform
Rabbi Mark H. Levin, Reform
Rabbi Asher Lopatin, Orthodox
Rabbi Gordon Tucker, Conservative
Rabbi Elyse Wechterman, Reconstructionist
Rabbi Uri Regev, Hiddush
(The signatories are the members of the executive committee of Ruach Hiddush–Rabbis and Cantors for Religious Freedom and Equality in Israel.)
With all due respect to those who are now coming out with declarations that they will continue to marry outside the framework of the Rabbinate – Let us hear you express an opinion about the marriage of mamzerim. Rabbi Dubi Haiyun was not arrested for having performed outside the Rabbinate, but because he did so for a mamzer (according to the Rabbinate). But Rabbi Dubi Hayoun, with all due respect, would not conduct a wedding for somebody that he considered a mamzer. I’m calling upon you – those who conduct weddings outside the auspices of the Rabbinate – to declare that you have done so, will do so, and believe that it is necessary to marry people who are considered mamzerim by all standards. The concept of mamzerim must be eliminated. Judaism must be freed from the stigma of boycotting people for no fault of their own, and we must say that there are no mamzerim. People are not born mamzerim.
Rivkah Lubitch, is a veteran rabbinic pleader who writes and lectures extensively about feminism and religion. In her former capacity as Director of Center for Women’s Justice (CWJ)’s Haifa office and social awareness coordinator, Rivkah helped redefine the public discourse on aginut through her compelling depictions of the issues and women she represented in rabbinic courts through more than 300 blogs and articles.
The arrest of Rabbi Dubi Haiyun for conducting a chuppah and kiddushin ceremony without a permit from the Rabbinate is a shocking disgrace. Indeed, Haiyun broke the law, but in this case the law itself is a disgrace, a law with a black flag flying over it. A law that states that marriages, even Orthodox, outside the framework of the Rabbinate, will not only not be registered, but they will constitute a criminal offense punishable by up to two years in prison, is a law that had no right to exist in the first place, a law that should be deleted as soon as possible from the Israel’s book of laws, and until that happens, we must ensure that it will not be enforced, just like the law that in the past that defined sex as a criminal offense, which was also not enforced until it was simply canceled.
By the way, this law illustrates how critical the Supreme Court’s power of disqualifying is, because our politicians do not hesitate to exercise the tyranny of the majority, and in this case even the tyranny of the minority that holds the government by the throat. After all, there is really no majority in the public that supports such a delusional law, and it came into the world only because of the surrender to the ultra-Orthodox and the Zionist ultra-Orthodox. And who knows, perhaps the true outcome of this day will be the final burial of the override clause and of the Orthodox monopoly in the field of marriage.
Yair Sheleg is a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute, journalist, author, and publicist. Yair Sheleg has been an astute observer of the religious-Zionist world for many years. He served as a reporter for the newspaper Nekuda and was a member of the editorial board of Haaretz.
Stop this now. The Haifa police arrested Rabbi Dubi Haiyun, the rabbi of the Conservative community of Moriah in Haifa for (listen carefully): conducting a chuppah and kiddushin ceremony without the approval of the Rabbinate. Red line crossed. Someone there wants to burn down the nation’s home on us, and just before Tisha B’Av. Someone there does not understand what a unique historical window in time this is, in which the Jewish people have returned to Israel and begun to live there. Someone there thinks that in constitutional violence he will subjugate liberal Judaism and remove it from the face of the earth. That’s what hatred of brothers looks like. That’s how the house was destroyed in the past. My brothers and sisters, Jews who believe in the vision of the return to Zion and who hear the sound of the wings of history. Help stop it. Share this with all your might and prevent this violence.
Binyamin Tzvi (Benny) Lau, (born October 20, 1961, Tel Aviv) is an Israeli Orthodox rabbi, community leader, activist, author, and public speaker who lives in Jerusalem. He is also the head of the Human Rights and Judaism in Action Project at the Israel Democracy Institute.
Liel Leibovitz’s “How to Finally Get Egalitarian Prayer at the Western Wall” can be found HERE.
Rabbi Uri Regev’s response follows below:
As Liel Leibowitz (LL) suggests, the non-Orthodox movements should broaden their appeal and avoid unnecessary conflicts. Nevertheless, I have strong reservations as to the specifics of LL’s perspective on what is “unnecessary conflict” and *who* the appeal should be broadened to include. I fear that LL, in as much as his credentials are impressive, may not be as authoritative on the relevant questions involving the Kotel controversy and the politics of religion & state in Israel, as he assumes in prescribing to the non-Orthodox movements how they should conduct their affairs.
LL suggests that the impasse over the Western Wall Agreement (WWA) was generated by the Nov. 2 demonstration by liberal North American rabbis, but this had very little to do with it. The impasse was ironically precipitated in party by the victorious Torah service at the Wall celebrated on February 25 during the CCAR (American Reform Judaism’s rabbinic umbrella) convention in Israel, which, by chance or Divine providence, took place shortly after the WWA was announced. Israel’s ultra-Orthodox leadership dug its feet into the ground at that point, and demanded that PM Netanyahu not implement the agreement. This was not a regular case of slow-paced Israeli decision making. Rather, the WWA was an exceptional case of an agreement slow in the making (more than 3 years of intensive deliberations), which received tacit endorsement from the political leadership of the Haredi parties, as well as the Rabbi of the Western Wall. It was achieved because it was viewed by the Haredi operatives as the lesser of all evils. What neither they nor the PM took into consideration was the extent to which this agreement would play into the hands of disgruntled Haredi rabbinic leaders in both the Sephardi and Ashkenazi communities who were looking for an opportunity to challenge the movements’ leadership, as well as the sensationalist urges of some key Haredi media outlets that refused to hold their peace in the face of an agreement.
While LL probably does have experience with “buearucratic Israel,” as he claims, this conflict has nothing to do with that, but rather with a theological conflict, which can only be won by “hard-sell tactics,” which LL objects to.
The more than 3 years of negotiations factored in all the normal measures of bureaucracy and more. We are left with an unfortunate arm wrestling between both Ashkenazi and Sephardi leadership who abhor non-Orthodox Judaism, and view it in Satan-like terms. Having publicly committed themselves to prevent even the slightest measure of State recognition of the non-Orthodox movements’ legitimacy, they are therefore (being pushed by their own grassroots vengeful rabbinic figures and) going back on their initial tacit consent by threatening the PM with the potential demise of his Government.
In the face of this kind of confrontation, no gentle touch will do the trick. Behind the scenes renegotiation will only result in further delay that will last as long as the non-Orthodox movements and their allies refrain from the “hard-sell tactics” that LL warns against.
None of this is intended to challenge the good will and sincere intentions of PM Netanyahu. I believe he genuinely wished to reach a compromise, and he sincerely desires to implement it. To his credit, one should add that he was the only PM to have open high level negotiations with the non-Orthodox movements of American Jewry over the primary bone of contention between the two communities – namely, “who is a Jew.” While Labor-led governments may have been more sympathetic towards liberal Judaism, they nevertheless refrained from creating the likes of the Ne’eman commission, which Netanyahu appointed to seek a solution to the conflict.
If Netanyahu is halting the implementation of the WWA, it is because its foes have put him on notice; as Rabbi Wernick noted, this is about Netanyahu not being willing to “risk the coalition over these issues.”
Frankly, unless the Haredi parties are bluffing (which they very well may be, given their State funding, governmental portfolios, and battalions of political appointees), one should realize how unlikely it is for Netanyahu to give up his government coalition over the symbolic Western Wall battle.
One possibility for non-Orthodox Judaism, along the lines LL suggests (to “broaden their appeal”), is to pressure the Labor and Yesh Atid parties as well as Netanyhu to consider establishing a civil Government Coalition, excluding the Haredi if they disband the Government. This would go a long way to addressing the unholy alliance of religion & politics in Israel, not only regarding the Kotel, but a whole array of truly critical issues involving the right to family, security, the economy, gender equality and much more. This is something a large majority of the Israeli public strongly favors – a civil government without the Haredi parties’ extortionist practices.
LL seems to omit one crucial factor regarding Israeli public opinion. He chooses to quote an Israeli official, with an implied endorsement to his views, as to the non-Orthodox movements being either clueless about Israeli politics or consciously sabotaging a resolution – or both. Readers may not be aware of the fact that such statements by Israeli officials often have very little to do with reality on the ground, and are primarily aimed at intimidating or de-legitimizing challengers to the Israeli political establishment. This Israeli official was engaged first and foremost in self-serving rhetoric, whereas the consistent truth regarding the Israeli Jewish public is that by an overwhelming majority, it rejects all aspects of the Haredi demands and pressures, opposes the Governmental policies on relgion & state, supports the views of the non-Orthodox movements regarding religious freedom & equality, and supports the Kotel compromise.
The Prime Minister and other political figures are pushing the non-Orthodox movements to keep quiet and have patience. This is not intended to help implement the agreement, but rather to get the non-Orthodox movements’ public pressure off their backs. The aim is not to reach a satisfactory resolution, but rather to gain time and refrain from upsetting the Haredi leadership. The negotiations will last as long as the non-Orthodox movements are willing to keep their peace. No resolution will be forthcoming without real pressure.
I, like LL, am very concerned about the growing rift between Israel and American Jewry. This threat is greater than the Kotel controversy and will not be healed merely by reaching a new compromise over the prayer arrangements. For as long as the majority of the children growing up in the American Jewish community today would not be treated as full Jews by the State of Israel (i.e. would not be able to legally get married in Israel due to the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly over Jewish marriage), Netanyahu’s publicly proclaimed promise that he “will always ensure that all Jews can feel at home in Israel — Reform Jews, Conservative Jews, Orthodox Jews” will not be realized. The WWA is simply not enough to make that larger looming issue go away.
Lastly, while the challenge of worship freedom on top of the Temple Mount and at the bottom of the Temple Mount (i.e. at the Western Wall) are seemingly analogous, as LL suggests, they are worlds apart in reality. LL is right that freedom of worship should be supported regardless of whose freedom it is and where the worship takes place, but his analogy is unfortunate because whereas prayer on top of the Temple Mount is faced with serious security challenges, which go way beyond the limited question of freedom of worship, the challenge to prayer at the Western Wall raises no security question. Rather, it’s simply about a particular Jewish group that hates the non-Orthodox movements and the Women of the Wall, to the point of abusing the power invested in it to ban worship of a manner that is not prescribed by the Chief Rabbinate… even though this is in accordance with the way the majority of world Jews consider acceptable and legitimate.