Update

Ruach Hiddush is Born!!!

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/.

Our mission statement is below and is also available on our website at http://rrfei.org/. For those who wish to join, our membership registration form is at http://rrfei.org/about/registration/.

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

RRFEI Analysis: A new twist in the unfolding Kotel saga

Leading archaeologists insistently weigh in against the Government’s Western Wall agreement

This week witnessed a new twist in the unfolding Kotel saga.

At the initiative of leading Israeli archaeologists that approached a ready and willing Knesset committee chair, a public hearing was held regarding the Kotel agreement from an archaeological perspective [LINK]. Early on, we assessed that the archaeological angle could indeed develop as a significant challenge to the implementation of the Kotel compromise [LINK].

While there is no consensus among archaeologists as to the extent of the potential damage that implementation would cause to this singularly precious historic site, among the opponents one may find some of Israel’s leading archaeologists. They come to the issue without religious malice, but at the same time express a strong rejection of the compromise, based on objective scientific and historical concerns. When such opponents turned to a typical ultra-Orthodox opponent to the compromise who does indeed bear religious malice towards both the Women of the Wall and the Reform and Conservative movements (and happens to chair the Knesset Education Committee [LINK], whose turf includes archaeological matters) there is little wonder that their plea is met with a full court welcome; and the deliberations of the committee result with a public appeal to the Reform and Conservative movements and the Women of the Wall.

Two additional interesting elements of the meeting are worth mentioning.

  1. Anat Hoffman, leader of Women of the Wall, participated in the deliberation, and she responded to the archaeologists’ plea, saying: “we never wanted this, and we said so.”
  2. While the opposing archaeologists put forth a weighty challenge to the agreement, another senior archaeologist said that he did not share the all-out assault upon the agreement, but rather pointed to the potential to maintain a proper balance between archaeological value and the current needs of worshippers, indicating that the agreement can be regarded as meeting that necessary balance.

None of this is surprising, and it indicates that there is yet a turbulent path forward, in which significant circles that come from outside the pluralism debate insistently weigh in, and they play into the hands of those who never wanted to see the site turned over to the Women of the Wall and the non-Orthodox movements. At the same time, given the impediments put in the agreement’s path, this may serve as a basis for giving greater credence to the new front opened by the non-Orthodox movements, reflecting the wishes of the Women of the Wall. Namely, moving the eye of the storm back to the traditional Western Wall plaza, rather than the Robinson’s Arch section.

Updates on the Kotel agreement and the Supreme Court’s ruling on access to Israel’s public mikva’ot

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

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

Since last week’s bulletin, there have been a number of developments in the ultra-Orthodox political and rabbinical leadership’s battle against the implementation of the Kotel agreement, as well as their battle against the Supreme Court’s ruling to make Israel’s public mikva’ot available for non-Orthodox conversion ceremonies.

These developments reflect, in essence, an escalation in anti-Reform rhetoric and the pressure faced by Haredi politicians to withdraw their unspoken consent to the framework of the Kotel agreement. Thus, due to these increasing tensions, Israel’s political system is being pulled in opposite directions – torn between the demands of the ultra-Orthodox politicians and the consequences of reneging on the Government’s agreement with the non-Orthodox streams and Women of the Wall, not to mention reversing the Supreme Court’s ruling by legislative action.

RRFEI aims to deepen our members’ understandings of current events, and answer all of your questions and requests for additional background materials. In the meantime, we note the following developments since last week’s bulletin:


THE MIKVAH BILL

  1. Following the Cabinet’s decision to support MK Gafni’s (and co.’s) mikvah bill, it passed its preliminary Knesset reading last Tuesday (as is required for all privately proposed bills), with 42 MKs voting for it and 38 voting against.The list of MKs who voted for and against the bill can be found here. Oddly, Yair Lapid, Chairman of ‘Yesh Atid,’ voted for the bill. He explained that his vote was a mistake.
  2. Last week, we noted some of the harsh and base statements made by Haredi MKs and ministers against Reform Judaism. Such statements continued during the Knesset debate, and included Minister of Religious Services David Azoulay’s (Shas) admonition that “Whoever does not accept the Torah’s (Divine) authority, and tramples the mitzvot, cannot claim to represent religion in Israel… It is their right to have ceremonies and all the folklore they want, but Judaism is not theater one drives to for mere enjoyment. Just as a witch doctor would not be allowed near a hospital in the capacity of a doctor, so too these entities should not be allowed near the Torah of Israel.“In the past, Minister Azoulay also proclaimed that he has difficulty accepting Reform Jews as Jews (for which PM Netanyahu scolded him). It is important to note that his are not simply the statements of a private individual, but rather those of a Minister charged with providing religious services to all Jews in Israel. Doubtless, Azoulay’s repeated declarations are aimed at all of non-Orthodox Jewish society around the world. This truly underscores the need for world Jewry to not remain passive in the face of Israeli ministers who curse it publicly on the Knesset floor, while the Prime Minister sits by and does nothing to make good on his promise to ensure that all Jews of all streams will feel at home in Israel.
  3. This Sunday, it was made public that the new Attorney General has made it clear to the government that this bill is unconstitutional, and violates the principles of religious freedom in a way that cannot withstand judicial review. There is doubt that the last word has not been said in this saga, and we expect new developments in the coming days, as the Haredi parties attempt to deal with this new front in the battle.


THE KOTEL AGREEMENT

  1. The pressure on the ultra-Orthodox politicians to withdraw their unspoken support for the Kotel agreement, which they voted against knowing that it would easily be approved by the government, is increasing. As a result, Minister Deri (Shas) and Rabbi Shalom Cohen (Head of the Shas Council of Torah Sages) have demanded that the agreement be nullified (even though they had approved of it in the past), lest Shas leave the coalition and overthrow the government. “It is not acceptable that the government makes these kinds of decisions,” said Deri. “We won’t sit in a government that recognizes the Reform, not over the Western Wall, not for marriage, and not for divorce.”
  2. Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch, Rabbi of the Western Wall, also changed his position, petitioning the Haredi political parties to void the agreement. Rabbi Rabinovitch had led the negotiations and approved the agreement, but his views are also becoming radicalized under the pressure.
  3. On the legal front, supporters of the agreement face another problem, for the High Court has ordered the government to respond to the “Original Women of the Wall’s” petition submitted by the Center for Women’s Justice (Attorney Susan Weiss). The government now has 12 days to explain why women are denied their right to read from Torah scrolls at the Western Wall, as of March 14, 2016.
  4. The Women of the Wall intend to expand their operations, and, for the first time, conduct a women’s “Priestly blessing” ceremony at the Western Wall during Passover. Their declared intent has been met with harsh reprimands from the Western Wall rabbi and his associates, further heightening tensions.

RRFEI response to the Western Wall compromise agreement

  • The agreement is described in Hebrew here: [link], and in English here: [link]

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.

Update: Resources and Media

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Please note:

  1. Hiddush’s 2014 Israel Religion and State Index is now available here under resources.
  2. Media coverage on Hiddush’s victory against the Chief Rabbinate’s illegal kashrut regulations for hotels and event halls is now available here under resources.

Please contact RRFEI or register to join Rabbis for Religious Freedom and Equality in Israel.