An open letter to Mr. Natan Sharansky from Rabbi Uri Regev, Head of Hiddush

Originally posted at HERE
and HERE

Dear Natan,

You will forever be remembered as a valiant warrior for freedom, and now as head of the Jewish Agency for Israel, you have the opportunity to take up the mantle of bold leadership in the battle for religious freedom, Jewish diversity and equality, whose time is long overdue.

Last week, you spoke before hundreds demonstrating for full recognition of Rabbi Haskel Lookstein’s conversions. To the assembled crowd (which I was part of) you said, “At a time when… our enemies attempt to sever the ties between young Jews and the Jewish state…the Jewish Agency fights to strengthen Israel’s stature among world Jewry, and we protest this unacceptable blow to the vital bond between Israel and Diaspora Jewry….” In an interview you clarified that the Chief Rabbinate should accept all Orthodox conversions performed by rabbis ordained at recognized Orthodox seminaries.

You praised the rabbinate for “connecting the Jewish state with Judaism.” Sadly, you are wrong, for the monopolistic and coercive rabbinate is alienating Israeli Jews from Judaism.

It is no surprise that the Rabbinic Court of Appeal refused to recognize Rabbi Lookstein’s conversions in spite of your pleading.

Your support for Rabbi Lookstein is appreciated, as is your past advocacy against the infamous “Rotem Bill” and your push for the Western Wall compromise. So is your willingness to have the Jewish Agency undertake to build ritual baths for non-Orthodox converts in light of the ultra-Orthodox parties’ pending legislation aimed at undoing the Supreme Court ruling allowing non-Orthodox converts access to the state’s publicly funded ritual baths.

You’ve done remarkable damage control, helping Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, which is under competing pressures from world Jewry and its ultra-Orthodox coalition partners, but hasn’t the time come to take a stand for what is truly needed to realize the noble principles you espouse? While you have repeatedly demanded that Israel and its rabbinate recognize liberal Orthodox conversions, you have never clearly articulated a parallel demand that Israel fully recognize non-Orthodox conversions.

As head of the Jewish Agency, doesn’t non-Orthodox Judaism deserve that you urge the State of Israel, if not the rabbinate, to do so? For Israel’s sake and for the relationship between the Jewish state and the Diaspora, these converts must be able to be fully absorbed into Israeli society! How can they, if they are not allowed to marry in Israel? As the state handed total control over marriage of Jews in Israel to the Chief Rabbinate, which does not recognize them as Jews, none of them can legally marry here. Neither can some 350,000 Israeli citizens from the former Soviet Union, born to Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers. Don’t they deserve that you, as head of the Jewish Agency, demand that Israel grant them the right to family, and not subjugate them to the anachronistic rabbinic establishment that refuses to accept even Rabbi Lookstein’s legitimacy? Even with your goodwill, the Agency’s funding and the handful of lenient Orthodox rabbis willing to defy the rabbinate’s intransigence, few will undertake Orthodox conversions.

Can a Jewish Agency committed to the successful absorption of the miraculous Russian Aliya close its eyes to this mistreatment, which renders them second class citizens? In rightly stressing the need for Israel to welcome the young generation of Diaspora Jewry, you must know that the majority of that youth will not be accepted as Jewish by Israel’s rabbinate, and would similarly be excluded and humiliated.

Many among them converted (or their mothers converted) with non-Orthodox or modern Orthodox rabbis like Lookstein, or were born to mixed marriages.

As there is no legal option for civil marriages in Israel and neither do non-Orthodox rabbis have the authority to officiate at marriages in Israel – the majority of Judaism’s next generation would not be able to marry in Israel! As Hiddush polling repeatedly demonstrates, the overwhelming majority of Israeli Jews support equal status for non-Orthodoxy and state recognition of all forms of marriage.

The non-Orthodox make up the overwhelming majority of Diaspora Jewry, as you well know. Shouldn’t the primacy of Jewish unity and inclusiveness, Israel’s founding principles of religious freedom and equality, and the overwhelming support for Jewish diversity among both Israeli and Diaspora Jews compel you to mobilize the Jewish Agency toward this goal? This may not come easily for you. I recall an interview you gave in the past, explaining that Israel must have a single rabbinic authority to achieve Jewish unity. When you served as interior minister you submitted an affidavit to the Supreme Court expressing your opposition to recognizing Reform and Conservative conversions performed in Israel, even in the civil arena. Fortunately, the Supreme Court rejected your position and accepted ours. Much time has passed since then, and, in your current position, I know that you have gained many additional insights and sensitivities toward the Jewish Diaspora, your Agency’s stakeholders.

During your tenure, significant developments indicate growing concern about the lack of religious freedom in Israel.

One example is the Jewish Federations of North America adopting the “Israel Religious Expressions Platform,” in support of marriage freedom in Israel. A resolution focusing on this issue was submitted to the Jewish Agency, but is dragging and has yet to gain your support.

Sadly, even the resolution adopted by the Jewish Agency over a year ago on the “establishment of ongoing working groups for religious freedom in the State of Israel” still awaits implementation.

The Western Wall compromise and the Agency’s willingness to build ritual baths for non-Orthodox Jews follow the problematic and long discarded principle of “separate but equal.” Now that the rabbinic establishment is discriminating even against modern Orthodoxy, shouldn’t we breathe life into the fundamentals of our Jewish and democratic state promising religious freedom and equality to all? Shouldn’t you hold Prime Minister Netanyahu accountable to his praiseworthy declaration at the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America a few months ago, committing to “ensure that all Jews can feel at home in Israel – Reform Jews, Conservative Jews, Orthodox Jews?” Damage control is not enough. Mere tweaking will not suffice. The rabbinate’s coercion, anachronism and extremism are distancing Israeli Jews from Judaism. Giving them exclusive authority over marriage and divorce of all Jews in Israel is undermining Jewish peoplehood and alienating world Jewry.

Dear Natan, I urge you to act further on your stated vision of Jewish inclusiveness and diversity! Lead the Jewish Agency towards the real, bold changes necessary so that all your stakeholders in the Diaspora and all Israeli Jews can feel themselves partners, working together to create a rich Jewish tapestry, which represents and respects the diversity of the Jewish people of the 21st century. As much as support for Rabbi Lookstein and his liberal Orthodox colleagues is justified – nothing short of upholding the right to marry and respecting religious freedom and equality for all will do!

Sincerely yours,
Rabbi Uri Regev
Hiddush – Freedom of Religion for Israel

What is Yours is Also Mine by Rabbi Pamela Frydman, RRFEI Chair

Click HERE for the RRFEI bulletin:
'Reform and Conservative Movements write the Police Inspector General'


Pam-2015-with-short-hair-1The government spent three years negotiating a Kotel compromise that includes building a dignified worship space at the Kotel (Western Wall) for mixed gender egalitarian prayer. Jerusalem’s Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar appears to view the Kotel compromise as a form of encroachment on Orthodox and Haredi turf and he is fighting against it with all his might. Perhaps he is opposed to the compromise simply because it includes constructing a dignified egalitarian plaza. Perhaps it is because there will be one unified entrance through which tourist and regulars will enter the Kotel area and proceed to either egalitarian or gender divided prayer spaces. Perhaps it is because leaders of the Reform and Conservative Movements and Women of the Wall will have seats on a Kotel governing body. Perhaps it is for a combination of these and other reasons.

In February 2016, a month after the cabinet approved implementation of the Kotel compromise, Rabbi Amar gave an interview on Kol Hai radio during which he criticized aging Haredi leaders for supporting the compromise. Rabbi Amar went so far as to imply that these Haredi leader lack intellectual competence.

In June 2016, Rabbi Amar stooped to a new low, desecrating the present egalitarian platform by using it to incite hatred against non-Orthodox observant Jews. On June 14, 2015, Rabbi Amar went to the platform with a group of supporters, installed a mehitza and davvened shacharit. Then Rabbi Amar gave an emotional talk decrying Reform and Conservative Judaism in general and mixed gender worship and the Kotel compromise in particular. While making his way from the platform to the street, Rabbi Amar muttered a prayer asking God to bring these “evil ones” back to Judaism.

As we know, Mishna Avot (5:10) defines a “rasha” (evil one) as one who says “what is mine is mine and what is yours is mine.” Oddly enough, Rav Amar declared Conservative and Reform Jews to be reshai’im at the very moment that he himself was engaging declaring “what is yours is mine” by taking over and inciting hatred in and from the egalitarian section at the Kotel.

The Reform and Conservative Movements responded by holding an egalitarian mincha in the Main Plaza two days later, on June 16, 2016. The egalitarian service was held in an open area behind the gender separated men’s and women’s prayer areas. Hundreds of Yeshiva students were sent by their rabbis to protest. The students protesters attacked and harassed the four hundred egalitarian worshipers by shouting, blowing shrill whistles continuously, cursing, spitting, and throwing water bottles.

A small number of border guards were stationed between the worshipers and the protesters. The guards became overwhelmed and did not protect the worshipers. To make matters worse, police stationed nearby looked on and did nothing.

For me, the saddest part of this entire affair is that Reform, Conservative and other egalitarian Jews were treated by police as a population unworthy of basic protections and yeshiva students were treated as though they are above the law. As if that were not enough, the government has been silent in the aftermath. As of this writing, there has been no apology and no promise by the Prime Minister, the Chief of Police or anyone else to do better in the future to protect egalitarian worshipers at the Kotel and to inform Haredi protestors that harming worshipers and visitors to the Kotel is against the law. We call upon the Prime Minister and the Chief of Police to rectify this situation going forward.

Letter to Israel Police Inspector General from the Reform and Conservative Movements

Click HERE for the RRFEI bulletin:
'Reform and Conservative Movements write the Police Inspector General'

Click HERE for the original 
Hebrew version of the letter below


Reform Movement

Conservative Movement

14 Sivan 5776, 20 June 2016

Chief of Staff Ronnie Alshich
Israel Police Inspector General
National Headquarters
Via Bar Lev 1 Jerusalem

Honorable One:

Re : Insufficient police preparations for egalitarian mincha prayers at the Western Wall

We are writing to alert the Police regarding serious deficiencies that occurred last Thursday, 10 Sivan 5776, 16 June 2016) at the Western Wall while the Masorti (Conservative) and Reform Movements were holding an egalitarian mincha service in the public plaza.

We did not veil our intention to gather at the Western Wall nor did we veil our intention to exercise our right to pray there. In an attempt to prevent our worship, the Minister of Religious Affairs asked the office of the Legal Advisor to look into whether our worship could be prevented, but, as expected, the Legal Advisor informed him that there were no grounds for preventing the service from taking place in the main plaza. A petition was submitted to the Supreme Court in this matter on behalf of the Association of ‘Justice’ and that petition was also rejected. The police were aware of all of these realities, and to remove any doubt (about whether the police were aware of these realities), Masorti Movement Chair Attorney Yizhar Hess (undersigned) phoned Police David Commander Doron Turgeman to update him regarding the planned worship, and they had a substantive conversation.

Our worship included approximately 400 men and women from all over the country. The protesters included approximately 120 yeshiva students. The students rioted. They shouted, blew whistles, cursed, spat, and threw water bottles. At moments, the riot erupted into serious violence, including punching and throwing stones. There was also an obscene act (in which someone cupped the buttocks of a female worshipper who is part of the military preparatory program). The event videos and media reports in Israel and abroad depict an atmosphere of worsening violence.

It was certainly possible to anticipate that tempers would flare. We were, therefore, shocked at the lack of sufficient police presence and the lack of police capacity. The police forces dispatched a small number of border guards — deaf individuals not in uniform — tasked with separating the factions. They tried, without success, to prevent the Ultra-Orthodox students from harming the worshippers. There were many police officers in the vicinity, but they did not intervene; they did nothing. It was as if there was a message that if worshipers wish to exercise their legal right to pray in egalitarian fashion without a mehitza, they will be punished for doing so. Please note that this was one-sided violence. There could have been, God forbid, serious casualties, although there were, in fact, only light injuries. The Israeli police must prepare accordingly, and not stand idly by when emotions flare.

This constitutes a serious operational failure, and perhaps even a basic flaw in understanding the role of the police. It is the duty of the police to protect the beleaguered and maintain public order. In this instance, the police did neither. This is particularly noteworthy in view of the fact that just two days earlier, the police allowed Jerusalem Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar to engage in a prayer of defiance by placing a mehitza in Ezrat Yisrael (the section designated for egalitarian worship) and conducting morning prayers there.

Honorable Police Commissioner, we ask you to please investigate the incident to ensure that deficits of this kind do not recur. We are law-abiding. In the coming months we plan to hold regular egalitarian worship in the public plaza at the Western Wall. We expect that the Israeli police will stand guard to avoid anything happening to worshipers who wish to enjoy the freedom of worship to which they are entitled to by law, and in accordance with case law and the spirit of the law.

Yizhar Hess, Attorney at Law
Executive Director of the
Masorti (Conservative) Movement
Rabbi Gilad Kariv, Attorney at Law
Executive Director of the
Reform Movement


cc: Avichai Mandelblit, Attorney at Law, State Attorney General

Marriage freedom advocacy: our most united effort

10903999_10153629284553868_1051290180814195830_oEric Goldstein, CEO of UJA-Federation of New York, wrote in last week’s Jerusalem Post [link] about the nature of Israeli society. Is Israel the homeland of all the Jewish people, in which all of us can live according to our understandings of Judaism, or is there one recognized Jewish stream and the others have little or no authority?

Goldstein writes:

From its birth, Israel has stood as a source of inspiration and strength for Jews everywhere. And Israel reflects the aspirations of the entire Jewish people, about half of whom live outside of the Land of Israel. Our concern – shared by the 86 percent of Israelis who according to the Hiddush 2015 Religion and State Index support freedom of religion and conscience in Israel – is that these recent events will further distance many Diaspora Jews from the Jewish state and Israelis from Judaism.

Are the vast majority of North American Jews being detached from Israel as a practical matter?

We’re including here two readings for your seders [link], that evoke the hope of true freedom for Israel’s Jews: one by Rabbi John Rosove and the other from Gordon Silverman. Please feel free to distribute them to your congregation, or use them however you see fit.

Also included is this [link] to an English version of a Haaretz article reporting on the first analysis of the amount of money going to religious institutions in Israel. The amount is 13 times higher than the budget of Israel’s Religious Services Ministry, and 2.3% of Israel’s total budget. It shows how the Haredi parties and United Torah Judaism are attempting to educate Israel’s children according to their own version of history and dogma.

At stake is the vision of a Jewish State held by the vast majority of American Jews, and nothing less. Perhaps we don’t care about whether we can pray in our manner from our siddurim at the Kotel. Perhaps that’s not significant in people’s lives. But the larger point, our place in the mainstream of Jewish life, is critical to the future of our community and Jews worldwide.

While recent developments regarding the Kotel, conversions, and public mikvahs indicate a trend towards slowly undermining the authority of the Chief Rabbinate, the report on the budget demonstrates that the coalition agreement with the ultra-Orthodox is being used to educate Israel’s children toward a nationalist view of history, through both formal and informal education.

The campaign for civil and non-Orthodox marriages in Israel, to allow all streams equal status, represents our most united effort to make Israel conform to a state for the entire Jewish people.

Will you be speaking on these subjects around Pesah? If you are, please send us a copy of your remarks, to:

We look forward to hearing from you regarding your thoughts on Religious Freedom and Equality.

Now or never – the need for political pressure

10903999_10153629284553868_1051290180814195830_oI shuddered in the late 60s when I read Simon Herman’s prediction that Israeli and American Jewish societies were growing apart. Now I am watching the fruition of his prediction.

Narratives matter. This weekend’s Haaretz contained an article [click here] about how the informal education system under the Natanyahu regime is purposefully teaching their right-wing political narrative in informal Jewish education: like trips and workshops.

The same forces are pushing the narrative that the only legitimate Judaism, the only traditional legitimate Jewish expression, is the Haredi version of Jewish life, without any understanding of the progress of history, and shunning the modern world around them. Their Judaism is obscurantist and anti-modern, anti-democratic, sexist and racist. That’s how the narrative is unfolding.

Earlier this week, Haaretz published an article by Eric Yoffie [click here] in which he calls us to action because now is the time. Eric opens with this statement:

“The Western Wall agreement is collapsing, and it is time for Reform and Conservative Jews and all those who care about religious freedom and gender equality in Israel to go back to the barricades.”

He is not speaking metaphorically. It’s now or never, in Rabbi Yoffie’s opinion, and we had better pressure the Netanyahu government, because the only thing that makes a difference with the current Israeli government is political pressure.

At stake is the vision of a Jewish State held by the vast majority of American Jews, and nothing less. Perhaps we don’t care about whether we can pray in our manner from our siddurim at the Kotel. Perhaps that’s not significant in people’s lives. But the larger point, our place in the mainstream of Jewish life, is critical to the future of our community and Jews worldwide.

We would like to hear your version of this narrative. What actions, in responding to Eric Yoffie, ought we undertake? What actions, launched now, might unite us and make a difference? The breakthrough achieved just a few months ago, recognizing liberal Judaism as legitimate in Israel, is being so undermined as possibly become meaningless. Or, is there another narrative developing now?

Please, send us your opinions or post them on FB at the FB group for RRFEI (Rabbis for Religious Freedom and Equality in Israel) [link], or to

We look forward to hearing your thoughts.

How to proceed is the real question

10903999_10153629284553868_1051290180814195830_oIt’s reported by Leonard Baker that Mahatma Gandhi advised Rabbi Leo Baeck around 1938 that “All of the Jews of Germany at a given moment should commit suicide.” Gandhi thought the collective action would shock the conscience of the world. Gandhi clearly did not understand the Jewish nature. Baeck himself once commented that Judaism is the most life-affirming religion among world religions. With the possible exception of Masada, suicide is not the way Jews protest.

We may be entirely life affirming, as Baeck suggested, but we can be vicious with our opponents. It happened in the battles between the Hasidim and the Mitnagdim; it happened in the disputes between the Reformers and the traditionalists; and it is occurring again in Israel in the renewed fight over modernity and religious inclusion in Israel.

But, one might claim, the closer we get to making a difference, to threatening the establishment, the fiercer the fight will become.

I have little doubt that ultimately Israel will become an inclusive state among Jews. But when, and at what cost to North American and Israeli Jewry? The recent rhetoric over women’s status, the Kotel, gerut and mikvahs clearly demonstrates that the Haredi powers feel threatened by current events, most particularly at the Supreme Court. Now’s the time for action, but how to proceed is the real question.

Hiddush Chairperson, Rabbi Pam Frydman, suggests that we demonstrate the attitude we wish to receive through our own actions. It’s a different approach, so please let us know what you think.

We look forward to hearing your thoughts. Please send your comments to:

You may also find our FB group at: [link], and our website:

Rising flames of resistance to the Western Wall agreement

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

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

Uri-Regev-profile-photo-e1425932791183Since 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:

  • The ugliness of the rhetoric;
  • Both the Kotel agreement and the Supreme Court ruling on the mikva’ot have been assailed – so the operative byproduct is both anti-Reform, as well as anti-civil judiciary and the rule of law;
  • The Zionist Orthodox Jewish Home party has once again emerged as a religious smorgasbord, with its party chairperson continuing to back the Kotel agreement, which is essentially an expansion of his own initiative three years ago when he was Minister of Diaspora Affairs. On the other hand, the party’s stauncher religious and political right, represented by Minister Uri Ariel and MK Smotrich [link] are expressing a more aggressive and rigid stance, challenging the agreement and, implicitly, Bennett’s leadership;
  • All in all, one cannot begin to understand this chaos without understanding the subtext, which goes beyond the Kotel, into personal, political and ideological rivalries. The makers of this deal had hoped it would fly under the radar, but these internal interests and the intense media attention caused by the confluence of events, including the CCAR conference in Israel, which presented the Kotel agreement as a major victory, elicited to these responses.
  • While these voices are attacking the “Reform,” they have a very limited idea of what “Reform” is, and use it as a generic label to describe anybody with whom they have religious disagreements.

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 and some additional Haredi leaders. The meeting was postponed [link] after the harsh pronouncements against the agreement were issued over the last several days, with the understanding that the Chief Rabbis would attempt to propose an alternative approach to the agreement.

Additionally, a number of elements including a rabbinic group associated with the Chief Rabbinate have hired a senior attorney[link] who has presented a legal challenge to the validity of the agreement to the Attorney General. His claim is that the law requires that the Chief Rabbinate be consulted before the Minister of Religious Services institutes such regulations, according to the Law of Preserving the Holy Places of Israel.

Beyond this, in yet another classic clash of religion and state in Israel, Shas’s Minister of Religious Services David Azoulay [link]has declared that he will not sign the regulations, indicating that he’s not answering to the majority Government decision, but rather to the rabbis who control him. Sadly the fragile set-up of Israel’s rule of law breaks when it comes to fundamentalist religious functionaries.

Everyone expected that the Ashkenazi political leadership would voice strong objections to the Kotel agreement, but not that they would seriously consider leaving the coalition over these issues. However, recent statements indicate that the ante has been raised, and they have come under greater pressure from their rabbinic masters. Therefore, they have explicitly threatened to leave the coalition if the Government does not take tangible measures that assert that non-Orthodox Judaism will not gain any traction and recognition in Israel.

All of this leaves Netanyahu between a rock and a hard place. He meant well, but he now realizes that these dynamics may cause a greater challenge to the well-bring of his coalition than he had considered. He is clearly still acting on the logic and strategic direction that led him to accommodate the non-Orthodox American movements in the first place, namely appeasing these key forces in the American Jewish community critical for Israel’s strategic interests, but the political pressure he now faces is only intensifying.

The Supreme Court landmark ruling to allow non-Orthodox converts access to all Mikva’ot in Israel – There is more to it than you may think by Rabbi Uri Regev

You may download my highlighted version of the Supreme Court ruling here.

Uri-Regev-profile-photo-e1425932791183This unanimous ruling of the Supreme Court is an important addition to the chain of rulings that uphold the principles of religious freedom & equality. Its importance is not only to the matter at hand (access to the public mikva’ot for the purpose of non-Orthodox conversions), but also for future litigation over matters of religious freedom and equality in general.

On the other hand, a close look at the ruling reveals a number of elements of a mixed nature, which we need to be aware of, as they too will weigh on future litigation involving the clash of religion and state.

While the legal saga is over (10 years after it commenced!), and the final ruling has been handed down, a new front, far more vicious and perilous, has opened up. Now the Chief Rabbinate and ultra-Orthodox politicians are in Pavlovian reaction mode, gearing up to fight back and prevent the implementation of this ruling, as they launch a campaign to further undermine both the Supreme Court and demonize the non-Orthodox movements.


1. The State could have avoided this ruling

The bottom line of the ruling is an order to the religious council in Beer Sheva and the administrator of the mikva to allow access to Reform and Conservative converts for ritual immersion, as part of the process of conversion, including permission for a non-Orthodox bet din to be present at the immersion. Similar access should be allowed, stipulates the ruling, at other public mikva’ot where immersion of converts is conducted, but it would not have taken much for the Court to have decided differently and hand down a much more limited victory for the non-Orthodox movements. In the course of the deliberations the justices repeatedly urged the State to offer a pragmatic solution to the movements’ immersion needs for conversions. The State’s and religious authorities’ uncompromising mindset and obfuscation of the facts ultimately led the court to hand down a much stronger and more encompassing ruling than it preferred.

Justice Rubinstein opined: “If it were possible for the appellants to have dignified and orderly access in Omer, Modi’in and Hannaton (A suburb of Beer Sheba in the south, a city in the center, and a Conservative Kibbutz in the north), as seemingly presented to us, ‘dayeinu’ – this would have sufficed because according to the appellants’ information, [the need] involves fewer than 300 individuals per year, and one mikva in each major region of the country would have sufficed. We have no interest in entering into an ideological dispute in this context. What we sought were pragmatic solutions. [But seeing that the facts as attested to by the appellants stand in contrast to the ambiguity that characterizes the State’s affidavit] there is no recourse other than making a decision on the merits of the case. Such a need to decide the merits of the case could have been avoided if the unfolding of this case [and this is not the only such case] was not a situation of (in Hebrew –(מנעת מרובה לא מנעת: ‘when you try to block them at every turn, you will not block them at all’.” [a play on words on the known phrase: תפסת מרובה – לא תפסת ‘caught lots, got nothing’]

Chief Justice Naor agrees : “Indeed, as we commenced the process, we held that it would be desirable to find a pragmatic solution to answer the problem raised by the appellants (the non-Orthodox movements). A solution that would render a legal decision unnecessary in matters that tend to split the public. At times there are many advantages to pragmatic solutions that do not require that ‘justice pierce the mountain.’ … if mikva’ot were available within a reasonable driving distance, it might have been sufficient.”

This reminds us of the nature of the compromise over the Kotel, in which the Haredi rabbinic and political leadership feared that if a compromise were not found, the court might allow the Women of the Wall to pray in the actual space of the traditional Kotel. Agreeing on the ‘alternative Kotel’ compromise exempted the Orthodox Kotel authorities from having to accommodate the women and non-Orthodox movements at the Kotel itself. The difference being, of course, that in the case of the Kotel, Netanyahu and Mandelblit could come up with an alternative Kotel, which was not controlled by the Orthodox rabbinate, whereas, in the case of the mikva’ot we were dealing with locations that were all controlled by the Rabbinic establishment. Therefore, the refusal of the religious powers that be to compromise and allow access to merely 2 public mikva’ot, resulted in an overarching ruling that orders the authorities to accommodate the non-Orthodox movements in all public mikva’ot where converts immerse.


2. “Religious freedom” with more than a grain of salt

Much of the media’s reporting on the ruling focused on the principles of equality and religious freedom, as reiterated in the ruling. Such statements included: “We state the fundamentals – the principle of equality is one of the core principles of our legal system – its roots are deeply embedded in our identity as Jewish and democratic state… once the state has established public mikva’ot and made them available to the public, including for the purpose of conversion, it cannot practice discriminatory policy in using them. This also emerges from the freedom of religion and freedom of worship granted to all in the State of Israel… the principle of equality constitutes an essential building block in the existence of religious freedom… religious freedom includes within it two imperatives directed at the state – ‘Do’ and ‘Do not do,’ similar to ‘turn away from evil and do good’ (Ps. 34:15). First, to refrain from interfering in a person’s religious life; and second, to provide appropriate infrastructure for maintaining religious life.” This reiteration is of obvious importance. It is praiseworthy for its own sake, especially coming from the Orthodox justice Elyakim Rubinstein; but with all due appreciation for these important statements, we should be reminded of the fact that the justices would not have refrained from imposing severe limitations on these principle of equality and religious freedom if only the State’s religious authorities had been sufficiently forthcoming in offering a meager compromise of two mikva’ot in addition to Hannaton in the north. Just to illustrate the quantitative context, in Beer Sheva alone there are 13 public mikva’ot.


3. Counter-legislation already in the works, but will it do the trick?

The Haredi politicians are already gearing up to pass counter-legislation that will explicitly subject the function of the mikva’ot to the Chief Rabbinate according to the Shulchan Arukh. Their assumption is that such explicit legislation regarding the rules and authority over the mikva’ot would suffice to block the implementation of the Supreme Court ruling. The Haredi opponents would be wise to realize that such legislation may not do the trick. The respondents (the State and Religious Council) already argued before the court that the law governing religious services requires that the Religious Council operate according to the rulings of the local and Chief rabbinates. Justice Rubinstein points out that such a provision in the law “cannot make kosher” the exclusion of non-Orthodox converts from public mikva’ot, because “the Rabbinate is not authorized to establish a discriminatory policy. The court holds respect for the Chief Rabbinate, but it is clear that as with all administrative authorities, it is subject to the rules of administrative law, which forbids discrimination. The claim that one administrative authority has the power to instruct another administrative authority to exercise discriminatory policy is incompatible with the basic principles of public law.”


4. This ruling has nothing to do with whether the Supreme Court accepts non-Orthodox conversions

While we may be tempted to interpret the ruling as giving credence to the legal acceptance of non-Orthodox conversions, we should realize that the ruling explicitly rejects such interpretation. It makes a clear distinction between the extent of legal recognition of non-Orthodox conversions, which is still pending before the Court, and has been for many years now, and the exercise of religious freedom regarding religious rituals. Moreover, Rubinstein alludes to his own preference for universal norms for conversion in Israel that would be acceptable to all. While not explicitly referring to it, we should recall that Rubinstein, while he was Attorney General, was behind proposed legislation that attempted to enforce the outline proposed by Prof. Ya’akov Ne’eman, which would have led to the exclusion of State recognition of Israeli Reform and Conservative conversions. Ne’eman misrepresented this framework as a mutually agreed upon recommendation of the ‘Ne’eman Commission’, while in truth the Reform and Conservative movements had not consented to the framework, which was vehemently rejected by the Chief Rabbinate. I served at the time as the representative of the Reform movement to the Ne’eman Commission and watched with fascination Prof. Ne’eman’s total commitment to see his vision through, regardless of whether it was endorsed by all members of the commission, as had been stipulated when it was founded. There is no surprise Ne’eman, a cabinet minister at the time, was able to get the Government to embrace the recommendations as if they were formally agreed upon by the Ne’eman commission. He had no interest in acknowledging that was not the case. Given this, we should be aware of a number of comments that Rubinstein makes, reflecting his own continued preference for a “unified”, Orthodox, conversion process:

  1. “When a person wishes to immerse for the purpose of conversion, why deny him that, so long as there is no – unfortunately, as far as I am concerned – a State conversion acceptable to all?”
  2. In rejecting the State’s argument that was based on the distinction between a ‘State sanctioned conversion’ and a ‘private conversion,’ Rubinstein maintains: “I fear that these arguments, even though they cannot be ignored in some respects, and, as stated above, if we merited appropriate legislation maybe it would be possible to achieve conversion harmony, which is ‘not in heaven’, cannot justify preventing immersion for private conversions in public mikva’ot… This is stated before the Court has ruled on the pending conversion cases (where the extent of legal recognition of non-Orthodox conversions is being debated – UR), and of course our decision here is subject to the decisions that may be made there, without predicting what that ruling may be.” (This somewhat cumbersome language may actually mean that if the ruling on the substantive recognition of non-Orthodox conversions will be against the Movements, it may impact affect the future of this ruling on mikva’ot.)


5. A disturbing side issue

One of the things that emerged from the facts outlined in the ruling is that the Jerusalem Religious Council does not allow the use of the many Jerusalem mikva’ot for the purpose of conversion at all (even by the governmental Conversion Authority). While this is a side issue, it is a very disturbing revelation, which points to the fact that the Jerusalem Rabbinate follows an extreme religious path, probably based on their ambivalence (to say the least) regarding the validity of the somewhat more lenient Conversion Authority process. It’s difficult to understand what reason may account for this rigid policy, other than halakhic ambivalence as to whether even the State Conversion Authority’s conversions are legitimate. Hopefully this will be further explored because it represents an intolerable void between one State authority and another, both funded by taxpayers’ funds, especially if it is based on a fundamentalist, extreme interpretation of halakha that not only rejects the non-Orthodox movements, but also modern Orthodoxy. In this context, we should also remember the battle that is being waged over the entitlement of non-married Orthodox single women to use the mikva, and the intrusive conduct of the mikva attendants at many of the public mikva’ot.


In conclusion

This landmark ruling is very important on its own merits. A closer look at the details reveals that it’s more complex than first meets the eye. It reveals the reluctance of the court to fully pursue all-encompassing principles when a pragmatic, practical solution can be found, even if it’s only partially satisfactory. In the face of the obstinacy and the withholding of the truth on the part of the State and religious establishment, the court felt forced “to do the right thing.” Yet even this ruling, beyond the welcomed interim impact, hints to the uncertainty that still lies ahead, as to the substantive recognition of non-Orthodox conversions performed in Israel. This is quickly becoming the battleground for a larger State/religion clash in which not only the Orthodox establishment’s animosity towards non-Orthodox Judaism is reflected, but also its deeply rooted rejection of the basic principles of the rule of law and democracy. Israeli policymakers as well as diaspora leadership would be well advised to understand that these reminders (such as this ruling, the recent Kotel debate, the battle over drafting yeshiva students, the enforcement of core curricular studies, etc.) are testing Israel’s democratic character and exposing who its foes are.

This is a battle we cannot afford to lose, and while many of us would like to avoid confrontation, I believe, for the sake of ensuring Israel’s future, it cannot be avoided. This is not only my conclusion, but a similar conclusion was offered by Israel’s first President Chaim Weitzman, as he anticipated the inevitable clash between religion and state even before Israel’s founding, as did Herzl before him: “There will be a great struggle. I foresee something which will be perhaps reminiscent of the kulturkampf in Germany, but we must be firm if we are to survive.”

Israel cannot fulfill her role as the truly Jewish State with the Rabbanut in control.

10903999_10153629284553868_1051290180814195830_oA few years ago a friend from the congregation called to say that Israel had become a regular topic in her home since her daughter’s birthright trip, and the experience reenvigorated her intermarried family’s Judaism. I told her how delighted I was, and then asked, “You know I speak about Israel regularly from the pulpit. Why the change now?” She said, “Oh, Mark, as soon as I hear the word Israel I stop listening.”

Personal experience touched their souls and drew them closer to amcha. But what happens when our people discover that they cannot marry in Israel, that funerals may be difficult to arrange depending on personal status, that weddings must be by Orthodox​ rabbis if they are even possible, or that a couple would need to live together outside the law or travel abroad to get married?

The much acclaimed recent success of the efforts of Women of the Wall after 25 years is a symbolic victory demonstrating the opinion of the vast majority of Israelis: Jews should be able to practice Judaism however they want and receive basic civil rights, like marrying as they choose. The Chief Rabbinate ought not control private lives.

We are witnessing Israelis who are fed up with the status quo and circumventing the rabbanut, even as the Chief Rabbinate further attempts to tighten controls. Once the new egalitarian section is established at the kotel, women will not longer be permitted to wear tallit and tefillin at the women’s section of the Kotel. It’s reported that there are new efforts to arbitrarily investigate individuals’ halakhic status, even when they are not seeking a wedding or another life cycle event. An ordinary Israeli citizen may now simply be called and asked to appear before a rabbinic court to authenticate their Jewish lineage​; and if they refuse, it may affect their personal status in the future, as the Rabbanut keeps files on individuals.

When the Hatam Sofer wrote “Hehadash asur min ha-Torah,” no one thought it would become the governing principle for a Jewish state. But here we are.

Much has been written in recent weeks about the inclusion of Diaspora leaders in Israeli decision making. Ken yirbu! If Birthright Jews and the vast majority of Israelis and world Jewry are to renew Judaism for a modern world, it won’t be in the Haredi mode. It will be diverse. Israel cannot fulfill her role as the truly Jewish State with the Rabbanut in control. The vast majority of world Jewry believe our cause is just and right, and want to see change.

From the 70s through the 90s, when I brought congregants to Israel, we prayed together in the Kotel Plaza, and people thrilled at the experience. It touched their hearts and souls. Women of the Wall and the others at the table have succeeded in giving us an opportunity for enhanced spirituality. The great question that confronts liberal Judaism is: will we make it real?

In future weeks, look for our program to effect that change. Let us hear your comments, as we move forward together.

See our FB group: [link], and please post your comments, or send them to:

Rabbi Pamela Frydman regarding the Kotel Compromise

The government’s description of the Kotel compromise is described
in Hebrew here: [link], and in English here: [link]

Pam-2015-with-short-hair-1The Kotel compromise is like manna. (Exodus 16:4) The sages say that manna tasted like whatever the Israelites felt like eating, but Rashi quotes Midrash Sifri to explain that manna could not taste like cucumber, melon, leek, garlic or onion, because those foods were not good for infants, so nursing mothers refrained from them. The Israelites wanted to go back to Egypt to enjoy adults’ flavors.

HaKotel HaMaaravi (the Western Wall) is the western side of the retaining wall built by the Romans in 20 B.C.E. to secure the Temple mount from mud slides. The entire expanse of the western wall is needed so everyone can pray in peace and dignity. The Kotel Compromise will allow Haredim and Orthodox Zionists to pray in separate men’s and women’s sections according to their custom. Egalitarians will pray in a new egalitarian section. Women of the Wall will pray once a month and on special occasions in a women’s section surrounded by a portable mehitza. That mehitza will be in the egalitarian section because the egalitarians are the only ones willing to welcome Women of the Wall in their prayer section.

On the occasion of the Kotel compromise, I want to acknowledge all of our colleagues who negotiated the agreement. I want to also give a shout out to our colleagues in the Reform Movement who have stayed the course while being called every sinat-chinam-filled name in the book. I want to also give a shout out to our colleagues in the Conservative Movement who engaged in, and absorbed the costs of the pay-to-pray-and-by-appointment-only egalitarian arrangement at Robinson’s Arch for over ten years. That arrangement only ended when Naftali Bennett used 80,000 sheqel from his budget to build a temporary platform that will now be torn down to make way for an egalitarian plaza. In addition, I want to give a shout out to Anat Hoffman and Batya Kallus for their courageous leadership in negotiating the compromise on behalf of Women of the Wall and the board and staff they represent. I also want to acknowledge the Conservative and Reform Movements for insisting on a truly egalitarian section that is not encroached upon by mehitzot. And last, but not least, I want to acknowledge Rabbi Rabinowitz, Prime Minister Netanyahu, Avichai Mandleblit, the supportive Cabinet Ministers and Natan Sharansky.

In our euphoria that the Conservative and Reform Movements are finally recognized in Israel — albeit in one tiny way with much more still needed – we need to also be careful to not abandon the Modern Orthodox and Open Orthodox who pray with separation of the sexes; where men say amen to a women’s Kaddish; or where men lead maariv, shacharit, musaf and mincha while women lead other parts of the service, give divrei Torah, etc.; or where women hold their own women’s minyanim. It is unfortunate that there is no overt plan in the Kotel compromise to address these needs, but that is not a reason to blame those who have successfully negotiated the historic compromise. We can both support the compromise and call for a solution to address these additional needs. One possible way to do so is to envision an additional men’s section and an additional women’s section with a mehitza between them and a dignified entrance and accessibility 24/7.

We are not going to achieve our future goals by continuing to beat up on one another. We are going to achieve our goals by laying down our swords and turning them into plowshares at the negotiating table. Moshe Dayan z”l reminded us that we do not make peace with our friends; we make peace with our enemies. The gem of the Kotel compromise is the joint meetings at least five times a year between those who oversee the Orthodox/Haredi men’s and women’s sections and those who oversee the egalitarian and once-a-month-Women-of-the-Wall section. I look forward to the day when those who oversee the Modern/Open Orthodox men’s and women’s sections also have a seat the table. If those new men’s and women’s sections and their attendant Modern/Open Orthodox governance turn out to be the present men’s and women’s section, that will satisfy some and horrify others; we need a compromise that does not leave our Haredi sisters and brothers out in the cold and also does not leave any of the rest of us out in the cold.

Manna was not a burden on the Israelites because it lacked diversity of flavor. Rather, manna was a burden because the Israelites lacked imagination. We need to imagine the manna of olam habah where adult flavors and the flavors for nursing mothers are side by side. The nursing mothers of our people are no longer the egalitarians and Women of the Wall; they are our mehitza adhering sisters and brothers of the Modern and Open Orthodox movements. If we abandon them, then we are in danger of being in collusion with those religious leaders who have abandoned us when fulfilling their governance roles in the modern State of Israel.

Rabbi Pamela Frydman is a leader in the Jewish Renewal Movement. She serves as Chair of the Executive Committee of Rabbis for Religious Freedom and Equality in Israel and was co-founder and former International Co-Chair of Rabbis for Women of the Wall.