Chief Rabbinate

The Chief Rabbinate vs. The State of Israel and the Jewish People

Rabbi Uri Regev, Hiddush President and CEO; Executive Committee, Rabbis for Religious Freedom and Equality in Israel

Criticism of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate is nothing new. It has often been voiced in the RRFEI newsletter and resources, as well as in Hiddush’s materials. It covers a myriad of issues, which in recent years include its delegitimization of Modern Orthodox attempts at addressing the Rabbinate’s failures in the areas of conversion and kashrut certification.

Developments in the last few days regarding the Kotel controversy bring me to focus again on the Chief Rabbinate, pointing to the fact that the institution itself stands in sheer conflict with the notions of democracy and the rule of law in Israel, as well as the realities and interests of the Jewish people worldwide. A lengthy document presented by the Chief Rabbinate this week manifests a real threat to the State of Israel and the Jewish people, which is frequently underestimated and misunderstood by both Israelis and Diaspora Jewish leadership.

For the benefit of RRFEI members, the original 13 page document submitted by Chief Rabbi Lau’s team, in Hebrew, can be download HERE. The document is intended for public consumption and was presented at a Knesset hearing. It is presents the Chief Rabbinate’s position on the pending Supreme Court case regarding the Kotel and the demand that the Rabbinate be allowed independent representation before the Supreme Court, rather than be represented by the Israeli AG who represents all agencies of the state.

In assessing the threat emanating from the Chief Rabbinate, beyond its attempt to dictate norms of worship for all Jews at national sites like the Kotel, one should only look at the Rabbinate’s recent initiative to establish a global ‘Jewish lineage’ database (already in motion, funded by the State of Israel) and Chief Rabbi Yosef’s public lashing out at Rabbi Dweck in London, who dared to present the complexity of Orthodox attitudes towards homosexuality and the need for sensitivity and embracing of homosexuals. Chief Rabbi Yosef came out with a public pronouncement, declaring that he is “amazed and angry at the words of nonsense and heresy that were said about the foundations of our faith in our Torah.”

The selection of quotes below from the Rabbinate’s lengthy document will illustrate the wide chasm between its views and those associated with a democratic society. I dare say that no RRFEI members would tolerate the mindset and demands of the Rabbinate, if they were made in the USA or elsewhere. As you also know from Hiddush’s systematic public opinion polling, Israelis don’t endorse this outlook either; the lack of political backlash can only be explained by the cynicism and utilitarianism of Israel’s political infrastructure, as opposed to the public will.

Quotes

  1. “The Supreme Court does not have the authority to adjudicate the petitions regarding the Kotel… matters pertaining to prayer arrangements at the Kotel, the tradition, the halakhic rulings and that which they allow or forbid, are distinctly matters of halakha and religion, which the court does not have the capacity to decide on. The authoritative element for deciding halakhic matters, including for instance, the question of whether a particular act constitutes a desecration of a Jewish holy site (as is the matter at hand) is the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. Deciding these matters pending before the Court is not judicial at all, but rather halakhic and/or purely subjective – principled.”
  2. “Maintaining prayer and ceremonies in ways that are not compatible with the custom and the Jewish law as has been transmitted, along the Kotel (namely: including the Robinson’s Arch area – UR) constitutes a desecration of the most holy place for Jews… These are religious-halakhic controversies, which have no place in the Court.”
  3. “The position of the Rabbinate is that the Government resolution on the division of the Kotel, known as the “Kotel Compromise”, has no validity, stands in complete opposition to halakha, and constitutes a desecration of a holy place.”
  4. “The Chief Rabbinate is ‘the highest halakhic authority in the State’ (quoting from the Supreme Court ruling re: the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism 1982 petition regarding marriage), and ‘State religious authority of the whole Jewish population’ (quoting from the Supreme Court ruling in the 1989 petition of the Women of the Wall).”
  5. “Determinations by an authority, which is not the Chief Rabbinate, in any matter regarding the conduct of the holy places goes beyond its legal powers and constitutes a prohibited trespass into the areas of the authority of the Chief Rabbinate.”
  6. “The core position of the Chief Rabbinic Council is against the groups that are called ‘liberal’ and ‘progressive’ who have raised the flag of uprooting the Torah from its essence and uniqueness, and the results of their acts speak for themselves. Whoever monitors the assimilation prevalent among world Jews who are connected with these groups, as well as mixed marriages and uprooting of everything holy, will patently see that they have no connection to authentic Judaism…”
  7. “The Government decision (namely: the Kotel Compromise – UR) is void for a number of reasons. The decision, which allows for conducting prayers in the Southern part of the Kotel in a way that is contrary to halakha (for instance, holding mixed prayer services of men and women without a partition), constitutes a desecration of a holy place, and thereby violates the Basic Law: Jerusalem the Capital of Israel, and the Law Regarding the Protection of the Holy Places. So does the part of the resolution, which forfeits the administrative authorities granted to the Chief Rabbis with regard to a section of the Kotel area (the section of the Southern plaza) and transfers them to an authority that is not the recognized / authorized Israeli religious authority – constituting a desecration of the holy place. This forfeiture, in and of itself, is a desecration of a holy place in contradiction to the Basic Law: Jerusalem and the Law of the Holy Places.”

The above quotes are both a grievous misperception of the Chief Rabbinate’s authorities, reflecting a disregard for the law and the State authorities and perception of itself as standing above the law and the government. This document misrepresents past Supreme Court rulings, and forces Israel to move further and further (if the Chief Rabbinate’s position prevails) onto a collision course with world Jewry.

To begin with, the Chief Rabbinate has never had any authority over the Southern part of the Western Wall, beyond the Mughrabi Bridge known as the Robinson’s Arch area. It functioned as an archaeological garden under the antiquities authority, and was not used for regular worship until parts of it were designated for egalitarian worship and later recommended as a solution for the challenge posed by the Women of the Wall. The Chief Rabbinate never really claimed any authority or interest in this area, and its recent outburst has little to do with the sanctity of the Wall, but rather their desire to exclude both non-Orthodox and women’s minyanim. Therefore, the maps that define the boundaries of the Wall, attached to the official rules of conduct, only ever covered the traditional area known as the Wall.

As to the latter – if the Chief Rabbinate comes to be accepted as the highest religious authority for all Jews in Israel, and is guided by the view that ‘liberal’ and ‘progressive’ Jewish groups around the world are heretical, disconnected from Judaism, and their practices constitute desecration of holy places… then obviously, the result would be that the State of Israel will maintain that the overwhelming majority of world Jewry, which absent of religious coercion freely chooses to associate with non-Orthodox Jewish religious streams, are illegitimate, should be barred from Israel’s Jewish religious sites, and should be viewed with disdain and rejected. This conclusion, if the Rabbinate is not stopped, is an imminent threat to the future of Israel-Diaspora relations, in which the Kotel is merely a token reflection.

However, what should be emphasized by Diaspora Jewish leadership to Israel’s political leadership is that not only is the Rabbinate’s misrepresentation of world Jewry and contemporary Judaism offensive and anachronistic, but it is an expression of undue self-aggrandizement, which has no basis, even in Israeli law.

The Rabbinate’s quotes regarding its being the ‘highest halakhic authority in the State’ and ‘religious state authority of all Jews’ are taken out of context, representing only the view of a single (Orthodox) Justice on the panels that heard the cases, and are an ‘obiter dictum’. As a matter of fact, the law governing the operations of the Chief Rabbis and the Chief Rabbinical Council is very specific, and it does not crown any of them ‘the highest halakhic authority in the State’. Rather, in halakhic matters, the law describes their role as ‘providing responsa and opinions in halakhic matters for those who seek their advice.’

Similarly, their implied assault on the Supreme Court and the Government shows a misunderstanding of the Rabbinate’s true role and its relationship with the judicial, the executive, and the legislative branches of government. The Chief Rabbinate, as such, has no existence and no authority outside the scope of the law, which created the institution and defines its authorities. Clearly, in every other democracy, individual rabbis and rabbinic leaders gain trust and following by virtue of voluntary choice and association. That is how the role of the rabbi ought to be in a democratic society. The anomaly of an official state Rabbinate is not only a departure from Jewish tradition, but it is therefore confined and limited to the authorities and powers granted it by the state.

The laws cited by the Rabbinate regarding ‘desecration’ are actually intended to ensure access for all members of all religions to their sacred sites, as well as to ensure that they be respected. The pretentious view of the Rabbinate that they can define what constitutes ‘desecration of a holy place’ clashes with Israel’s own foundational promise of freedom of religion and conscience for all. Moreover, in the Supreme Court ruling on the 1989 petition regarding the Kotel, it was only the Orthodox Justice Elon who held that the ‘custom of the place’ should be interpreted as the manner of worship customary in Orthodox synagogues. The majority of Justices held that there is no necessity to interpret the ‘custom of the place’ according to Orthodox halakha.

The Rabbinate claims that no state authority has the right to regulate the administration of holy Jewish places, and that such a decision, whether made by the government or by the Minister of religious services, are outside their authority and constitute trespassing. The law they misquote and misinterpret regarding the protection of the holy places says in Article 4: “The Minister of Religious Services is in charge of the implementation of this law, and he MAY, after consulting representatives of the religions involved or according to their proposal, and with the consent of the Minister of Justice, establish regulations as to the execution of the law.” Thus, the authority is vested in the hands of the civil Minister of Religious Services and requires the consent of the Minister of Justice. The representatives of the different religions, including the Chief Rabbis, according to the law, should be consulted, but in no way is the Minister limited by them. That is the proper of authority in a normal state that upholds the rule of law, but as far as the Rabbinate is concerned, it is neither of significance, nor is it binding.

It was reported that the leaders of the ultra-Orthodox Knesset factions – Rabbis Deri, Litzman and Gafni held a phone consultation with the Chief Rabbis of Israel who “instructed them that they may not agree to the compromise proposed by PM Netanyahu to suspend the implementation of the Kotel compromise, and that they must demand the revocation of the compromise in a formal governmental resolution.” Clearly, not only do the Chief Rabbis understand their limited authorities, but they feel that it is appropriate for them to instruct political functionaries on how to act. While Hiddush does not advocate the American model of separation of religion and state, clearly the Chief Rabbis giving instructions to Ministers and Knesset Members is an unacceptable blurring of the essential boundaries of politics and religion.

A lot more could be said, quoted, and analyzed, but even these limited snippets demonstrate that regardless of one’s view of what constitutes legitimate prayer worship for Jews, the growing demands and pressures of the Chief Rabbinate pose a real threat, which requires strong counter measures, both within and outside of Israel.

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.

Public opinion poll: only 63% of Israelis would abide by civil court rulings over religious edicts

“In a situation when Jewish religious edicts were in conflict with civil court rulings, which would you follow?”


Credit: Rafi Smith Polling Institute data, graphs by Hiddush

Credit: Rafi Smith Polling Institute data,
graphs by Hiddush (click to enlarge)


Credit: Rafi Smith Polling Institute data, graphs by Hiddush

Credit: Rafi Smith Polling Institute data,
graphs by Hiddush (click to enlarge)


Two weeks ago, the RRFEI bulletin [link] included an analysis of the Supreme Court landmark ruling on access for non-Orthodox converts to public mikva’ot, demonstrating that there is a lot more to this than first met the media’s eyes. We reported on the immediate, horrific backlash from ultra-Orthodox circles. The three religious parties (namely the Zionist Orthodox Jewish Home and the two ultra-Orthodox parties) have joined forces in submitting a legislative proposal that would undo the Supreme Court ruling. This is their attempt to grant absolute control of the publicly funded mikva’ot to the Chief Rabbinate.

As Hiddush has noted [link], this is yet another case of Dr. Jekyll / Mr. Hyde syndrome, exemplifying the Jewish Home party’s head & Minister of Diaspora Affairs Naftali Bennett’s split personality. He goes out of his way to appear inclusive, tolerant and pluralistic outside of Israel, to you, our friends and colleagues in North America; but he has no problem swerving 180 degrees when it comes to our non-Orthodox colleagues, converts and movements in Israel.

An important, further development occurred in the last few days, as the Chief Rabbinate publicly turned to Israel’s religious councils that operate the public mikva’ot [link in Hebrew], instructing them not to abide by the Supreme Court ruling. What was self-evident to the Supreme Court, as Hiddush indicated in its analysis [link], namely:“the rabbinate is not authorized to establish a discriminatory policy” is not only not self-evident to the Chief Rabbinate (a state organ established by civil law and subject to the rule of law!), but it openly and rebelliously flaunts this! We have repeatedly suggested that the battle over religious freedom and equality is not merely a battle over religious diversity, but is -at the core- a battle over the rule of law and democracy. The Chief Rabbinate’s gall is but another compelling demonstration of the serious problem we face.

We would like to share with you another dimension of that very challenge; it so happens that this week the Israeli public radio commissioned a poll, which included the question “In a situation when Jewish religious edicts were in conflict with civil court rulings, which would you follow?” Looking at these graphs (above), we get a quantitative perspective of the extent of the challenge. While the overwhelming majority of Israeli Jews respect the law, the ultra-Orthodox and most of the Zionist Orthodox indicate clearly that they would view the civil court’s rulings as merely advisory, not to be adhered to, in the case of such a clash. Obviously there would be instances in which all of us would maintain such a position. For instance, if, under unimaginable circumstances, the court ordered the public to violate the Sabbath or eat treif… But these are NOT the questions that come before the judicial bench. The mikva’ot case (as an example) involves state funded public mikva’ot, and their use by non-Orthodox converts does not make them impure, regardless of whether the Rabbinate likes it.

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: organizers@rrfei.org

Will Orthodox Israelis’ revolt against the chief rabbinate spur a domino effect?

Snippets from the article by Amanda Borschel-Dan, Times of Israel

[Click for the full TOI article]

amanda-b-d… Today, the new poster child of religious civil disobedience wears a knitted kippa. And faced with a recalcitrant Knesset ever fearful of disturbing the tenuous status quo, the movement is employing a strategic shift away from legislation and toward the use of other big guns, including class action lawsuits.

A new battle begins, and its arena is the court of law.

This year, seeing no prospect of progress through legislation, it has ramped up its efforts to create precedents through the court system, a tactic Liberal Judaism in Israel has employed for decades. And the rabbinate is on the defensive.

[One particular] petition, which was brought by Itim alongside other organizations, is interesting in that there are two landmark issues at stake: The first asks whether those without the legal status of residents of Israel may convert in Israel and subsequently petition for citizenship. Currently, under the Law of Return, they cannot gain citizenship.

The second matter under discussion is whether Orthodox conversions in Israel that are completed through independent conversion courts outside of the state’s Conversion Authority should be recognized by the Interior Ministry. (After a Supreme Court decision in 2002, Reform and Conservative conversions in Israel are recognized by the state, although the converts are not viewed as Jewish by the chief rabbinate so they cannot legally marry, etc.)

It is this second issue, of domestic halachic conversion courts outside the rabbinate, that quickly became relevant in late summer with the establishment of the independent Orthodox-run Giyur Kahalacha.

According to the 2015 Israel Religion and State Index conducted by Israeli NGOHiddush: For Religious Freedom and Equality, some 64% of Israelis support the recognition of all forms of religious conversion, including Reform and Conservative. Among secular Jews, the majority of Israel’s Jewish population, 90% support recognizing all forms of religious conversion (53% would also recognize secular conversion). Interestingly, among immigrants, the support was less, at 82%.

However, the Giyur Kahalacha initiative is, as Farber puts it, “the first frontal challenge to the rabbinate on conversion from the Orthodox community.”

“We Israelis understand that the American model of separation of church and state is not relevant to a Jewish state. But we see no reason why religious bodies should be part of the legislative or judicial branches… It’s fine if the government chooses to support religious bodies, but it should support all streams and communities.”

Kariv and others believe that if the critical grassroots mass of those seeking independent avenues for marriage, conversion and kashrut continues, increased official recognition and government support for all streams of Judaism is inevitable.

Taking it one step further, in August, Dr. Shuki Friedman from the Israel Democracy Institute wrote in an op-ed published in Haaretz that “the trend towards privatization of religious services heralds not only the death of the rabbinate – it creates a de-facto separation between religion and the state. The less relevant the rabbinate and the official and established religious services it provides, the more significant the separation between religion and the state. And if that is the actual situation, in the end the legislators will have no choice but to recognize it by means of legislation as well.”

Responses to Chief Rabbi Lau’s publicly disdainful anti-pluralism

Friends, we assume you are aware of the public rabbinic debate that ensued following Chief Rabbi Lau’s admonishment of Minister Bennett for visiting a Conservative day school in Manhattan. Rabbi Uri Regev has written about it in the Jerusalem Post and the LA Jewish Journal, and many other responses to Rabbi Lau have been coming out on a nearly daily basis. Below, you’ll find listed some of the key arguments that this encounter has raised.

We believe that you may be interested in seeing actual rabbinic pronouncements on both sides of the issue, which may not all be readily available to you in the USA. These are available to you on this website, including:

  • Rabbi Ya’akov Ariel, Chief Rabbi of Ramat Gan & former President of Tzohar,
  • Rabbi Gilad Kariv, Executive Director of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism,
  • Rabbi Benny Lau, Rabbi of Jerusalem’s Ramban Synagogue,
  • Rabbi Mordechai Neugroschel, popular ultra-Orthodox lecturer,
  • Rabbi Uri Regev, Head of Hiddush,
  • And others…

As you read through these responses, you may consider the following:

  1. The contradiction between Lau’s message, which delegitimizes Conservative and Reform Judaism, expecting Ministers in the Israeli Cabinet to be guided by the religious prohibition, per the Chief Rabbi’s view, that granting legitimacy to non-Orthodox Judaism is forbidden; and PM Netanyahu’s recent statements about his inclusive approach to the Diaspora’s diverse Jewish scene, along with his commitment to ensuring that all Jews, regardless of denomination, feel at home in Israel.
  2. The chief rabbi, as an official of the State of Israel, disregarded the limitations set by Israeli law and the civil courts, which forbid interference by the chief rabbis in the conduct of state officials. This raises the larger issue of the lack of compliance and respect on the part of the state rabbinate towards civil law and the courts that officially empower it, threatening serious erosion of the rule of law in Israel.
  3. Lau’s hypocrisy in attempting to make a distinction between a religious prohibition, per his view, regarding the presence of Israeli officials at Reform and Conservative institutions due to their deviation from Orthodox norms and traditions, while at the same time visiting pluralistic day schools himself, where egalitarian prayer services and non-Orthodox rabbis among the faculty are celebrated. How can Lau expect the public to assume that his visits did not accord any legitimacy to these pluralistic and egalitarian practices?
  4. While the chief rabbis in recent decades have been wholly associated with ultra-Orthodox Judaism, of great importance is the fact that Rabbi Lau’s admonishment has now been subscribed to by additional important rabbinic figures who are associated with the Zionist sector within Orthodoxy, such as the Chief Rabbi of Ramat Gan (former Tzohar president) and the Chief rabbi of Safed. This is significant because of trends within Orthodoxy today, which make the former dividing lines blurry, and indicate that there are fundamentalist extremist tendencies growing within Zionist Orthodoxy. This is not merely with regard to non-Orthodoxy, but also regarding matters of great importance such as women’s rights and attitudes towards non-Jews, as well as others. At same time, it is clear that there is a growing openness and inclusiveness in certain circles of Zionist Orthodoxy such as in the case of Rabbi Benny Lau.

J-REC and RRFEI By Rabbi Prof. Michael Chernick

Michael-Chernick-mediumRecently a coalition called J-REC, which RRFEI members may not be familiar with, made its first mission trip to Israel.

The J-REC or Jewish Religious Equality Coalition is the brain child of Dov Zakheim, less known as an Orthodox rabbi than as an adviser to the American Defense Department and a neo-con. As a strategist and a lover of Israel Dov has concluded that the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly over marriage and presently over conversion represents a danger to the security of Israel. The connection between one issue and the other is not necessarily immediately obvious, but here is how they are connected:

Non-Orthodox rabbis are thought leaders in their communities. Further, committed and dedicated members of the American Conservative and Reform Jewish communities are frequently the most dedicated supporters of Israel. The more non-Orthodox rabbis are insulted and delegitimized by the Chief Rabbinate, the more ambivalent if not negative they become about the State that supports and extends the purview of that Rabbinate. This ambivalence often spills over into messages delivered to congregations, which leaves those congregations less inclined to take up Israel’s cause with American politicians whose support is crucial for Israel’s security.

Further, comments like that made by the Minister of Religious Affairs several months ago, “Reform Jews are not Jews,” and the positioning of Orthodoxy as the only recognized Judaism of the State of Israel creates severe difficulties for Reform and Conservative supporters of Israel. These supporters often find the work of convincing fellow Jews to support Israel more difficult when the response often is, “If I care about Israel, will Israel care about me?”

It is these factors that led Zakheim to invite a wide spectrum of the Jewish community to join with the American Jewish Committee in order to wrest control over marriage from the Chief Rabbinate, at least as a first step. J-REC/AJC includes supporters of Israel who are Reform, Conservative, Modern Orthodox and secular. They have come to see how the progressively more Haredi and non-Zionist Chief Rabbinate is wreaking havoc on Israel-Diaspora relations with potentially disastrous outcomes.

The mission unlike other organizational missions to Israel was not about meeting as many Knesset members as possible to convince them to bring down the Chief Rabbinate. Rather it was a fact finding mission that would help J-REC figure out how to reach its goal, and whether the goal it has set for itself is the right one. Here’s what we found out:

  1. Surveys have shown that the majority of Israelis would like to have alternatives to the Chief Rabbinate in life cycle events and agree that religious pluralism would be a boon to Israel. However, this issue, so prominent for American supporters of Israel, is practically at the bottom of the list of Israeli concerns. The reason is obvious: Israelis are far more concerned about their security, just as we would be if we were in their place.
  2. Social change in Israel does not come about “top down.” Coalition politics are not the best catalyst for change. This has been proved over and over again by non-Orthodox missions to Knesset members who promised to put religious pluralism on the agenda and never did. Even during the last Knesset, which had no Haredi party to contend with in the coalition, religious pluralism never saw the light of day as an issue.
  3. Social change in Israel presently comes from the “bottom up.” There are all sorts of grassroots organizations pushing for changes in the status quo. The biggest demonstration of this kind of activity was the tent cities that grew up throughout the country trying to get a better deal for the middle class.

Some of these grassroots activities in the area of religious activities are best exemplified by organizations like “Hashgahah Peratit,” an organization that (illegally, for the time being) grants kashrut certification. Various food producers and restaurants opted for this supervision rather than the Rabbinate’s because its operation is transparent and not corrupt. The hashgahah obviously employs Orthodox rabbis, but they are responsible to the community who constitute the members of Hashgahah Peratit. That community is made up of Orthodox, Masorti, Reform, and hiloni Jews.

The creation of alternative, private conversion courts by Orthodox rabbis like Rabbi Shlomo Riskin and Rabbi Benny Ish-Shalom with support from the Russian and Orthodox Zionist community is also indicative of this tendency. These courts have come into existence due to the Chief Rabbinate’s unwillingness to take seriously the full integration of the Russian community in Israel by granting its members clear Jewish status. The support of the Orthodox Zionist community comes from its awareness that the private courts support the interests of Israel and Zionism rather than the interests of men who seem to enjoy wielding power rather than helping people.

By dialoguing with a wide swath of Israeli society including Haredi and religious nationalist elements supportive of the Chief Rabbinate as well as young couples whose experience with that institution was tragic, J-REC came away with some important take-aways for the future.

The most important for the RRFEI are the following:

  1. RRFEI should have representation in J-REC. I believe that the Coalition would not only be open but welcoming of Rabbis who share the Coalition’s interests and goals. This can be arranged by contacting Steve Bayme of the AJC and expressing willingness to be involved.
  2. RRFEI members should make it their business to set up meetings with Israeli embassy officials in their locales. RRFEI should share concerns about how Orthodoxy’s position as the only legitimate form of Judaism in Israel makes it more difficult for supporters of Israel connected with American Jewish religious streams to garner support for Israel within their movements. American Jews’ two most significant critiques of Israel relate to lack of religious pluralism and settlement policy.
  3. Through its connections with Hiddush, RRFEI should try to find out more about organizations and individuals who today may not see a connection between religious pluralism and healthy Israel-American Jewish relations. We need to take our case to known personalities like Ruth Calderon and interesting people like Micah Goodman, founder of an intra-communal (Orthodox-Secular) dialogue called Ayn Perat. Hiddush may be the resource and catalyst for creating these relationships.

RRFEI is a potentially important agent for change in regard to religious pluralism in Israel. It should use every means available to further that agenda. As an organization we also need to think about practical strategies that will achieve our goals, which may be the hardest part of our mission.

Enforcing the Chief Rabbinate’s new, legal kashrut regulations

This year, following a year-long battle with Hiddush, the Chief Rabbinate updated its kashrut regulations to be in accordance with the law. Everyone that has heard of this change has viewed it as revolutionary and a sea change. It comes after decades of religious coercion, and it is important for us to make clear that the intention of Hiddush’s initiative was not to prescribe the use of musical instruments, recorded music, photography, etc., on Shabbat, but rather to remove the Rabbinate’s illegal prohibitions, and make it possible for individuals and groups to choose how to celebrate their Shabbat rituals and oneg Shabbat in meaningful ways. Unfortunately, the Chief Rabbinate long extorted the hotel establishments, using its monopolistic authority over kashrut to force the hotels and event halls to comply with its Shabbat standards and anti-Christian sentiments.

Relevant kashrut regulations – old and new

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We know that among our members there are those who apply different criteria to their Shabbat observance, and we fully respect this divergence of opinion and practice. The one thing we do not respect is unwarranted religious coercion, which runs contrary not only to the law empowering the Rabbinate, and contrary to the basic principles of democracy, but also runs against the clear will of the overwhelming majority of Israeli Jews, resulting with growing alienation from Judaism rather than drawing Jews closer to the Jewish tradition. (see more on this in the upcoming 2015 Religion and State Index, to be published before Rosh HaShanah)

The reason we share this information at this time is the realization – after receiving calls from a number of hotels and tour operators, as well as colleagues who brought groups to Israel over the summer – that the Rabbinate hasn’t quite “internalized” the new rules. In fact, they are doing everything in their power to prevent their implementation. Hiddush will take further action, vis-à-vis the Rabbinate, the Ministry of Religious Services and the Attorney General’s office to convey the binding nature of the new rules, but it’s clear to us that the most effective avenue for bringing the new rules to light, and enabling colleagues who wish to celebrate Shabbat services with guitars (for example) in hotels on Shabbat, is to actively mobilize our colleagues.

We ask that those colleagues who have encountered problems share the details of their encounters with us, and colleagues who are planning future trips should convey to their tour operators and hotels what their intentions and expectations are, as to the use of music, photography, video projection, etc., as part of their Shabbat programming. As you may imagine, the hotels are eager to see this change, making it clear that the current policy of the Rabbinate seriously hinders their ability to serve groups and potential groups (such as Israeli labor union groups) who decide, for instance, not to come to Jerusalem because they are curtailed in their weekend programming. Without counter-pressure from clients, the hotels may not be able to effectively push back against the ongoing pressure from the Rabbinate.

Individual colleagues with whom we had contact and briefed on the new guidelines were both appreciative and enthusiastic. This is one more example of RRFEI’s importance, to broadly share relevant information with our colleagues.