Diaspora-Israel relations

‘In Israel, the War of the Jews Over Pluralism and Religious Extremism Is Escalating’ by Rabbi Eric Yoffie, RRFEI Member

Originally posted in Haaretz HERE

yoffie-sq-200x200Israel is at risk today less from the Palestinians than from the ominous and intensifying war of the Jews over pluralism, freedom of religion and religious extremism.

In the last six months, Israel’s ultra-Orthodox parties have gone on an extremist rampage. They have infuriated Diaspora Jews in two ways: First, by blocking a compromise on non-Orthodox worship at the Western Wall; and second, by passing legislation that bars Reform and Conservative converts from using state-run ritual baths for their conversions.

There was no religious justification for either of these acts. In both cases, the purpose was simply to express scorn for Reform and Conservative Jews and to deny the two non-Orthodox movements even the slightest measure of recognition by the Jewish state.

Haredi politicians, by the way, did not hesitate to acknowledge their motivations. Moshe Gafni, a member of the United Torah Judaism Party and a font of contempt for his fellow Jews, was the sponsor of the bill restricting access to ritual baths. In the Knesset committee considering the bill, Gafni was challenged by members of the opposition who noted that immersion in ritual baths by Reform and Conservative Jews did not detract in any way from the suitability of the baths for religious use by Haredim.  No one can argue that halakhah – Jewish religious law – requires barring non-Orthodox Jews from the baths.

Gafni did not deny this, and he also made no attempt to suggest that the bill in question was intended to promote the cause of Torah or advance the sacred character of Israel. The bill’s purpose, he acknowledged, was to prevent Reform Jews from making use of the ritual baths to gain “legitimacy” in Israel.

There is something sad, pathetic, and even tragic about all this. These are the actions of small men with small minds, and Diaspora Jewry looks upon such pettiness with a combination of astonishment and despair. Israel faces a multitude of problems: Her relations with the American administration are strained, terrorism is a daily threat, and Iran is spewing hatred of the Jewish state. Is it really necessary for so-called religious parties to defame the Judaism practiced by the great majority of American Jews?   Might their time be better spent on making Jews more Jewish and bringing them back to Torah?

Prohibiting Jews from praying at the Western Wall or using ritual baths is bad enough, of course. But even worse is the bill now being pushed by the Haredi parties that would allow Haredi schools to eliminate virtually all secular studies from their curriculum and still receive government funding. In other words, not only do the Haredim intend to alienate the Jews of the world by deriding their Jewish practice and belief. They also intend to undermine Israel’s economy by denying ultra-Orthodox children the tools they need to function in a modern economy.

And once again, there is no religious justification for such a drastic act of ghettoization. Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik studied economics and philosophy in Berlin, and the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, studied mathematics and physics in Berlin and at the Sorbonne. In France today, in addition to religious studies, Haredi schools are obligated to teach the entire public school curriculum. In most communities around the world, in fact, secular authorities impose general education requirements on Haredi schools. Why should this not be the case in Israel, where 10 percent of the population is Haredi and the stakes for the economy are much higher?

To be sure, there are voices that offer a defense of the Haredi position. Evelyn Gordon, writing in Commentary, argues that there is a younger generation of Haredim that disagrees with the current, elderly rabbinic leadership and that over time will promote secular education for their children, along with traditional Torah study. Gordon makes the case that bottom-up change is always better than top-down change. Therefore, she says, it would be best not to impose a secular curriculum on Haredi schools through legislation, as was done by the last Knesset, but to allow the process to develop on its own.

Gordon is correct that younger elements of the Haredi population are more open to secular studies. But she is wrong to suggest that no legislative mandate is needed to bring about truly meaningful change.  Even she admits that it would take a very long time for such change to occur, and it could be decades until younger rabbis who favor secular studies rise to positions of leadership.  This means that the current law must be kept in place or a similar one enacted. Under any circumstances, abolishing requirements for secular study will be disastrous.

Top-down change is difficult, of course. But given that half of Israel’s fast-growing Haredi population remains out of the workforce, Israel does not have the luxury of waiting a quarter century for its Haredi leaders to come to their senses.

When specific requirements are considered, my own preference would be a grand bargain. For Jewish students, the task of the schools is to help Israel understand its Jewish mission. That is a complicated business, to be sure, and one that is far from defined.  But the best way to get there is to pass a core curriculum law that requires Haredi children to study English, math, science, and Shakespeare, and that requires secular children to study Rambam, Shulchan Aruch, Tanach, and Buber. The goal: Serious secular studies for the Haredim and all religious children, and serious religious studies for secular children. If Israel needs a top-down approach, and she does, that’s a good place to start.

In addition, Gordon says nothing about Haredi Diaspora-bashing. World Jewry will not tolerate 25 more years of Haredi-led public attacks. If the ultra-Orthodox do not like Reform and Conservative Jews, that is their business, but the Knesset must not be the instrument that Haredim use to pour out abuse on Israel’s most devoted supporters. Prime Minister Netanyahu, are you listening?

‘A worthy tribe’ by Yizhar Hess, Executive Director and CEO of the Conservative Judaism movement in Israel

Originally posted in the Jerusalem Post HERE

Yizhar_hessLeading Israelis, quite properly, have been paying increased attention to recognizing the importance of Mizrahi (Sephardi) music, poetry, culture and overall contributions to Jewish life. Both the Education Ministry and Culture and Sports Ministry have created new committees and prizes to stress the significances of Mizrahi contributions to all aspects of Israeli life, and to Jewish life throughout the world.

All of this is wonderful – and surely deserved. But think for a moment about another community, ironically generally Ashkenazi, that has also for years been subject to neglect and even scorn. I refer to American Jews, half the Jewish population of the world.

American society is pulsating with Jewish life, culture and scholarship.

Yet Israeli government ministers, with impunity, refer to large numbers of American Jews as clowns or dogs. And what happens then (if anything)? Perhaps an exceedingly gentle slap on the wrist. Can you imagine what would happen if the same government officials made the same comments about Mizrahi Jews? Are American Jews, largely Conservative and Reform and historically so supportive of the State of Israel, the only ones upon whom it is permitted for Israeli officials to heap abuse and disdain? What a wonderful Jewish history there is in America. Jews first arrived in America after the expulsion from Spain, but the largest movement occurred between 1880 to 1935. Two million Jews (yes, two million) emigrated from Europe to the US. That is the largest wave of immigration in Jewish history. For the sake of comparison, in exactly the same years, the first to fifth aliyot (waves of immigration based on the Zionist ideal) arrived in Palestine; altogether, they numbered 300,000 (and a considerable number of them went back to their land of origin). Our Israeli education system, quite rightly, taught us about the individual characteristics of each and every one of these five waves of immigration. That is how these mass movements became legendary.

But that same education system patronizingly largely ignored the “mass aliya” and grouped all the Mizrahi Jews together under one wave of immigration. Today, therefore, the promotion of Mizrahi Jewish culture to a distinguished place in the educational syllabus is truly the correction of an historical wrong.

But has the cultural heritage of only one diaspora been ignored? While most American Jews remained in America, Masorti and Reform Jews are no longer an insignificant minority in Israel. More than seven percent of Israeli Jews today describe themselves as Masorti and Reform (about the same number as call themselves Haredi). Polls clearly show that a majority of Israelis want to see government recognition of Masorti and Reform and acceptance of their rabbis, conversions and marriages.

If Israel is, indeed, the national homeland of the Jewish people, can half the Jews in the world be ignored? Why is it more legitimate to be excited about a Tunisian hymn that has been lost, and then found, than to remember fondly the grace after meals from Camp Ramah or the tunes of the wonderful singer Debbie Friedman, a cantor on whose tunes half the Jewish people grew up? Why are the moderate, learned judgements of Mizrahi rabbis worthy of investment, and not the egalitarian religious revolution which enabled women to become rabbis, and has changed the Jewish people for generations? This is no accident. This is an intentional cultural rejection of half of the Jewish people, simply because in North America there grew a form of non-Orthodox Judaism that is both religiously committed and liberal; a form of Judaism that, heaven forbid, has proven that there is more than one way to be a Jew.

And what have we missed? Goodness, so very much. Rich, Jewish culture, with music, instructive literature, amazing rabbinical judgements, revolutionary attitudes toward religion, which have written a significant chapter in the dialogue between man and God (and at the same time saved the Jewish people from assimilation); but, most of all, we have missed the substance of the State of the Jews. The national home of a people is a place that knows, that must know how to respect and to appreciate the culture, the customs and the heritage of all Jews.

Otherwise it is not a national home.

Yes, the “American Jewish Community” is also a worthy ethnic group.

It might sound funny, but it most assuredly is not.

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.

71% of Israelis attach importance to Marriage and Divorce Freedom

Uri-Regev-profile-photo-e1425932791183Having been immersed for some decades now in Israel-Diaspora relations, I often reflect upon a short story that Martin Buber included in his iconic “Tales of the Chassidic Masters;” one Jew asks his friend, Yankel, do you love me? And Yankel responds, Moishe, how can you ask such a question? Of course I love you. Moishe replies: But Yankel, how can you say that you love me if you don’t know what pains me?

I thought of this brief, piercing exchange when we at Hiddush received the findings of our most recently commissioned poll (see below). Hiddush conducts many polls, but this one, in my view, has some of the most important implications for the Israel-Diaspora partnership in addressing Israel’s challenges of religious freedom and equality. We share it with you in this RRFEI bulletin so you may not only consider it and reference it in discussions, sermons and public statements about Israel, but also share with us (RRFEI) your thoughts on these findings in the context of our mutual desire to see Israel advancing the goals of religious freedom and equality. I encourage you to use our RRFEI Facebook group [link] (or offline exchange), as an intimate, discreet forum to discuss this very delicate and often explosive topic.

You don’t need to be a big maven to see that Israeli Jews prioritize Israel’s religion-state conflicts very differently than the Reform and Conservative Movements have in their now three year almost exclusive advocacy focus on egalitarian Services (and Women of the Wall) at the Kotel. How do you feel about this radical gap? How do you view the irony that it’s been mainstream Jewish organizations with strong Israel credentials such as the JFNA and AJC, which have acknowledged the strategic priority of personal status matters and the need to actively advocate for the advancement of freedom of choice in these areas, while the major religious streams have been mostly playing the role of back benchers, as they invested considerable time, energy and advocacy capital on the Wall?

The other questions covered in the poll are of clear corollary importance. We so often hear reservations from American colleagues and community leaders, who ask: what right do we, living in America, have to interfere with these internal Israeli issues? Do Israelis listen to us? Is this the right time to raise questions of religious freedom and equality? The nuanced, yet compelling survey data underscores the eagerness of the clear majority of Israeli Jews for American Jewry to enter the battlefield, and join Israeli groups and activists in the fight for marriage freedom. The level of support and its intensity differs between challenges of utmost importance and concern, such as the right to family on the one hand, and, on the other hand, issues of lesser importance or greater ambivalence on the part of Israelis. Our polling serves as resounding endorsement for those in the American Jewish community who have taken up the cause of marriage freedom in Israel, and should stimulate further reflection, as to the almost exclusive advocacy focus of recent years on the Kotel.

Let me make clear that I am not questioning the justice of the cause of freedom of worship at the Kotel for egalitarian groups and for WOW. I wholeheartedly support this. My question is that of individual and communal priorities in a reality in which nobody seems to be able to advocate effectively for multiple social causes (For obvious reasons I am not referring here to the controversies over security, settlements and the peace process). I am also concerned with the related question of the degree to which we should place great value on seeking a common front with Israelis who share our values of a democratic and religiously diversified Israeli society, as well as the degree to which identifying a cause, to which both our communities attach high levels of importance, should be a primary consideration in making our choices.

 


 

Hiddush Public Opinion Survey on Religion-State priorities

60% of the Jewish Israeli public supports the involvement of American Jewish organizations in advancing marriage freedom in Israel. There is no doubt that for Israelis – breaking the yoke of the fundamentalist Orthodox Rabbinate in marriage and divorce is a top priority among the religion/state battles. Israelis welcome American Jewish partnership in advancing this cause, both for the sake of Israel and for the sake of world Jewry!

The survey results demonstrate the support of Israelis for American Jewish involvement in the struggle for religious freedom in Israel in general and for marriage freedom in particular. It is critical as a counterbalance to the political extortion of the Haredi parties, which is antithetical to the clear will of the people and to the core principles of democracy and civil society. As long as the Orthodox Rabbinic establishment controls marriage of all Jews in Israel, hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens are denied the right of marriage in Israel, and the majority of children growing up in today’s American Jewish community would be ineligible to get married in Israel, should they wish to make their home there.

Israel – pushed towards theocracy

Contrasting visions for the State of Israel on matters of religion and state

Minister Rabbi Litzman: “Netanyahu either loves the Reform Jews of the Diaspora, or the Haredim of Israel; it’s either-or. There are no two ways about it… The Supreme Court is destroying everything good related to religion & state, and… the only way to stand against it is by passing legislation.” [Hebrew link]

Uri-Regev-profile-photo-e1425932791183Last week, I emphasized that the battle over the Kotel agreement and Supreme Court ruling to allow non-Orthodox converts access to Israel’s public mikva’ot is not really over the Women of the Wall’s prayer services or the non-Orthodox movements and their converts. Rather, it is over contrasting visions for the State of Israel on matters of religion and state.

The recent Pew report, as I wrote at length, indicates that the population represented by Gafni, Litzman, Azoulay, Deri and their colleagues, strongly desires to turn Israel into a theocracy, or as close to one as possible. In such cases when religious edicts clash with the rule of law and democratic principles, they believe themselves to be obligated to follow their interpretations of halakha, rather than civil law. Their political clout allows them to “dance between the raindrops,” and bend the law to suit them, even if this flies in the face of democracy, religious freedom, equality, etc. They aim to fashion Israel into a state not unlike those run by sharia law. Minister Azoulay’s declaration that he would not sign the regulations passed by the Government in the Kotel agreement “because his rabbi told him not to sign” is only one more recent example of this intolerable situation.

PM Netanyahu finds himself a rock and a hard place, for he does not support the vision for a theocracy, and would like to make good on his promise to Diaspora Jewry that “all Jews should feel at home in Israel.” However, the threat to the integrity of his coalition government is rising due to forces that aim to unravel Israel’s democracy; forces for whom Israel-Diaspora relations and the rule of law are meaningless; forces whose only considerations are utilitarian. The clearest expression of this is that the battles against the non-Orthodox movements and against the supreme court are the same battle. This was made utterly clear in a radio interview with Minister Rabbi Litzman (quoted above) about the upcoming vote to reverse the Supreme Court’s ruling on the mikva’ot (you may read about the details of the vote and its outcome here (in Hebrew), including responses from Hiddush, the non-Orthodox streams, and representatives of the Jewish Home and Kulanu parties).

These issues are again rising to the fore, which is why we believe it is so urgent for RRFEI members and friends of Israel in the Diaspora to mobilize in this existential battle. This is not simply a struggle for the rights of the non-Orthodox streams. It is a battle for the future of Israel’s soul, and the extent to which the Jewish state will be able to sustain its partnership with the Diaspora.

A response to Kotel agreement skeptics by Rabbi Stanley Davids, RRFEI Executive Committee

  1. DavidsStanleyThis agreement IS a compromise. The Rabbanut has won full legal control over what the world normally considers to be the Western Wall and its plaza. In return, liberal forces have gained a promise and guarantee (for whatever that is worth) that within two years a large space next to that other side of the Western Wall will be fully open for pluralistic services with no control by or influence of the Rabbanut. The plaza will be available for national ceremonies which will permit women’s voices and equality among the genders in such national events.
  2. Those seeking the right of women to read Torah and wear Tallitot and Tefillin in the traditional area of the Western Wall have lost.
  3. Those seeking to totally take the traditional area of the Western Wall out of the hands of the Rabbanut currently controlling them have lost.
  4. The compromise does nothing to address the pursuit of marriage equality and and true civil rights with an Israeli society.
  5. But as with many compromises, there is much to celebrate here. Gilad Kariv struck a proper note indicating that we should celebrate for today and use the gains of this compromise, however limited, to re-energize our efforts to strengthen all of our liberal religious causes in Israel.
  6. For whatever it is worth, this compromise points again to the importance of diaspora influence in the shaping of some aspects of decision-making in Israel. RRFEI should be able to pounce upon this fact in a drive to further strengthen its own significance within the North American community.

Strategy: How to most effectively advocate for religious freedom and equality in Israel

Much praise should be extended to Rabbis Rick Jacobs and Steven Wernick for publicly airing the cause of full religious equality in Israel for all. Their exchange with President Rivlin at the 2015 Chanukah event sponsored by the UJA Federation of NY should encourage us to consider the issues they raised and the best strategy to be pursued in order to advance our shared interest of greater religious diversity and freedom and Israel.

Click here to read the RRFEI analysis of their exchange

While Rabbi Jacobs’ and Rabbi Wernick’s words certainly generated media attention, it should be remembered that the political reality of Israel is such that among Israel’s top leadership, the President is probably the least relevant when it comes to making official changes to the State of Israel’s policies. Further, even if this encounter had been with the correct official (such as Prime Minister Netanyahu), the question would remain whether the particular list of demands they set forth is most strategically appropriate.

The disadvantage of listing our demands

One disadvantage of such a list, which includes representation on rabbinical courts, state authorization to perform weddings, divorces and funerals, and equal funding for non-Orthodox communities, is that the Prime Minister could elect to deal with these demands gradually – one at time – over an indefinite period of time, while claiming to be carrying out his commitment to pluralism and expecting our gratitude and patience on all other matters. He could present his initiatives as tangible progress, thereby deflating the push on the major issues, or prolonging them indefinitely.

This is exactly what happened when the non-Orthodox Movements chose to challenge him regarding the Kotel, following the plight of the Women of the Wall who are denied their right to read from the Torah in the Women’s section (or, for that matter, to light Chanukkah candles). An indication of this pitfall could be seen back in 2013 during the JFNA General Assembly, as well as during the subsequent Reform movement’s Biennial at the end of that same year, when Netanyahu focused his message to the religiously diversified Federation world and the Reform leadership on his initiatives regarding the Robinson’s Arch section of the Kotel. His words were met with great appreciation and applause, precluding (in both instances) any opportunity to address the audiences’ priorities, playing into Netanyahu’s hands by giving him the opportunity to present himself as a champion for pluralism, while the issue he chose to address was the most convenient for him and insignificant when compared to the hundreds of thousands in Israel and in the Diaspora who are denied the right to marriage in Israel, and whose Jewish status is labeled ‘second rate.’ This was most apparent in the case of the URJ Biennial when key demands were not presented for the Prime Minister to address when he was introduced, and when he completed his preferred message, he refused to take any questions.

More recently, Netanyahu felt increasing pressure due to the Women of the Wall’s public struggle and the derogatory remarks against Reform Judaism made by a number of his ultra-Orthodox Coalition partners, and made a welcome and dramatic statement about making all Jews, regardless of religious stream, feel equally at home in Israel. However, he ultimately translated his historic message into nickles and dimes (as important as they are) by committing to join the Jewish Agency in funding the building and maintenance of Reform and Conservative synagogues. This was a wonderful gesture, but it should not assuage supporters of true religious freedom, for the Prime Minister claims he is committed to making all Jews feel at home in the State of Israel.

Considering potential priorities

Some demands are less realistic than others, which is important to consider. For example, it is not very realistic to expect that non-Orthodox rabbis will be represented on rabbinic courts in Israel. In fact, the position of the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel is to settle, for the time being, for a parallel civil path. This would consist of civil marriage and divorce, of allowing couples whatever religious ceremonies they prefer without interference from the State, and, should the need for legal remedy arise, it could be sought in civil family court. Further, setting up a multi-denominational judicial system is very unlikely in the foreseeable future, given the entrenchment of Israel’s Orthodox establishment, the complexity of this issue, and the questionable desirability of adding to the scope of religious courts that function as state courts. In setting our priorities as advocates, we must take such considerations into account.

Other issues, like performing funerals, are actually less a matter of pluralism in Israel than a matter of non-implementation of existing laws. The 1996 law regarding the right to an alternative civil burial was passed by the Knesset, but only a handful of such cemeteries were established. In these cemeteries, rabbis of all denominations may perform burial services. The State Comptroller has criticized the abysmal implementation of this law in very harsh language. Renewed deliberation on this matter is being debated in the Knesset at present. This is a good example of an issue that does not involve only the religious streams, but in truth, applies to the secular public as well. It thereby demonstrates the streams’ alliance with the majority of Israel’s Jewish population, taking it beyond the debate over pluralism into the further compelling realm of civil liberties. The crux in issues such as this is to implement existing legal frameworks so the advocates’ approach must be tailored accordingly.

Ironically, when it comes to conversions, it is the Modern Orthodox who are currently denied official recognition, such as the independent conversion courts running under the name of ‘Giyur k’Halakha.’ These rabbis find themselves treated no differently than their Reform and Conservative counterparts. Reform and Conservative conversions performed in Israel, for some years now, entitle the converts to be registered as Jews in the civil population registry. This was achieved and recognized after successful litigation, which Rabbi Uri Regev had the privilege of participating in, which resulted in the court ordering the state to register non-Orthodox conversions.

Unfortunately, these same converts who are registered as ‘Jewish’ by the State cannot get married as Jews in Israel, but neither can non-Orthodox converts or modern Orthodox converts who converted in the USA. If advocates of religious freedom and equality were to focus strategically upon the right to family – the right to marry – this would empower us to frame the debate as a matter of wider appeal and wider application. Freedom of marriage is not just a matter of religious pluralism, but truly a core civil rights issue, and is perhaps the most symbolic of the current state of religious affairs in Israel, which has given an official monopoly to the established, Orthodox Chief Rabbinate. This is true not only regarding Jews, but also non-Jews in Israel, whose marriages are exclusively controlled by their respective religious functionaries. (See, for instance, former Chief Justice Barak’s assertion that religion’s control over all marriages in Israel is a violation of civil rights, human dignity, religious freedom and equality: marriage.hiddush.org)

Focusing on marriage freedom

Strategically, we believe the issue of marriage freedom ought to be the primary focus for our efforts in Israel, in the USA, and across the Jewish world. Rather than presenting lengthy lists of demands, which often turn out to be as weak as their weakest items, we should be focusing on one key, symbolic and highly critical issue. Doing so would not only advance the rights of the streams, but also endear the non-Orthodox movements and their Modern Orthodox partners to Israeli society. We would demonstrate that what motivates us is not simply self-interest, but rather a shared vision of a religiously diverse and free society. We would be well advised to prefer non-sectarian causes, but rather those that serve broader society. It is encouraging that in just the past several years, the Jewish Federations of North America, the American Jewish Committee and the National Council of Jewish Women have all publicly committed to advocate for marriage freedom in Israel, as have several local boards of rabbis in response to Hiddush’s appeal.

We would love to hear back from you about this strategy, and speak further with you about how to get involved.

Read more: the RRFEI analysis of Rabbis Jacobs’ and Wernick’s exchange with President Rivlin

Analysis: President Rivlin’s response to Rabbi Jacobs’ & Rabbi Wernick’s demands for religious equality in Israel

Ever since Chanukah, there has been a lot of media traffic regarding President Rivlin’s “change of heart” as to non-Orthodox Judaism. Much of it focused on the Chanukah event sponsored by the UJA Federation of NY, which brought together rabbis of different denominations to listen to President Rivlin, following “introductions” by Rabbi Rick Jacobs, head of the Reform Movement, and Rabbi Steven Wernick, head of the Conservative Movement. This Chanukah event was titled “Shevet Achim Gam Yachad.” Both Rabbis Jacobs and Wernick are to be applauded for their commitment to having religious freedom become a reality in the State of Israel and the non-Orthodox movements being accorded equal status to that of Orthodoxy.

Click here to read the RRFEI advocacy strategy

Below, we will try to unpack the encounter and related events and consider its actual substance, regarding whether we are indeed witnessing a change of heart on President Rivlin’s part, and what this exchange may suggest for future strategy in this arena. As you will see below, the specific issues raised with Rivlin were: that Reform and Conservative rabbis should be officially allowed to sit on rabbinical courts, perform weddings, funerals and conversions, and receive state funding for their congregations in Israel. President Rivlin responded that he “believe[s] it is very important for the State of Israel to show full respect and sensitivity to all American Jews,” and that nobody should deny another’s Jewishness. The President’s words drew praise from many in the non-Orthodox world.

As we know, “the devil is in the details,” and breaking down each speaker’s terminology and comparing their use of language is very instructive, for this casts a clearer light upon President Rivlin’s response to the two American rabbis.

 

American rabbis welcoming President Rivlin President Rivlin’s response to American Jewry
Rabbi Rick Jacobs: The time is long overdue for equality to reign throughout the State of Israel, and because of our deep love for and commitment to the ideals of Israel, we insist on equality, not just at the Kotel (at the Western Wall), but also in rabbinical courts, under the bridal canopy, at funerals and conversions, and the founding and funding of our congregations… It cannot be that the great ingathering of the exiles will result in the only democratic state in the world that formally does not grant equal rights to the majority of the Jewish people.


Rabbi Steven Wernick: … the challenges that we believe are important both for our Jewish brethren in Israel, as well as for us in the Diaspora. And that is having the sense when we come to Israel, when we talk about Israel, when we advocate and support Israel, that Israel is indeed the homeland for all the Jewish people; that all of us – no matter which methodology, … it is one that is acknowledged, accepted and supported with full equality and in equal pluralism for all Jews around the world… Rabbi Heschel who was brought to this country, saved from the Nazis by the Reform movement, and found his home within the Conservative movement, in Israel would not be afforded the same rights as our Orthodox brethren in the State of Israel. Can’t do marriages, can’t do divorces, can’t do conversions, and other things.

President Rivlin: The Jewish communities of the United States also have their own special flame and their own special character. I believe it is very important for the State of Israel to show full respect and sensitivity to all American Jews. It is important that we remember… that we are all one family. All feeling ahavat Yisrael – the love of Israel. That simple love for all the Jewish people of all groups and all streams. I know that all of the communities represented here share ahavat Yisrael and a deep commitment to the future of the Jewish people and to the positive image of the State of Israel. We must never forget that even the major differences between us are an honest expression of concern shared by all of us, whether Orthodox, Reform or Conservative… Jews of the United States and Jews of Israel – left and right – right and left – conservative and liberal – we all share concern for the Jewish people all around the world. We can, and we should, argue aggressively, but from the position of respect – of fairnesswithout denying anyone’s Jewishness, without denying the place of one approach or another within Jewish dialogue today… Jewish culture is a culture of dispute through listening – and that is the most important thing: to listen to one another, even though sometimes we cannot agree or we are not ready to agree, we have to listen to one another – all together.

This side-by-side comparison of the three speakers’ words clearly illuminates the difference between the thrust of Rabbis Jacobs’ and Wernick’s demands, and the intent of President Rivlin’s response. Whereas Jacobs and Wernick were direct and earnest about their specific demands for equal religious status for Jews of all streams in Israel, Rivlin did not express support for any of those specific expectations. The President spoke instead of Jewish peoplehood and love, dialogue, respect, listening, acknowledging disagreements, commitment to maintaining the positive image of Israel, etc.

It should be noted, for example, that the President mentioned twice that no one’s Jewishness should be denied. This welcome message should not be misunderstood, however. Rivlin was alluding to the derogatory comments by Minister Azoulay of Shas, who said: “I cannot allow myself to say that he [a Reform Jew] is a Jew.” These comments brought about much ire throughout the world, and brought PM Netanyahu to publicly declare his commitment to ensure that “all Jews may feel at home in Israel,” followed by an even more explicit pronouncement by Netanyahu at the JFNA GA: that he would “ensure that all Jews — Reform, Conservative and Orthodox — feel at home in Israel.” Rivlin is clearly adding his endorsement to the implied rebuke of Shas’s minister Azoulay’s public insult to Reform Judaism. However, here too we should be careful of the pitfalls of terminology. Rivlin’s kind statement should not be understood as saying “We should not deny the Jewishness of anyone who is considered Jewish by the different streams of Judaism.” Rather, his statement is along the tautological nature of Minister Bennet’s reaction to Azoulay’s slur: “All Jews are Jews. Whether Conservative, Reform, Orthodox, Haredi or secular. And Israel is their home. Period.”

Neither Bennet nor Rivlin are about to acknowledge that they consider Reform converts, for instance, as Jewish. If were to happen, then we would truly be on the verge of “messianic times.” Until then, we should be aware of the fact that in some of the critical “Who is a Jew” debates held in the Knesset in the past, MK Rivlin’s comments were some of the most vicious and anti-Reform ever heard in the Knesset. So while the leaders of Reform and Conservative Judaism listed specific grievances regarding exclusionary laws and policies that discriminate against their movements in Israel, the President responded to none of their specific complaints, skirting the question of concrete policy changes entirely.

While President Rivlin used gentle, inclusive, even loving, language, and while he addressed Rabbis Jacobs and Wernick by their rabbinic titles, his response actually gave no indication whatsoever that he supports religious freedom and equality for all in Israel. Rivlin has surely come a long way since his time as a Knesset Member who called Reform Judaism akin idol worship. Yet, it is too early to attribute to him a genuine change of heart on these matters. It was not long ago that he chose to cancel a bar mitzvah ceremony for boys with special needs, which was to be held at the President’s residence and co-officiated by a Conservative rabbi. This naturally led to a very public outcry among the proponents of pluralism. While Rivlin realized the damage he had done, and later hosted a multi-denominational learning event just before the fast of Tisha b’Av, the rabbis he invited to represent the three major streams were never given the opportunity to hold a dialogue among themselves and with the audience, as many had expected. Rather, they were each invited to speak, and as soon as they finished sharing their individual thoughts – the program was brought to an end.

While there have been clear signs of progress, it would still be an exaggeration to regard Rivlin’s words and actions as an embrace of pluralism, or to believe that he has come to subscribe to the virtues of religious freedom and equality. In fact, while President Rivlin is to be greatly lauded for championing the equal rights of Israel’s Arab citizens and standing up against racism, his activism in these arenas makes his lack of support for pluralism all the more glaring. So while we’re hopeful that he will someday “come around,” the disparity between the wording of Rivlin’s response and the clear language used by Rabbis Jacobs and Wernick leaves very much to be desired.

Read more: the RRFEI advocacy strategy for religious freedom

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.