Originally posted in Haaretz HERE
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
Since last week’s bulletin, there have been a number of developments in the ultra-Orthodox political and rabbinical leadership’s battle against the implementation of the Kotel agreement, as well as their battle against the Supreme Court’s ruling to make Israel’s public mikva’ot available for non-Orthodox conversion ceremonies.
These developments reflect, in essence, an escalation in anti-Reform rhetoric and the pressure faced by Haredi politicians to withdraw their unspoken consent to the framework of the Kotel agreement. Thus, due to these increasing tensions, Israel’s political system is being pulled in opposite directions – torn between the demands of the ultra-Orthodox politicians and the consequences of reneging on the Government’s agreement with the non-Orthodox streams and Women of the Wall, not to mention reversing the Supreme Court’s ruling by legislative action.
RRFEI aims to deepen our members’ understandings of current events, and answer all of your questions and requests for additional background materials. In the meantime, we note the following developments since last week’s bulletin:
THE MIKVAH BILL
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]
Last 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 (
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 Chief Rabbinate under Rabbi David Lau has instructed all the public mikvahs in Israel to not permit any conversions from any movement [link in Hebrew], and in that manner to prevent Reform conversions to Judaism. This in the aftermath of the Israeli Supreme Court decision two weeks ago permitting conversions in public mikvahs by all of the streams equally. The Orthodox would, under Rabbi Lau’s request, continue to have access to private mikvahs, to which Reform Jews have no access.
The attacks on Reform Judaism and Liberal Judaism in general are heating up in the aftermath of the Kotel decision by the Israeli government, the mikvah decision by the Supreme Court, and the CCAR convention just held in Israel, which organized a liberal prayer service at the Southern Wall involving hundreds of participants.
In Dr. Alexander Guttmann’s book The Struggle over Reform in Rabbinic Literature he states that the early debates between the Reformers and the Orthodox ultimately had little effect, and when they figured that out, the leaders stopped arguing and proceeded to work within their own movements. He also stated that the common people had little interest in the arguments, and continued to intermingle with one another. Why have the disputes started up again? Obviously, the principle question is who controls the religious lives of Jews. It’s not primarily theological: everyone may continue to hold their own theology privately and may continue his/her own practice. The question is: who controls the religious life of the Jewish people?
While there have been other epochs in Jewish history in which specific issues rose to the fore, only now has this fight occurred in the first Jewish State in 2 millennia. The flash points of conflict, the use of mikvahs or the Kotel, are not as important as the right of Jews to control our own religious lives. This struggle involves the destiny of all Jews, even though they may be unaware it’s occurring. How ironic that the principle battle for the right of Jews to control their religious lives is taking place in Israel. But it’s our destiny as rabbis to play a critical role in that existential battle on behalf of all of our people. Jews must be allowed the right to religious self-determination.
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This unanimous ruling of the Supreme Court is an important addition to the chain of rulings that uphold the principles of religious freedom & equality. Its importance is not only to the matter at hand (access to the public mikva’ot for the purpose of non-Orthodox conversions), but also for future litigation over matters of religious freedom and equality in general.
On the other hand, a close look at the ruling reveals a number of elements of a mixed nature, which we need to be aware of, as they too will weigh on future litigation involving the clash of religion and state.
While the legal saga is over (10 years after it commenced!), and the final ruling has been handed down, a new front, far more vicious and perilous, has opened up. Now the Chief Rabbinate and ultra-Orthodox politicians are in Pavlovian reaction mode, gearing up to fight back and prevent the implementation of this ruling, as they launch a campaign to further undermine both the Supreme Court and demonize the non-Orthodox movements.
1. The State could have avoided this ruling
The bottom line of the ruling is an order to the religious council in Beer Sheva and the administrator of the mikva to allow access to Reform and Conservative converts for ritual immersion, as part of the process of conversion, including permission for a non-Orthodox bet din to be present at the immersion. Similar access should be allowed, stipulates the ruling, at other public mikva’ot where immersion of converts is conducted, but it would not have taken much for the Court to have decided differently and hand down a much more limited victory for the non-Orthodox movements. In the course of the deliberations the justices repeatedly urged the State to offer a pragmatic solution to the movements’ immersion needs for conversions. The State’s and religious authorities’ uncompromising mindset and obfuscation of the facts ultimately led the court to hand down a much stronger and more encompassing ruling than it preferred.
Justice Rubinstein opined: “If it were possible for the appellants to have dignified and orderly access in Omer, Modi’in and Hannaton (A suburb of Beer Sheba in the south, a city in the center, and a Conservative Kibbutz in the north), as seemingly presented to us, ‘dayeinu’ – this would have sufficed because according to the appellants’ information, [the need] involves fewer than 300 individuals per year,