Opportunities for involvement

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

The role of Halakha in the modern, secular State of Israel

10903999_10153629284553868_1051290180814195830_oOver two hundred years ago our spiritual ancestors fought the battles of modernity, bringing Jewish practice into the modern world. Who knew that we would have to repeat the process two centuries later?

While all of us, as rabbis, emphasize the importance of halakhah in our lives and the lives of our constituencies, we also recognize the importance, authority and power of the secular state. But modern Israel has not yet concluded that the sovereignty of the State is paramount in all areas, and that fight is now being waged.

In this Hebrew article [click here for article] by Prof. Motti Arad [click here for Prof. Arad’s background and publications] we see the legal basis that the murderers claim for themselves. Prof. Arad also suggests a means around the problem: a הוראת שעה that will annul the rulings of the Mishneh Torah and Shulchan Aruch that he claims permit such murders. (for my abridged English summary, see below)

This Haaretz article [click here] about the arrest of the West Bank bombers displays the perfect case. The man charged with the murders refuses to recognize the state’s authority. Rather, the accused says that he accepts only Jewish law. The problem is obviously both that the State has not been clear in imposing its authority, and there are rabbis who are in favor of the absolute sovereignty of halakhah.

Do we have a role to play in this discussion? What is your opinion? Should we be speaking to a halakhic approach to this issue of the relationship between Jewish law and democracy in the Jewish State? What is your approach?

For me, this is specifically an area in which we should insist on being heard. Just as last week Aaron Leibowitz [click here] published his approach to solving the problem of kashrut, and next week we will hear from Chuck Davidson about his research on the criteria for gerut, so, in my judgment, the interplay between Jewish law and State sovereignty should be a subject for the expert judgment of those who take a modern approach to halakhah.

Currently our efforts at Hiddush are focused, with other Jewish agencies like the AJC and JFNA, on marriage in Israel. Yet, I believe that there are those among us whose opinions and research must be heard in order for Israel to fulfill its mandate as the home of a modern Judaism.

Please contact me with your opinion, and also let me know if you’d like to help on the newsletter’s editorial board.

B’yedidut,
Mark H. Levin


Rabbi Mark H. Levin’s abridged English summary of Prof. Arad’s Hebrew article [link]:

In this article, published in September 2015, Prof. Motti Arad writes about the use of Jewish Law (Halakhah) to justify murder against Arabs in Israel, and what needs to be done to counter it. The Jewish terrorists, like members of Tag Mehir, as well as Yishai Schlissel, Meir Ettinger, and Yigal Amir, are being encouraged and justified by some rabbis’ interpretations of Jewish law that are inciting murder.

He writes:

“I have come to say that we are not speaking of people who are mentally incompetent, to point out a common denominator for all of the deeds, to explain a legal mechanism that justifies and even encourages the murderers, and to suggest a way to take care of the phenomenon.”

“There are three commonalities to Schlissel and the inciters:”

  1. “We are speaking of religious people who believe in Halakhah;
  2. They believe that ‘all that which is holy to Israel’ is being attacked from inside (Jews) and from outside (non-Jews);
  3. They are ready to suffer damage to themselves for the sake of ‘all that which is holy to Israel’ because they perceive us to be in a state of emergency.”

“… all hate crimes done by Jews in recent times have been done, apparently, by religious people, and in contradiction to the opinion of Daniel Oz, in these instances Halakhah is of decisive importance in their decisions to commit these crimes.”

“It is incumbent on the rabbis to prohibit [the transgressors] with a temporary order (hora’at sha’ah — an order by a Jewish court that can change Talmudic law according to current circumstances). It’s incumbent on the families to prohibit their children from committing these [murders that they read as permitted by the Jewish codes of law], and it’s incumbent on the communities to cooperate with the governmental authorities to clarify the plague, before all of us go up in flames. The Schlissels will obey.”

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.