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 read more

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 read more

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 read more