Jewish Journal

Masorti join fight for religious pluralism in Israel

By Joel Rembaum

Posted on Jul. 9, 2008 at 11:50 pm

June 2008 witnessed two developments in the Masorti/Conservative community in Israel that have significant implications for the drive for religious pluralism in the Jewish state, an issue that is high on the agenda of Zionist Jews around the world.

They relate to two controversies that have emanated from the Israeli ultra-Orthodox Rabbinate -- a group that has inordinate influence over religious matters and matters of personal and family status.

For decades, a charge against the rabbis who perform marriages on behalf of Israel's Chief Rabbinate has gone unanswered: That the rabbi did nothing to add to the joy, meaning and beauty of a wedding celebration. On June 15, the Masorti movement launched a media blitz that confronted the Rabbinate on this issue head on.

An estimated 20 percent or more of Israelis who each year choose to live together as couples do so outside the framework of the office of the Chief Rabbinate, either by not participating in any wedding ceremony or by limiting themselves to a civil ceremony in Cyprus or elsewhere. With this in mind, the Masorti movement disseminated commercials on radio and ads on Internet sites directing readers and listeners to a Wedding Initiative Web site set up for a campaign aimed at Jewish Israeli couples increasingly disenchanted with the established system.

The Masorti campaign communicates to Israeli couples that they can have a fully traditional wedding that can also be egalitarian and can allow for active and creative participation by the wedding couple and their loved ones.

The campaign immediately generated results. Within a week, there were more than 30,000 unique hits to the Web site and dozens of phone calls from interested couples. At the same time, the campaign raised the ire of the religious party, Shas.

The chairman of Shas in the Knesset, Yaakov Margi, petitioned the Israel Broadcasting Authority (IBA) to ban the Masorti campaign from the airwaves. In a letter to Mordechai Sklar, IBA's general director, Margi charged that the Masorti movement "knowingly misleads and perpetrates a campaign of fraud." Sklar chose not to act on Margi's request.

(To read Rabbi David Golinkin’s responsum on conversion please visit the Schechter Institute homepage and click on the box on the upper right portion of the page titled “Responsa in a Moment.” Once on the “Responsa” page, click on the “Responsa in a Moment” bar and find “Annulment of Conversions.” To view the Masorti wedding webpage (Hebrew) please go to: http://www.masorti.org.il/he/node/543 .)

Young Israelis want to connect to expressions of Judaism that meet them where they are in their lives and not mandate that they first move to a spiritual place that is strange to them. As Rabbi Tamar Elad-Appelbaum, director of Masorti's Wedding Initiative, noted, the initiative's goal is "to reach today's young Israeli couples who are seeking to renew ties to their Jewish tradition." And the initiative seeks to connect these couples with Masorti rabbis, who can become spiritual mentors and guide them to a meaningful religious life experience.

The Wedding Initiative came on the heels of another dispute, this one involving conversion. In February, Israel's haredi Supreme Rabbinic Court (Beit Din Elyon) upheld a lower court's ruling that called into question thousands of Orthodox conversions, most from among the 300,000 non-Jewish family members of Russian Jews who came to Israel in the 1990s. The court took a strict and unyielding approach to the process.

The growing influence of the Charedi rabbis in Israel's religious community has brought with it a tendency to employ the principle of humrah, religious or ritual strictness. When applied in the domain of public policy, as in the case of these conversions, this approach can create serious social problems and further alienate from Jewish religious life the already skeptical Israeli secular population.

In June, Rabbi David Golinkin, a Masorti leader in Israel and president of the Schechter Institute in Jerusalem, issued a t'shuvah, a rabbinic response, demonstrating that the very strict and narrow approach to conversion taken by the Rabbinate is a relatively recent interpretation of the law that runs counter to an 1,800-year-old tradition of relative leniency regarding converts.

The implications of this dispute are staggering. Literally hundreds of thousands of non-Jews are members of Jewish households in Israel, attend the same schools as Jewish Israelis, work at the same jobs and, as citizens, serve in the Israeli army -- laying down their lives for the state. They are starting to marry Jews and to have children. For the sake of the Jewish integrity of the Jewish state, these young people have to be formally brought "under the wings of the Divine Presence" through conversion.

Now is not the time to enforce the most stringent approach to conversion, especially when, as Rabbi Golinkin shows us, our tradition offers more lenient ways to welcome converts into our midst. It is hard to comprehend why those who legislate religious policy knowingly ignore a kulah (leniency) that is already in the tradition. When leniencies can be found within halacha (Jewish law), there is nothing sinful about ruling leniently.

There is a chasm wider than the distance from Tel Dan to Eilat that separates the average Israeli from the increasingly rigid approach to Judaism proffered by the rabbinic establishment in the State of Israel. This must be a matter of grave concern to all Jews.

As a Conservative rabbi, I am proud that the Masorti movement is taking its place among a number of religious organizations in Israel, representing all the streams of Judaism that are dedicated to narrowing this gap.

Rabbi Joel Rembaum is senior rabbi of Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles and the recently appointed chair of the Rabbinic Cabinet of the Foundation for Masorti Judaism in Israel.

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