Jewish Journal

Religious Intolerance in Israel

by Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater, PJTC

Posted on Jul. 19, 2010 at 12:13 pm

It is pretty hard to write about the topic of “senseless hatred,”  known in Hebrew as “sinat chinam,” when I am so angry!  Anger is a healthy part of our emotional structure, allowing us to release tension, express feelings and emote in a way that our mind and body truly need.  In life, if we are honest with ourselves, there will be people, actions and situations that make us angry, perhaps furious, and we all need constructive outlets with which to deal with them in a meaningful way.  Suppressing anger, or pretending that you are never angry, is unhealthy and renders us prisoner to our unexpressed feelings and emotions.  It is from this place, from this depth, before the lowest, saddest day in the Jewish calendar, Tisha B’av, the 9th of the Hebrew month of Av, that I come to share some thoughts on the events of this week in Israel, events that, sadly, are all too common these days, and that have nothing to do with the conflict with the Palestinians or the wider Arab world.  No, these events involve just us, the Jewish people, as we continue to struggle with how to live in a religious structure that doesn’t honor, validate or appreciate the varieties of practice and holy expression that our people has been blessed with achieving.

To begin with, the conversion bill, sponsored by MK Rotem of Yisrael Betainu, which we had been worried about and acted on a month or so ago, and which we had thought was going to be shelved, was suddenly introduced, and astonishingly passed a first reading of a Knesset committee 5-4.  The bill needs to pass three readings of the full Knesset before it is law, which seems highly unlikely, but this is very worrisome.  The bill, like any bill in a government, has many moving parts, but the big one is that it places conversion to Judaism in Israel directly into the hands of the Israeli Rabbinate, which is Orthodox and getting increasingly more ultra and extreme by the minute, as well as calling into question whether or not non-Orthodox conversions outside of Israel, which until now had been recognized for purposes of making aliyah, moving to Israel, will continue to be accepted.  This bill, sponsored by a fairly secular, but ultra-nationalist party, will not only drive a larger wedge between the secular and religious citizens of Israel, but will further alienate Diaspora Jews from connection with Israel.  This at a time, as we have seen with articles like those of Peter Beinart and others, when Diaspora Jews, and non-Orthodox American Jews in particular, are already feeling disconnected and uninterested in Israel.  The experiment of rebirthing a Jewish homeland, a dream of our people since the Temple was destroyed in 70 CE, is facing a huge challenge, not only from the outside forces that seek its annihilation, but from the very poison that our ancient rabbis taught us caused the destruction in the first place: sinat chinam, or baseless, senseless hatred.

It is a painful and uncomfortable subject to talk about, this intra-Jewish hatred, disrespect and alienation, but the fact that the Israeli government has given over Judaism and ritual life in the State of Israel to the charedim and ultra-Orthodox, as well as electing a government with a strong majority party like Yisrael Beiteinu, which is ultra-nationalistic, represents a serious threat to relations with us in the Diaspora.  This is Israel, the land where all Jews, and others, but certainly all Jews, are supposed to feel welcome, embraced, part of the family that makes up the fabric of our Jewish existence.  This is Israel, where the greatest of our values, ancient and modern, are meant to be lived out; embracing the stranger, the widow and orphan, being responsible for all members of our Jewish family, social justice, tikkun olam, holiness and ecstatic love for God, Torah and the Jewish people.  And sadly, in 2010, we are facing an increasingly hostile, rigid and fearful group of fundamentalist Jews that is gaining more and more control over religious life in Israel.  Now, with this bill, they are seeking to narrow the gap even further, and the Jewish people is facing a crisis.  Who will define what “Judaism” is and what is acceptable?  Who will define which of us are considered members of the people and which are not?  Who will define what ritual practices, what legal interpretation, and what level of acceptance of modernity, will represent the “true” Judaism?  To be clear, there is no “true” Judaism, and I am not calling on the charedim or ultra-Orthodox to abandon their practices and join my synagogue, or any Conservative synagogue in Israel.  My cousins in those strands of our Jewish family are welcome to keep practicing their own brand of Judaism, and while I may feel sad that we can’t ever interact and learn from one another because of their fear, I don’t disparage them or feel “senseless hatred, sinat chinam” towards them.  I am only asking that our brand of Judaism, and all brands of modern, progressive, egalitarian Judaism, be allowed to live and flourish in the land.  This is not happening, and I resent that, and feel called to speak out against the intolerance, and senseless hatred that I have both experienced in my life directly in Jerusalem, and what I know to be happening today.  How we navigate through this period in Jewish history, as the Talmud reminds in discussing the destruction of the 2nd Temple, has mainly to do with how we treat one another and find ways to build more bridges to understanding.  And if that is not possible with the charedim, which it just may not be, then they need to have the power wrested from them and allow Israel to become a religiously pluralistic society, which will include providing space for them to practice their Judaism how they wish.  They cannot, however, impose their Judaism on the entire State of Israel, on the entire Jewish people.  It is here that we must learn the lesson of history if we are to successfully emerge from this dark time.

And, if this conversion bill, which was brought to the Knesset committee as a sneak attack, wasn’t enough, another disgraceful and deeply painful event transpired as well.  Many of you probably know about the group Women at the Wall, a grassroots organization that has been operating since 1988 trying to bring egalitarianism and equality to the prayer areas of the Kotel, the Western Wall.  As it stands now, the Kotel is an official religious site, therefore it comes under the auspices of the Israeli government, which we know is controlled by the Orthodox rabbinate.  The prayer areas of the wall are separated by a mechitza, a barrier, with men and women on opposite sides, as is the custom of an Orthodox synagogue.  While that is bothersome to me, as I can never have a moment of connection at this holy spot with my wife or daughter, it is actually the rules of the women’s area that have caused the greatest turmoil.  Last winter, Nofrat Frenkel, a leader in this movement, was arrested by the police for publicly wearing a tallit, a prayer shawl, and just this past Monday, on Rosh Chodesh, the new moon, when the group historically meets for public prayer, Anat Hoffman, another well-known leader, was arrested for carrying a Torah, which technically is allowed, although women are not permitted to read the Torah at the Wall, even in their section.  The video of her arrest has gone viral on the internet, and I am proud to say that my own rabbinic intern, Susan Goldberg, who is in Israel studying this summer, was at the service and is quite visible in the video.  Even after the group had left the Kotel area and were heading to Robinson’s Arch, an approved side section of the larger area, the police continued to harass Ms. Hoffman, with one officer in particular getting quite agitated and angry, and eventually they got her into a police car, with the Torah, after failing to wrestle the Torah from her arms.

Regardless of what we think about the different ways to practice Judaism, and as I said, I am supportive of allowing all denominations and stripes of Jews practice how they want, how can we tolerate and live with Israeli police arresting a woman for holding a Torah?  Why should the Jewish people, which has a long and proud history of being pluralistic and religiously tolerant, be subjected to this treatment because of a small minority of extremist charedim think it is a desecration of God, for a woman to read from the Torah and participate fully in religious life?  I am not asking them to accept what we do, just as I don’t accept what they do.  But, and here is where the argument always breaks down for me, I am excepted to respect them and their wishes and needs because they are “religious,” but they are not expected to reciprocate.  There is a classic rabbinic notion that in a case where we have an option to be lenient or strict in an interpretation of a law, often times we bend to the stricture for the sake of honoring those for whom the leniency would offend.  Basic example of this is that if requested, a prayer service should not be egalitarian in order to satisfy a more religious person’s needs because technically men and women can participate in a non-egalitarian service, even though women don’t count, but a more religious man cannot participate fully in an egalitarian service.  So what if we are disrespecting the women, and men for that matter, who don’t like it, at least we are being fair and open to the more religious.  And on and on.  Bottom line for me is this, at least in regard to Israel: as long as the government continues to surrender the religious life of the country to the Orthodox rabbinate, this problem is only going to get worse, and it will only serve to further alienate Israelis (80% of whom want absolutely nothing to do with anything religious) and will deepen the gap, which is continually growing, between Israel and the majority of American Jews, who are non-Orthodox.  Ignoring the problem, or saying that there is no problem, are not options any longer.

Final word for tonight: The level of sinat chinam, senseless hatred and lashon ha’rah, speaking ill of others, that exists now between the ultra-Orthodox and the rest of the Jewish world is reaching levels that are unsustainable.  I would call on the reasonable, conscientious and fair-minded Modern Orthodox rabbis, of whom there are many and with whom I have good relations, to make attempts to reach out to our brothers and sisters in the more extreme wings of our people.  And while they too are probably not considered kosher in the minds of the charedim, they are closer than I am!  We need new leadership to bring us back from the edge of the abyss.  We stand on the cusp of Tisha B’av, a day of mourning and deep reflection about not only who our outside enemies are, which are real and present today, but also what the internal danger is that we face as a people.  A comment on the part of the Talmud that speaks of the destruction of the Temples from the Chafetz Chayyim, a great 20th century rabbi and creator of the Musar Movement, dedicated to values and ethics, is how I will close.  He says that “a single congregation that is meticulous in maintaining peace amongst itself can merit bringing the Messiah.  Thus, the coming of the Messiah is in our hands.  It is well known that true peace is impossible without passionate pursuit of eradicating senseless hatred and evil speech.” The situation in Israel today, with the religious intolerance and the increasingly domination of the charedim and ultra-Orthodox, threatens to derail the hopes for a peaceful future almost as much as the conflict with the Arabs.  May we remember the lessons of the past as we reflect on the sadness in our communal history this coming Tisha B’av, and then rise up to work tirelessly to guarantee that we don’t repeat those same mistakes.  It is in our hands.

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