Jewish Journal

Israeli Spring? The next Knesset, the Ultra-Orthodox Chief Rabbinate & Religious Freedom in Israel

by Rabbi John Rosove

December 31, 2012 | 7:37 am

"An Israeli Spring?"  by Yair Rosenberg in Tablet analyzes the current efforts by moderate religious Orthodox Zionists to wrest control of Israel's Chief Rabbinate from the ultra-Orthodox.

This is an important article on what is happening politically in Israel before the elections on January 22 that is likely to affect the next government under PM Netanyahu. The issue is whether the ultra-Orthodox Rabbinate will continue to control the office of the Chief Rabbinate and keep Israelis in a strangle-hold on issues of status, conversion, marriage, and burial, among other issues.

A “renegade rabbinic organization called Tzohar (meaning "window" and referring to the window in Noah's ark) has joined forces with Likud-Yisrael Bateinu (Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman's combined party) and the ultra-Orthodox party Shas to wrest control from the ultra-Orthodox Chief Rabbinate in order to promote a more moderate orthodox Chief Rabbinate thereby excluding ultra-Orthodox parties from the government (other than Shas) and relaxing many heretofore restrictive policies overseen by the Hareidi ultra-Orthodox.

Despite the strong support in the country for Tzohar, this DOES NOT MEAN RELIGIOUS FREEDOM for Jews in Israel. (Note: See comment below from Rabbi Stanley Davids of Jerusalem who explains this more fully). Even with a more moderate Chief Rabbinate, religious affairs would still be controlled by an Orthodox rabbinate. The article, though excellent in describing the political issues at hand, mis-characterizes the nature of Reform and Conservative Judaism in Israel.

Though originally born out of the Diaspora Jewish experience, both the Israeli Reform and Conservative movements are run by Israelis and are fashioned to Israeli needs, culture and religious/spiritual/moral outlook. As such they are increasingly more and more popular among Israeli secularists.

What is really necessary is the abolition of the Chief Rabbinate altogether along with its strangle-hold over Israeli religious life and the disbursement of government funds almost exclusively to Orthodox institutions. This means nurturing a religiously pluralistic society.

The following is quoted from the article (the complete article link is below and is well-worth your reading in its entirety):

“The solution in Israel should not be Rotem’s solution or Tzohar’s solution of ‘we will make Orthodoxy more moderate and it will solve everyone’s problems,’ ” said Yizhar Hess, executive director of the Masorti/Conservative Movement in Israel. “This is false! I don’t want to have a moderate Orthodox religious service. Each [movement] has its own identity. That’s how it should be.” In other words, no matter how benign this reformed rabbinate might prove, it would still be an Orthodox rabbinate—one that doesn’t recognize Reform and Conservative rabbis or their marriages and conversions. For Hess, the “smiley face” of the moderate Tzohar rabbi is the façade that masks a more fundamental problem: Israel’s lack of full religious freedom.

‘As well-intentioned as Tzohar’s mission may be … it has no problem with an Orthodox monopoly on Judaism in the State of Israel.’

“As well-intentioned as Tzohar’s mission may be,” argued Rabbi Uri Regev, CEO of Hiddush, an Israeli nonprofit organization promoting religious freedom, “it emerges that to it, American Jewish pluralism is anathema.” In fact, the organization “has no problem with an Orthodox monopoly on Judaism in the State of Israel.”

For these non-Orthodox leaders and their counterparts in America, the rabbinate as currently constituted is an unacceptable entanglement of religion and state. “The institution of the chief rabbinate as a state-funded and empowered agency strikes me as anti-democratic and doomed to failure,” said Rabbi Daniel Nevins, dean of the rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary. “As for Tzohar, I am impressed by their track record, but if they were granted political power, they too would be tempted to enforce their religious views and practices on the public. Political power corrupts religion; every group is vulnerable to this temptation. The only solution is to discontinue the state regulation of religion and to allow for freedom of conscience and equality of religious practice in Israel.”

Stav and Tzohar are indeed unapologetically Orthodox and make no secret of the fact that they would not recognize non-Orthodox forms of Judaism were they to attain the chief rabbinate. Why, then, do many secular Israelis and their politicians support Tzohar over a pluralistic approach? According to many, the answer is simple: American Judaism and its particular flavors have never made much sense to Israelis, or gained much traction on the ground. Brandeis Professor Yehudah Mirsky, who has written at some length on this question, explains that Israelis and Americans are speaking two very different languages when it comes to Jewish life and practice, which stem from two distinct historical experiences.”


The following comment was sent to me following receipt of the above on my personal blog from Rabbi Stanley Davids, Past President of the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA) who lives in Jerusalem.


The article is fascinating both in the issues it raises and in the mis-conceptions that it engenders. ZOHAR, by the way, is named to allude to the skylight in Noah's Ark -- an interesting way of stating that its founders were looking for new sources of illumination in troubling times. Were that only truly the case.

I witnessed Rabbi Stav's presentation to the Jewish Agency's Unity of the Jewish People Committee. Let there be no doubt that he strongly supports an Orthodox controlled Chief Rabbinate -- and that in fact he and his organization do everything possible to avoid public conflicts with the Chief Rabbinate. Zohar is no friend of religious pluralism, no friend of mutual respect and recognition, no friend of any move designed to ease the blight of religious coercion in Israel.

I agree with Yizhar Hess's comments as well as those of Uri Regev. I would caution all who read the article that it is replete with error -- for example, the mood of the current electorate clearly puts socio-economic issues down the list of its priorities -- otherwise, Labor's polling numbers would be heading up instead of down, BUT "socio-economic" in any event has absolutely nothing to do with synagogue-state issues. The issue of freedom from religious coercion is no where being debated -- not by Labor, not by Yisrael Beiteinu, and certainly not by Bayyit Yehudi -- whose new leader has recently been espousing some radically troubling positions.

A final note -- I sat with MK Rotem in his office during the Knesset debate on his conversion bill. He was resolutely intractable, unwilling to even listen to the slightest possibility that his moves would lead to grave damage in Diaspora-Israel relations. He is a committed ideologue with whom reasoned discussion seems like a foreign concept.

Other than that -- thank you for opening up this incredibly important conversation.

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Rabbi John L. Rosove assumed his duties as Senior Rabbi of Temple Israel of Hollywood in November 1988. A native of Los Angeles, he earned a BA in Art History from UC Berkeley...

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