When MK Aliza Lavie spoke to the Conservative Movement’s Rabbinical Assembly last month, she was probably proud to announce that she would be introducing a bill in the Knesset allowing Conservative and Reform rabbis to perform weddings in the Jewish State. However, the announcement sparked harsh criticism and anger. This because MK Lavie’s bill allows for the non-Orthodox clergy to officiate only at civil ceremonies, not religious ones. In other words, Reform and Conservative rabbis, under the proposed legislation, are agents of the State, but are not recognized as clergy and the ceremonies at which they officiate are not seen as Jewish.
In an op-ed piece in the Israeli newspaper, HaAretz, Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, who served as president of the Union for Reform Judaism from 1996 to 2012, critiqued Ruby Rivlin a leading contender for Israel’s presidency who has equated Reform Judaism with Christianity and refuses to address Reform rabbis using their title “rabbi.” As President of Israel, one of Rivlin’s responsibilities would be to work towards the unification of world Jewry, yet insulting America’s largest movement of approximately two million Reform Jews, refusing to acknowledge or respect their clergy, seems antithetical to his mission as president.
More than anything else, these instances display not only the ignorance Israeli politicians have regarding Diaspora, and especially American Jewry, but the gap between their opinions and the opinions of their constituency, the Israeli public. Israeli politicians, concerned with their own survival in a coalition democracy that gives unrepresentative power to smaller parties, concede to the stranglehold of Ultra-Orthodox parties on matters of religion in exchange for political support. However, a recent poll commissioned by the Ruderman Family Foundation found that 49% of Israelis “strongly feel that the Chief Rabbinate should officially recognize the Reform and Conservative streams of Judaism.”
While this may surprise those who follow Israel’s news in the headlines, the agenda of which is set by Israeli institutions and lawmakers, it should come as no surprise to those who live in Israel and feel the pulse of Israeli life. Just as most Jewish and Arab Israelis can live side-by-side despite what headlines may have you believe, most Israelis are liberal and pluralistic in their religious views.
It is the political personalities and institutions which are obstacles to peace both within the Jewish world and between the Jewish State and its neighbors. There is a blossoming of home-grown Israeli grassroots institutions which sprout their own strain of religious pluralism. There is an increasing amount of synagogues which allow women to participate in religious services in different ways. More “secular” schools are including religious studies, religious teachers and even optional prayer services. This trend is coming from native-born Israelis who value Jewish tradition as well as modern ideas. They are not connected to any movement or formal ideology, rather they are the expression of the true spirit of the population.
More Israelis are also realizing that the formal religious Israeli institutions not only do not answer their needs, but are causing damage to Israeli society. The amount of Israelis who intermarry have increased ten times in the last twenty years. This because of the influx of Russian immigrants who are recognized as Jewish under the Law of Return, which considers anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent a Jew (as did the Nazi legislation), coupled with the strictest interpretation of the laws of conversion by the Ultra-Orthodox institutions governing Jewish religious life in Israel. This dangerous mix has created a segment of Israelis who are Jewish according to the State, but not according to the rabbinic authorities sanctioned by the State to govern religious affairs such as marriage.
The State of Israel has become a barrier to living a full Jewish life in the Land of Israel. It’s institutions and politicians have imposed barriers to any form of Judaism which does not conform to the narrowest interpretation of Jewish law or the political landscape of those who control it within Israel’s borders.
While American Jews are worried that they are not recognized as Jews in Israel, many Israelis are also not even given the option to convert unless they commit to living an Orthodox lifestyle. This monolithic interpretation of Judaism is dangerous not only for the relations between Diaspora Jewry and Israel, but for Israeli society and the future character of the Jewish State.
Israeli politicians, American Jewry and its leaders would be well served to argue the case of religious pluralism for the betterment of Israeli society, an argument which resonates with the majority of Israelis, rather than to voice concerns about the rights of world Jewry or the divergence in opinions between Israeli and Diaspora Jews. I would love to see Reform and Conservative Jews, passionate about their ideology, spreading their message to Israel because they believe in their message, rather than because they feel they are a segment of the population being denied rights or because they see a looming schism between Diaspora and world Jewry. I call upon those who believe in religious pluralism, who believe that there is more than one legitimate way to express one’s Judaism, to preach that message as something Israel needs to hear because it is good for Israel. That should be reason enough for Israeli politicians to understand what the Israeli and Diaspora Jewish population already agree upon. We do not need to worry about the divergence between Israeli and Diaspora Jewry, but between the State of Israel, controlled by an Ultra-Orhodox oligarchy, and the rest of the Jewish people, Israeli and Diaspora Jews alike.