By Bernard Avishai

A Missed Opportunity to Support Secular Life in Israel

The rabbinate sees itself as waging a culture war, and it has been winning. Since the state’s founding rabbinic power thwarts the development of a secular conception of citizenship. Hiddush polled Israeli Jews and found that 71% support the freedom to marry and divorce independent of the Orthodox rabbinate.

Bernard AvishaiBernard Avishai

This article was originally posted in the New Yorker, with a response by Rabbi John Rosove published in the Jewish Journal.

Four days before Passover, on the slopes of Mount Scopus, a group of Kohanim sacrificed a lamb as mandated by the laws of Exodus. The Kohanim, members of the priestly caste supposedly descended from Moses’s brother Aaron, erected their altar in a national-religious settlement overlooking the golden-domed site that was once home to the Second Temple; they slaughtered, skinned, and roasted the lamb, poured its blood on the altar, and delivered the priestly blessing, accompanied by the sounds of trumpets. Hundreds of spectators, mainly from radical Orthodox movements, were provided bleachers. Arieh King, a member of the group and of the Jerusalem city council, thanked the city for its financial support and said that he looked forward to being able to advertise the ceremony using the municipal logo.

A couple of days later, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit prohibited a group of female activists from performing their own version of the priestly blessing, which they intended as part of a (bloodless) Passover prayer service at the Western Wall. The women’s campaign dates back to December, 1988, when a group of seventy women, including a number of female Reform rabbis, carried a Torah scroll toward the Wall—actually, the part of the plaza facing the Wall reserved for female worshippers—to conduct a prayer service. They read portions of scripture and some wore prayer shawls, both of which are prohibited for women by Orthodox synagogues. Their service prompted jeers from the Orthodox women at the site, and they were even threatened by worshippers in the larger, separate men’s section. During subsequent attempts to repeat their service, resistance to their presence grew more violent. Police protection all but evaporated.

The Ministry of Religion—which maintains custodianship of the plaza, and has typically been run by Orthodox parties in coalitions with the Likud Party—sought to impose jail sentences on those worshipping “not in accordance with the custom of the holy site,” as a 1989 decree put it. An activist group, the Women of the Wall, took shape, led by Anat Hoffman, a charismatic Jerusalem city-council member whose father was American, and who had been exposed to Reform Judaism while studying in the U.S. Over the years, the Women of the Wall filed several lawsuits to the Israeli Supreme Court, which tended to intervene in ways that protected the women’s prerogatives but without challenging the legal status or practice of the Orthodox rabbinate.

The Orthodox rabbinate is not just demonstrating theological antagonism but also exercises state power over important civil rights: weddings, conversions, and other ceremonies are legally recognized only if performed by Orthodox rabbis. The rabbinate sees itself as waging a culture war, and it has been winning. Nearly a quarter of Israeli Jews now tell pollsters that they would, if forced to choose, prefer to live under Jewish law than democratic norms. (In 2009, it was a fifth.) In recent years, the American Reform movement has become increasingly involved in this war, with support for the female activists as its focus. Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, could not support the suits directly, but his growing enthusiasm for their activism helped the Women of the Wall raise funds among networks of American Reform donors.

In 2013, increasingly troubled by negative American publicity, Benjamin Netanyahu asked Natan Sharansky, the chairman of the Jewish Agency, to help put an end to the conflict at the Wall. Sharansky proposed a workaround, which was accepted by all sides, including the U.R.J., earlier this year. The Orthodox rabbinate would retain exclusive control over the plaza, and Reform (and other progressive) Jews would have a section of their own, abutting a newly exposed continuation of the Temple Mount’s retaining wall, about a seventh the size of the original. Some of the women activists rejected the plan, and the Orthodox continue to revile the Reform service, conducted so openly and close to their plaza. Nevertheless, the U.R.J. applauded the agreement. “This effort,” Jacobs said in a statement, “is the result of the extraordinary commitment shown by those in Israel who wouldn’t agree to the second-class status imposed by the ultra-Orthodox religious establishment, and by all of us outside of Israel whose unconditional love for our Jewish State compels us to tirelessly advocate for a more equal, pluralistic, and Jewishly vibrant Israel.”

When we spoke in late February, in Jerusalem, Jacobs told me that he considers Israel’s state-supported Orthodox rabbinate “one of the most corrupt and corrupting institutions ever to happen in the history of the Jewish people.” But the compromise over the Wall is one of several signs that suggests he is ambivalent about whether some kind of a state-supported rabbinate is not, after all, what makes the Jewish state Jewish. In both Israel and America, his movement may rail against the dominance of the Orthodox rabbinate. But in many instances it has not acted to break rabbinic power so much as to share in it. The Reform movement in Israel, supported by the U.R.J., has repeatedly sued to have its conversions recognized by the state (which would make those converts eligible for citizenship under the Law of Return). A small number of regional councils successfully sued the state to pay Reform rabbis, focussing on the social services the rabbis may provide. Reform rabbis have sued, persistently and unsuccessfully, to be able to perform marriages.

It is one thing to advance a more open Judaism as the state’s official religion and another thing entirely to advance an open society for all citizens. Sadly, on the latter effort, the Reform movement may be missing a greater opportunity to make common cause between secular Jews in North America and those in Israel.

The larger challenge—which Jacobs’s statement about the Wall implied success in confronting, although the compromise almost entirely elides it—is theocracy. “Jew” is a legal status in Israel, over which the rabbinate has considerable say. Orthodox rabbinic officials directly control marriage, divorce, and burial; indirectly, by controlling conversion, they determine important parts of immigration and residency law. The state taxes all Israeli citizens to support a network of Orthodox schools, rabbinic courts, local pulpits, and, in effect, theocratic political parties. (The state also provides funding for institutions of other religions, and for secular schools.) A Jew cannot marry a Muslim, or a Christian. These problems cannot be solved by giving a fraction of rabbinic authority to Reform rabbis.

Jacobs insists that the focus on making headway for Reform rabbis is strategic. He told me that, if he could have civil marriage instead of a dedicated prayer space at the wall, he wouldn’t have to think about it for a second. But it is one thing to advance a more open Judaism as the state’s official religion and another thing entirely to advance an open society for all citizens. Sadly, on the latter effort, the Reform movement may be missing a greater opportunity to make common cause between secular Jews in North America and those in Israel. The Reform movement represents about two million American and Canadian Jews, making it by far the largest single religious Jewish movement in North America. It is also the most liberal and secular: fifty per cent of U.S. Reform Jews marry non-Jews. The movement’s American Web site states, “Jews have long supported the separation of church and state as integral to protecting the religious freedom of all.” Presumably, progressive American Jews would instinctively support such freedom in Israel, not only to reinforce local Reform congregations but to create civil space for varieties of religious experience—the spiritual eclecticism and idiosyncrasy they take for granted.

Israeli liberals—the late education minister Shulamit Aloni comes to mind—have warned since the state’s founding that rabbinic power thwarts the development of a secular conception of citizenship, not just for secular Jews but for the fifth of Israeli citizens who are Arab. A Pew Research Center report found that forty per cent of Israelis describe themselves as secular Jews; another twenty-nine per cent see themselves as not religious but “traditional.” (Only about three per cent identify as Reform). Above all, they want civil marriage and schools subordinated to a standard state curriculum; implicitly, they imagine something close to the separation of religion and state that Jews enjoy in America. Uri Regev, the head of Hiddush (“Renewal”), a human-rights organization with a focus on religious freedom rather than a strict separation between state and religion, laments the American Reform movement’s focus on rabbinic privileges rather than on citizenship. His organization polled Israeli Jews and found that, not surprisingly, seventy-one per cent support the freedom to marry and divorce independent of the Orthodox rabbinate, while only eleven per cent attach importance to the battle over the Western Wall plaza. “The American Reform movement has been distracted,” he told me.

The conundrum for the American Reform movement, however, is that the cosmopolitan Hebrew secularism that Aloni envisioned is hard for American Jewish liberals to grasp or share in. The movement, accordingly, has spent decades selling American Jews on an often idealized Israel as the home of Jewish identity. In the early twentieth century, Reform Jews tended to be aloof regarding Zionism, but all of that changed in the thirties. As early as 1937, the movement’s so-called Columbus Platform affirmed the obligation of all Jewry to aid in its “upbuilding as a Jewish homeland.” More recently, since the nineties, half a million young Jewish people, many of whom identify as Reform, have gone on fully funded Birthright trips to Israel. Few speak Hebrew or can make much sense of the country’s political culture when they land there. Still, eighty-seven per cent of American Jews now say that caring about Israel is either an essential or an important part of what being Jewish means to them, according to the Pew Research Center report.

For Reform rabbis, then, drawing attention to Israel’s constitutional deficiencies can feel like delivering too much bad news. Jacobs told me about the “rhetorical mess” he had to clean up after an Israeli activist talked to a congregation about “case after case, issue after issue, the things they’re fighting in the Supreme Court.” The congregants reported that “Israel sounds like the most horrific place,” Jacobs said. “And we’re supposed to teach our kids to love Israel?”

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