Special Symposium: Judaism's internal crisis has been deferred

By ELLIOT JAGER
August 26, 2017 12:20

The Jerusalem Report invites prominent Diaspora figures to offer their ideas for how Jews can make religious peace among themselves.




Artist Avi Katz's take on the recent identitiy crisis plaguing th

Artist Avi Katz's take on the recent identitiy crisis plaguing the Jewish people. (photo credit:AVI KATZ)

WERE IT not for recurrent Palestinian violence, Israeli and Diaspora Jews would likely be devoting themselves with greater gusto to bickering over “Who is a Jew” and which Jewish tribe has the better claim to the Western Wall plaza.

On June 25, the Netanyahu government trashed its January 2016 commitment to establish a public council to oversee an egalitarian prayer area that would have included officials from the Reform and Conservative streams, as well as representatives from the Prime Minister’s Office and the Israel Antiquities Authority.

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It would have created a common plaza entrance leading to three distinct prayer areas: men’s, women’s and egalitarian. The egalitarian services would be conducted on a permanent platform in the Davidson Center Archeological Park at the southern section of the Kotel plaza near Robinson’s Arch. Since 2013, prayers have been held there on a temporary platform.

To the chagrin of archeologists, the site – which unlike the main Western Wall plaza is open only during select hours – has been used by the progressive streams since 2000. The promised permanent egalitarian section would also have accommodated separate Women of the Wall services on Rosh Hodesh and the Fast of Esther (with worshipers wearing prayer shawls and tefillin if they chose).

The Byzantine machinations under which the 2016 arrangement was hammered out in the first place, how and why tacit Haredi support – which would have entrenched ultra-Orthodox dominion over the iconic shrine and permanently ousted Women of the Wall in exchange for formalizing the existing progressive space near Robinson’s Arch – collapsed, remains shrouded in mystery.

Ultimately, Haredi clergymen who were not party to the bargain denounced it and the Haredi street was mobilized against it.

Separately, the government announced that it would introduce legislation to reinforce the power of the ultra-Orthodox rabbinate over conversions conducted in Israel. The twofold setback led even organizations that are loath to publicly criticize Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to caution that his government was rending the fabric of Diaspora-Israel relations. Under withering pressure, the premier almost immediately put off the conversion issue until January 2018.

Regarding the Western Wall, on June 26, Cabinet Secretary Tzachi Braverman issued a strident – “I recommend that those trying to exploit this issue be precise with the facts” – if opaque statement affirming that the Robinson’s Arch prayer area would remain in operation. In a subsequent court filing, the government promised to set aside monies to construct a permanent prayer platform. The episode left many Diaspora Jews feeling disrespected and marginalized.

On July 3, Israel’s generally well-intentioned President Reuven Rivlin further muddied the waters by saying he would like to see an agreement that does not require recognition of different streams within Judaism and that preserves the Western Wall plaza as a synagogue that follows Jewish religious law.

In Israel, that means following the ultra-Orthodox rabbinate, which is the country’s established church and determines what constitutes religious law in the public domain. This same Haredi clergy – and the 13 Knesset members of Shas and United Torah Judaism that back them – disdain all forms of Judaism other than ultra-Orthodoxy as inherently bogus.

In a government that holds just 66 of the Knesset’s 120 seats, the Haredi parties wield disproportionate power. For years, non-Orthodox streams have been pressing the High Court of Justice to order Israeli officialdom to treat Reform and Conservative conversions conducted in Israel no differently than those carried out by the state rabbinate. As a side effect of Netanyahu’s about-face, a moratorium on such litigation is in force until January 2018.

As things now stand, conversions to Judaism carried out in the Diaspora by any recognized Jewish community ‒ Reform and Conservative included – remain valid for purposes of making aliya under the Law of Return. New immigrant converts are registered as Jews in the Interior Ministry.

However, all further family law matters ‒ including marriage, adoption, divorce and burial ‒ perforce involve the state rabbinate. Of course, even if the progressive streams won their court case and could conduct conversions in Israel itself, and their converts could register as Jews with the Interior Ministry, they still would come up against the demands of the Haredi rabbinate in life-cycle milestones.

Paradoxically, the government bill – to make conversions the exclusive turf of the Haredi Chief Rabbinate and apply their strictest interpretation of Jewish law – is at least partially aimed at Orthodox spiritual leaders identified with a modernizing wing of the National Religious camp such as Efrat’s Shlomo Riskin and David Stav of the Tzohar movement.

Indeed, High Court recognition of these rabbis’ conversions as legitimate has been a backdoor challenge to Haredi hegemony. Israelis are unacquainted with what Reform and Conservative Judaism espouse or how they are differentiated, so the politically adroit Haredi parties have framed the issue as pitting “authentic Judaism” against “the Reform” who, if left to their own devices, according to Haredi rabbis, would carry out mass conversions of illegal African immigrants.

For now, the Chief Rabbinate is not challenging conversions of soldiers conducted by modern-Orthodox rabbis in the IDF.

ENTER THE Bayit Yehudi Party, which has eight Knesset seats.

Today, as in their previous Mizrachi and National Religious Party incarnations, the religious Zionists supervise Israel’s bifurcated educational system. Parents must decide whether to send their children – starting in the first grade – to either a secular or Orthodox public school.

The ultra-Orthodox run separate educational systems, and about 12% of secular pupils attend TALI schools where they receive a limited pluralistic Jewish education. Monies for the TALI schools are raised primarily in the Diaspora by the Conservative-affiliated Schechter Institutes.

The upshot of this arrangement is that, for most Israelis, religion is synonymous with Orthodoxy. It was the National Religious Party that first nixed mixed-gender prayer at the Western Wall in July 1968 when Zerach Warhaftig was religion minister. In 1988, the Western Wall Heritage Foundation was created to guarantee that Orthodox rules prevailed. Many Israelis are Jewishly illiterate though they think of themselves as traditional.

Very few describe themselves as anti-religious. That said, about 63% of those polled opposed Netanyahu’s suspension of the Western Wall agreement and 64% were against strengthening the Haredim on conversion, according to a survey by Hiddush, a progressive NGO.

About half of all Israelis believe that civil marriage outside the rabbinate should be allowed and most would not demand a convert lead an ultra-Orthodox lifestyle to remain legitimately Jewish, according to a seminal 2012 study conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute.

IN RESPONSE to the Diaspora uproar, Bayit Yehudi leader, Education and Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett made soothing overtures to Diaspora leaders, which earned him the opprobrium of the ultra-Orthodox. Bennett, a former Netanyahu protégé, swiftly reassured Haredi powerbrokers that he would work in tandem with them on matters of conversion. As the Haredim and some Bayit Yehudi members see it, the “heterodox” are asking to be treated as if they were espousing something “authentic” when all they are proffering is a vacuous, no-boundaries, American-style Judaism that, but for Orthodox gatekeepers, would doom the Jewish world.

On July 24, a group of Orthodox progressives, including Riskin, posted a video warning that it was simply too risky for the Orthodox to dissociate from the majority of world Jewry. “It is unthinkable that we deposit the future of Judaism in the sole hands of the Orthodox and not with any others.” In the forum that follows, eight Jewish figures from the Diaspora pledge that progressives will not give up their struggle, nor their commitment to Israel.

Steven B. Nasatir President, Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago

Recent controversies over creating respectful space for various expressions of Jewish prayer at the Western Wall, conversion authority and the Rabbinate’s discrediting of some Diaspora rabbis are shocking. At a time when Israel and the Jewish people face hateful campaigns of delegitimization from without, why would Israel’s government accede to measures that split the Jewish people from within?

We are privileged to live at a time of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel, when we are free to grasp the reins of Jewish destiny. It’s a time of historic opportunity and responsibility, but also peril, when disunity weakens our collective ability to counter threats. Therefore, it’s time for all Jews who value Klal Yisrael , the unity of the Jewish people, to reaffirm these core principles:

1. We are in this together. To assure the Jewish future, Israel needs a strong Diaspora and the Diaspora needs a strong Israel. We must be mutually supportive, not mutually alienating.

2. Israel is the state of its citizens and the national homeland of the Jewish people. While its democratically elected government is the custodian of this birthright and rightfully decides on issues of security and defense, Diaspora Jews’ connections to Israel merit respect and nurturing, especially on issues of personal Jewish status.

3. The Jewish people are not monolithic. All Jews deserve room to express their convictions in ways they find authentic without infringing on others.

4. Jewish identity, faith and practice are too precious to be subject to shifting political calculations, even within a Jewish democracy.

5. Ahavat Yisrael , the love of the people and the Land of Israel, is unconditional, and is not dependent on a Jew’s citizenship, affiliation or practice.

As one of the Federation executives in Israel at the time of most of these recent episodes, I shared with the prime minister our dismay, but also gave a bedrock commitment never to diminish our support for the people of Israel. I also insisted that Israel must never diminish our ability as Diaspora Jews, in all our diversity, to express our Jewish commitments in ways we find authentic.

Linda Kislowicz CEO of Jewish Federations of Canada-UIA


I believe that Israel and the Diaspora share an unbreakable bond grounded in a common heritage and destiny. Failure to embrace this principle is to weaken us at the core. We are one global Jewish people. Yes, we must be united. But must we be uniform? No!

Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people. This means all Jewish people, including both Israelis and Diaspora Jewry. If the goal of the Haredi-backed legislation is to preserve the integrity, unity and continuity of one Jewish people, I would argue for a system that is respectful of religious law while humane and progressive; one that is cognizant of the complexity of aliya, the Law of Return and Jewish history.

There must be one set of guidelines that addresses matters of religious status with a broad and inclusive scope.

What is hindering our ability to find a solution is a fundamental structural issue: As long as matters of religion are governed by the state, and, therefore, necessarily caught up in politics, it will be impossible to create a more inclusive system.

As the CEO of a national organization that encourages philanthropic investment in Israel, operates teen and young adult educational travel to Israel, works to inspire, engage and connect our communities with Israel – and Israel with our communities – I cannot conceive of a relationship that does not respect Jews however they practice Judaism.

We all have a responsibility to ensure that not even one Jewish person is systematically marginalized, disempowered or disenfranchised by any new policy or law.

Carole Sterling Chair, World Union for Progressive Judaism

For the more than 1.8 million Progressive, Reform and Liberal Jews in 50 countries around the globe who are the World Union for Progressive Judaism, reaction to the decisions regarding the Western Wall, conversion and non-Orthodox rabbinic blacklist – to name just a few – has been swift and strong.

While acknowledging that we may not agree with or support the government’s decisions, it must be made clear that our love for the people and the land of Israel is solid and unequivocal.

There is no one path or answer that we all agree on, yet we do understand that this is not the time for tzimtzum , or contraction, and that, now more than ever, we need to support our movement, as well as the institutions and organizations in Israel that reflect our values – equality, pluralism and tolerance.

We will do this through strategically targeting our financial support; prioritizing our activities, involvement and giving; increasing the number of congregations throughout Israel as the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism has so effectively done; educating and exposing Israelis to different ways of observing and practicing their Judaism; raising clergy and lay leadership to teach, guide and expose Israelis to the myriad of choices one has; and gaining a voice and a presence in the government.

As progressive Jews who do not live in the land of Israel, we strive, despite cultural and linguistic differences, to live meaningful, spiritual Jewish lives in our home environments where, in every case except the US, we are a minority in a minority.

It is often challenging and complicated, however, we cannot, and will not, allow others to define us and we reiterate, as we have in the past, that no one group has the authority or legitimacy to determine the authenticity of another Jew. We will not allow others to dictate how we live our lives as Jews.

We will ensure that our actions and our voices will be seen and heard, and that we can and will all “be a free people in our own land!” 

Steven C. Wernick Rabbi and CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism


When the Israelites journeyed through Sinai, Balak the king, worried they would plunder his kingdom and hired Bil’am, the prophet, to curse them. Each time Bil’am tried to curse Israel, God replaced his words with a blessing, the most famous of which is, “ Ma tovu ohalekha Ya’acov; mishkenotekha Yisrael – How goodly your tents O Jacob; your dwelling places O Israel.”

Rashi suggests Bil’am was inspired by the Israelites’ tents, interpreted by the Talmud as schools and synagogues, which were not directly facing each other, demonstrating a degree of privacy for each home – a value, ultimately, about diversity. My vision for Judaism, in Israel and around the world, is ma tovu ; that we create the spiritual, emotional and physical space to seek meaning, find connection and experience wholeness ( shleimut ) in a world that is complex and ever evolving.

It is an authentic and dynamic Judaism informed by the experience of our ancestors; the hardships, the triumphs, the lessons, the wisdom.

To achieve this vision, Diaspora Jews should consider the following:

1. Inspire Israelis to advocate for Jewish pluralism at home through a sustained campaign.

2. Increase and redirect Israel philanthropy to strengthen institutions and support organizations that share this vision of Judaism in the Jewish state.

3. Deepen Zionist activities in North America to increase our influence in the National Institutions of the World Zionist Organization, the Jewish Agency and Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund.

3. Advocate with every mayor, CEO, member of Knesset and government official for this vision.

4. Encourage aliya.

What we don’t have to do is agree. Unity does not require unanimity. But it does require humility and respect. It does require us to arrange our camps to respect the practices of the other. We need to foster an Israel that lives up to this vision, that makes space for and recognizes the multiplicity of approaches to God, and holiness in Israel and around the world. It is an Israel that, when both Jews and others look upon it, they are inspired to recite “ma tovu,” look how great the Jews are for they extol pluralism as a positive value.

Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner Senior rabbi, Reform Judaism, UK

We assume Israel is the Jewish state, but we’re not there yet.

For it to truly be so, it must be a state for all Jews; however, the structures in Israel that enable the ultra-Orthodox hegemony over the religious power prevent this from occurring. Only one form of Judaism is currently given state authenticity ‒ and the effects on conversion, marriage and holy sites are corrosive.

Ultimately, there is only one answer – a fundamental change in the power structure of Judaism in Israel.

As the global Jewish community becomes more polarized, Israel runs the risk of catalyzing an unprecedented split in Am Yisrael. By allowing the apparatus of the state to continue taking sides, Israel is increasingly the home of only half the Jewish people, excluding the rest. Achieving the foundation of our own Jewish state was meant to bring us together as a people ‒ it would be tragic to see it, instead, drive us apart: an ultra- Orthodox state and a progressive Diaspora.

The only answer that allows Israel to genuinely be a state for all Jews is to remove the ultra-Orthodox Rabbinate from holding sole power over key institutions and Jewish status. The different Jewish paths should be given not only equal respect, but legal equality so Jews have the freedom to make our own religious choices in a truly Jewish state. This would leave Israel in a far better position to separate itself from what divides Jews around the world and instead deliver on a vision of a state that every Jew can feel wholly connected to.

How will this happen? The ultra-Orthodox remain a mammoth political force. Yet, there is a very weak counterweight – an awakening progressive Jewish voice in Israeli politics. The ultra-Orthodox example must be our blueprint.

As Diaspora Jews, we must support and encourage our Israeli friends and colleagues to cultivate an increasing political presence. Polls show Israeli society is receptive to a progressive religious vision – we must be bold and strengthen those who believe this to make their voices a critical part of Israel’s national debate.

Eric S. Goldstein CEO, UJA-Federation of New York

The anger of many American Jews at the suspension of the Western Wall agreement and the introduction of the conversion bill shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone.

After all, it’s not news that the vast majority of American Jews are not Orthodox, and if they have a denominational affiliation it is to Conservative and Reform Judaism. On the other hand, most Israelis identify as either secular or Orthodox. And, for secular Israelis (a majority of the population in Israel), their Jewishness is baked into their national identity.

As a result, American-style denominational diversity is nascent in Israel and few Israelis are aware of the vibrancy of Reform and Conservative Judaism in America. But it would be a huge mistake to dismiss this as simply a clash between religious streams. Ask millions of Israelis who’ve had to deal, against their will, with the Rabbinate over issues such as marriage and divorce, and it’s clear that what’s at stake are core freedoms vital to both Israeli and American Jews.

That’s why we shouldn’t simply accept that there’s an accelerating and unbridgeable gap between Israeli and American Jewry. To the contrary, we have strong common cause with the majority of Israelis who share our opposition to the hegemonic power of the Chief Rabbinate.

The challenge is that most Israelis do not currently connect their anger at the Rabbinate with our struggle over the Western Wall agreement and issues of conversion. But we’re not doomed to talk past each other. With the right approach, we can build a powerful coalition – fighting together for the same cause and outcomes.

That’s why now is precisely not the time for Diaspora Jews to be disengaging from Israel or its people.

Yes, the sense of frustration and even betrayal that many in our community feel is totally understandable. But only by maintaining, and even increasing, our engagement can we hope for the Israel we want it to be.

The stakes are high. How can we hope to capture the hearts and minds of the next generation of American Jews if Israel does not fully recognize their legitimacy as Jews? How can Israel sustain itself as a Jewish and democratic state if millions of its citizens are deprived of basic religious freedom?

We cannot give up on Israel – and we cannot let Israel give up on us. Nothing less than the future of a united Jewish people hangs in the balance. Let’s build a coalition for religious freedom!

As the global Jewish community becomes more polarized, Israel runs the risk of catalyzing an unprecedented split in Am Yisrael . By allowing the apparatus of the state to continue taking sides, Israel is increasingly the home of only half the Jewish people, excluding the rest. Achieving the foundation of our own Jewish state was meant to bring us together as a people ‒ it would be tragic to see it, instead, drive us apart: an ultra-Orthodox state and a progressive Diaspora.

The only answer that allows Israel to genuinely be a state for all Jews is to remove the ultra-Orthodox Rabbinate from holding sole power over key institutions and Jewish status. The different Jewish paths should be given not only equal respect, but legal equality so Jews have the freedom to make our own religious choices in a truly Jewish state. This would leave Israel in a far better position to separate itself from what divides Jews around the world and instead deliver on a vision of a state that every Jew can feel wholly connected to.

How will this happen? The ultra-Orthodox remain a mammoth political force. Yet, there is a very weak counterweight – an awakening progressive Jewish voice in Israeli politics. The ultra-Orthodox example must be our blueprint. As Diaspora Jews, we must support and encourage our Israeli friends and colleagues to cultivate an increasing political presence. Polls show Israeli society is receptive to a progressive religious vision – we must be bold and strengthen those who believe this to make their voices a critical part of Israel’s national debate.

Shulamit S. Magnus Professor emerita, Jewish studies and history, Oberlin College

The Western Wall is the national holy site of the Jewish people. That is its meaning in Jewish history and memory. That is why secular and religious soldiers wept there and Jews of all kinds celebrated when it returned to Jewish hands in 1967. The soldiers who risked and gave their lives for this did so for all the Jewish people ‒ in Israel and the Diaspora.

The Western Wall deal would have made the Kotel officially a Haredi synagogue. Group prayer by women, court-sanctioned as legal and “a custom of the place” and conducted there now regularly without incident, would have been banned as a criminal offense. Modern-Orthodox women would have been banished to and doubly marginalized at Robinson’s Arch. HOW IS THAT? This would have been the trade-off for making the existing egalitarian prayer site officially a Reform and Conservative synagogue.

The deal would have “denominationalized” the entire Western Wall area, making it a Jewish version of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, where competing Christian denominations fight over every inch of turf. The Western Wall deal would have vastly enhanced the power and funding of the Haredi establishment and encouraged its ongoing encroachment on the personal and religious liberties of Israeli and Diaspora Jews alike.

Here’s what I favor: First, preserve the Western Wall as the national holy site of the Jewish people. Replace the Haredi administrator and his Western Wall Heritage Foundation on which not a single non-Haredi Jew or woman serves with a diverse commission of Jews from Israel and the Diaspora – half of them women.

Rabbi Danny Rich Senior Rabbi & chief executive Liberal Judaism, UK

The capture by the Israeli Army of Jerusalem’s Old City in 1967 should, perhaps, have fulfilled the ancient Jewish dream – and the modern Zionist hope – of a single Jewish people in one Jewish national homeland with Jerusalem as its capital. In the 2,000 years between how the psalmist described our longing for Zion (Psalm 137) and Theodor Herzl’s vision of a Jewish state, Jews lived under the theocratic regimes of Christian monarchs and Muslim emirs and a range of secular regimes from fascism to communism to democracy. Under each, the Jewish people enjoyed awesome achievements but also suffered great tragedies.

Liberal Judaism affirms that the unique blend of prophetic Jewish ideals and individual autonomy is best secured in a modern democracy in which the power of the state secures the widest of religious freedoms rather than the embodiment of one particular sect. The conundrum for the Liberal Jew is that Israel has institutionalized a corrupt partnership with a medieval-like Judaism at the expense of other understandings of what it means to be Jewish.

The Liberal Jew celebrates many aspects of modern Israel, including the revival of Hebrew, Jewish scholarship arising from the archeology of the land, the rescue and absorption of so many Jews, and the sense of Jewish pride and solidarity that Israel can motivate. Yet, it remains a cause of distress that so many Jews (and citizens of, and fighters for, Israel) cannot marry, live their Jewish lives in a manner acceptable to them or even be buried in accordance with their wishes. Furthermore, it is cruel that state institutions and authorities have been willing to sacrifice the rights of one group of Jews for another.

In an effort to create a modern, egalitarian Jewish state, Liberal Jews will pray and preach, visit and protest, support and lobby – within and without – because only by so doing can we prevent the punishment our forbearers suffered – loss of sovereignty in Israel – which our venerable teachers told us was caused by sinat hinam , or groundless intramural hatred.

Next, implement proposals along the lines of those put forth by attorney Susan Weiss and Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo. These start from the premise that the Western Wall was never intended to be a synagogue. It should be a place of individual prayer, spirituality and meditation. That means no organized services – Torah readings, bar or bat mitzvas and no mehitza partitions to separate men and women. At such a site, we would share what we have in common instead of focusing on what divides us.

Finally, don’t disengage from Israel. Engage more effectively. Fund a vastly expanded network of progressive religious schools, which over time would produce significant numbers of voters with an expansive and loving view of Jewish peoplehood. This would require vision, long-term commitment and money, but it would prove socially transformative.

Elliot Jager is the author of ‘The Balfour Declaration Sixty-Seven Words – 100 Years of Conflict’ forthcoming from Gefen.

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