Secular Judaism, the lack of diversity in Israeli media, alternatives to religious marriage and much more were all on the agenda of the 21st Hakhel Festival of Jewish Learning in Ramat Gan on Sunday, bringing together a host of public figures and activists to discuss trends and challenges in Israeli society.
Close to 2,000 people participated in approximately 30 workshops, lectures, panel discussions and lessons during the event, which is a project of Panim – a network of 60 pluralistic Judaism organizations.
One of the principle panel discussions deliberated on the common assumption that secular Israelis retain an affinity to Orthodox Judaism when it comes to their life cycle events such as marriage, burial and other occasions.
The idea that the synagogue which secular Israelis do not attend is Orthodox, is a commonplace notion, and for many remains true.
However the flowering of the Jewish renewal movements – emphasizing Jewish culture, tradition, and learning in a liberal, non-denominational framework – has brought many secular Israelis into contact with alternative forms of Jewish expression that have not until now been common in the Jewish state.
But the extent to which these movements are changing attitudes among the general masses of the secular community remains unclear.
Regev Ben-David, academic director of programs at Ein Prat Midrasha and a lecturer with the Beit Midrash Elul program, noted that along with Jewish renewal groups there are three main organizations conducting alternative Jewish weddings outside of the Chief Rabbinate for secular couples.
These ceremonies, which are not recognized by the state, are based on traditional Jewish weddings but are tailored to the couple with their input, perhaps changing the wording of the blessings, adding elements to the ceremony or modernizing it.
Some couples who marry in this way will subsequently have a civil marriage ceremony abroad that is then recognized by the Interior Ministry. Others remain unwed in the eyes of the state but are held to be in common-law marriages.
Each year, there are approximately 1,500 Jewish renewal and non-Orthodox weddings, which are also not recognized by the state, said Ben-David.
That is a significant number, but not huge when bearing in mind that the national-religious Tzohar group alone helps approximately 4,000 non-religious couples get married through the rabbinate.
However, Ben-David said the scope for non-Orthodox or Jewish renewal weddings is much larger, with some 70% to 80% of the secular public saying they would opt for a non-Orthodox wedding if it were recognized by the state.
Other measures of the extent of secular affinity for non-Orthodox forms of Judaism remain harder to come by, though Regev noted that increasing numbers of people are opting for bar and bat mitzvas in non-Orthodox frameworks, while non-religious burial is also becoming more popular with more than 50% of secular Jews saying they would opt for non-religious burial.
Ben-David said that the growing attraction of new forms of Jewish expression among secular Jews is connected to a desire for making their encounters with Judaism and religion more commensurate with the way they live their daily lives.
“Many of the people who go for non-Orthodox Judaism are finding it a way to articulate a form of Judaism that is coherent with their lifestyle and modern, liberal values,” he said.
“The Zionist movement shifted the emphasis from religion to the national aspect of Jewish people, a Judaism that is suitable for State of Israel and the revival of Jewish nationality.”
Michal Berman, CEO of Panim, said that Israelis are “educated from day one” that Judaism equals Orthodoxy.
“In recent years, more and more Israelis are exposed to a different Judaism as they visit Jewish communities overseas, Judaism that they were not aware of and they find it more accepting and relevant to their lives,” said Berman.
“More and more Israelis are getting aware to the Jewish richness this way and try to develop their own model in their communal surrounding in Israel. It’s time Israeli state institutions realize that and address this growing audience.”
The lack of alternatives to religious marriage in Israel was another of the topics covered in a separate panel at the festival, which included Tehila Friedman, head of the national- religious Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah organization.
NTA has of late been conducting a campaign to raise awareness of the hundreds of thousands of Israelis who cannot marry in Israel because the Chief Rabbinate will not marry them.
This includes some 375,000 citizens from the former Soviet Union who are not Jewish according to religious law, as well as approximately 284,000 homosexuals, and an additional 400,000 who can marry but face potential restrictions on whom they can marry due to the constraints of Jewish law.
Friedman says that within the religious community, one of the biggest obstacles to advancing solutions on this issue is simply a lack of awareness that there are so many people who cannot marry in the Jewish state.
She noted that religious couples will always have a rabbi who they know from yeshiva or seminary or their community who can straighten out any problems they might have registering for marriage, and that they are unlikely to encounter the kind of problems faced by citizens from the former Soviet Union, Jewish or non-Jewish.
But she said it is important to not necessarily talk about the issue from a matter of civil rights but to focus instead on how the situation might alienate Israeli citizens from Judaism and from the Jewish people when their own country refuses to allow them to marry.
And the way to advance a solution is for people to put the issue at the top of their agenda.
“It needs to be important to people. They need to talk about it, get the attention of politicians, study and understand it if they’re not familiar with the details like they educate themselves about issues such as the conflict with the Palestinians,” said Friedman.
“If we could get Likud voters, Kahlon [Kulanu] voters to take this seriously, then we could make a change,” she added.
“These are critical issues, no less than security concerns for the State of Israel, so people need to ask political candidates what their positions are on marriage and religion and state in general.”