The Chief Rabbinate on Thursday accused the non-Orthodox Jewish denominations of “uprooting Judaism,” causing assimilation and intermarriage, and having “no connection” to authentic Judaism.
The Reform movement retorted that the Chief Rabbinate’s attack was based on its “panic” because Israelis were fed up with the Orthodox establishment.
The 16-member council of the Chief Rabbinate issued its statement following its monthly meeting and addressed the agreement reached last month between the government, the non-Orthodox denominations and the Women of the Wall organization to create an upgraded pluralist prayer section at the southern end of the Kotel.
In addition to its bitter criticism of the Reform and Conservative movements, the Chief Rabbinate protested that it was not consulted on the agreement, and called on the government to freeze its implementation until it consults with the rabbinical body.
In its statement, the Chief Rabbinate said it was “against bodies that are called ‘liberals’ or ‘progressive’ that have engraved on their shield the uprooting of the Torah of the Jewish people from its essence and from its uniqueness.
“If you look at the assimilation that has spread throughout the Jews of the world who are connected with these bodies, at the intermarriage, the uprooting of everything of holiness, you will see clearly that they have no connection to original Judaism – Judaism that sustained the Jewish people throughout all the years of its existence,” the rabbis of the council declared.
“The Jewish people is not a nation except in its Torah – the written law and the oral law,” they said.
The council observed that in the mid-19th century, the Reform movement in Germany and then in the US rejected the notion of a Jewish return to Jerusalem and the Land of Israel, (although this stance was retracted in the 1930s).
“Giving a foothold at the Western Wall to those who in years past uprooted Zion and Jerusalem from their prayer books, and who declare in committee that all people are Israel, and who do not see the uniqueness of the Torah and do not believe in the foundations of the Jewish faith, which says that there will be no replacement for it, is extremely grave,” said the council.
Rabbi Gilad Kariv, head of the Reform movement in Israel, hit back at the Chief Rabbinate’s comments, accusing it of “behaving like a branch of the United Torah Judaism and Shas parties,” instead of a state body.
Kariv noted that the “rabbinical establishment” was involved in the negotiations leading to the agreement for a pluralistic prayer area and gave the agreement its approval.
Senior MKs from UTJ and Shas took part indirectly in the negotiations and in turn consulted the senior rabbinic leadership of the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) world.
“The wave of incitement of the last two weeks against Reform Judaism is not connected to the Western Wall or mikvaot, but rather to the understanding and the panic of haredi politicos that the majority of the Israeli public is disgusted by the Orthodox monopoly,” said Kariv.
“We are certain that the prime minister will act to swiftly implement the decision regarding the Western Wall, which was supported by a significant majority of government ministers and greatly supported among the overwhelming majority of the Israeli public and world Jewry.”
Meanwhile, dozens of rabbis from the Reform movement in Israel and North America joined together for the first official morning prayer service on Thursday held in the area of the Western Wall formally designated to be used for non-Orthodox worship.
Women and men joined together in the prayer service and participated in the reading of the traditional reading of the Thursday Torah portion as well as the recitation of the shehecheyanu blessing, a prayer traditionally said when celebrating a special occasion.
“The prayers of hundreds of people and Reform rabbis at the Western Wall is the ultimate answer to the incitement of the ultra-Orthodox leadership,” said Kariv. “They continue to incite and we continue to create a more pluralistic and tolerant reality in Israel.”
Many of the rabbis were in Israel for a meeting of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the movement’s rabbinical arm.
Earlier this month, Tourism Minister Yariv Levin (Likud), who was opposed to the Kotel decision, came under fire for saying that “Reform Jews in the US are a dying world,” prompting condemnation from the American Jewish Committee and from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“I reject the recent disparaging and divisive remarks by ministers and members of Knesset about Reform Jews,” Netanyahu said in a statement delivered to the press around the world.
“Reform and Conservative Jews are part and parcel of the Jewish people and should be treated with respect. This is the government’s policy. This is my policy.”
According to the Pew Research Center, 35 percent of American Jews identify as Reform, making it the largest denomination in the country, with around half of self-identified Reform Jews being married within the fold, “and 28% of those raised Reform have left the ranks of Jews by religion entirely.”
Levin’s remarks prompted Rabbi Rick Jacobs, head of the Union for Reform Judaism, the congregational arm of the Reform movement in North America, to say that “as long as he thinks Diaspora Jewry has no right to voice an opinion on subjects such as the Western Wall, we will not give him a platform in the Jewish communities and organizations in the United States,” initiating a boycott of the tourism minister.
Around the same time, former Shas party head Eli Yishai also criticized the government decision to upgrade and legally sanction the egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall, asserting that “the next thing we’ll see is [Reform Jews] putting tefillin on dogs and calling them up to the Torah.”
Levin doubled down on his comments, however, stating that the pluralistic prayer site would not be needed in two or three more generations, because there would no longer be Reform Jews due to assimilation. This drew further condemnations from the Bayit Yehudi chairman and Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett, among others.
Army Radio reported on Thursday that Netanyahu had requested that the Reform movement lift its ban on Levin, only to be rebuffed with Jacobs reiterating his demand that the tourism minister apologize.
“We are ready to sit down with him and teach him what our movement is and how strong we are,” Jacobs said. “He had no clue what Reform Judaism is.”
On Thursday, Levin said that he was standing by his statements.
The Reform movement also came under further fire from the ultra-Orthodox on Wednesday, when UTJ MK Yisrael Eichler called Netanyahu’s meeting with the Central Conference of American Rabbis leadership this week “a stab in the heart of true Judaism.”
“It’s not reasonable that the heads of the movements that caused terrible assimilation and the annihilation of millions of Jews in the Diaspora, and whose singular goal is always to undermine true Judaism, should receive a sympathetic ear and support from the prime minister for their fiendish deeds,” he said.
Eichler also compared the movement to someone who is “mentally ill,” while protesting the Supreme Court decision to allow non-Orthodox converts to immerse in public mikvaot to complete the process of joining the Jewish people.
“Not every mentally ill person can come to the operating room and decide the rules of medicine and force the hospital to have an operation by whatever way works,” Eichler said. “The High Court can’t force a hospital to allow the court’s surgeons and the court’s medicines into the operating room. And so it is intolerable that the directors of ritual baths will have to allow organizers of Reform religion- changing ceremonies into a Jewish ritual bath.”
The Anti-Defamation League on Thursday condemned Eichler’s words as “incitement.”Jerusalem Post staff, JTA and Gil Hoffman contributed to this report.