Should marriages performed by non-Orthodox rabbis in Israel be recognized by the state? Should Reform and Conservative conversions performed in Israel be recognized? And if the authority of non-Orthodox rabbis is recognized should they also be entitled to receive a salary from the state just like Orthodox rabbis?
For Hiddush, a new initiative backed by liberal Jews that was launched just prior to Rosh Hashana, the answer to all of these questions is "yes." Headed by an Israeli Reform rabbi and supported by the Reform and Conservative movements, Hiddush, which means renewal, has set as its goal breaking the Orthodox monopoly over religion in Israel, which for historical reasons (see box) has always been dominated by the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate.
In the first step of its ambitious campaign to introduce a more pluralistic religious approach in Israel, Hiddush published a survey which found that most Jewish Israelis opposed the Orthodox monopoly.
The poll, conducted by the Smith Research Institute, found that 71 percent of Jewish Israelis supported equal state funding for all denominations - for synagogues, mikvaot (ritual baths) and rabbis' salaries - while 52% said that the state should not provide any financial support for religion at all. Some 82% of secular Israelis supported a complete separation of religion and state.
Two-thirds of Jewish Israelis and 92% of secular Israelis supported ending the Orthodox monopoly over marriages.
Some of Hiddush's goals include instituting civil marriages as well as ensuring recognition for Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist marriages and conversions and providing equal funding for non-Orthodox religious services, said Rabbi Uri Regev, CEO and president of Hiddush, and former president of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, in a telephone interview with The Jerusalem Post.
"We will be mobilizing among opinion leaders and the grassroots, among business leaders and other segments of the Jewish community," said Regev, adding that the Reform and Conservative movements have expressed their support for Hiddush.
"Jews the world over have a stake in this issue. Over the next year we will be putting pressure on policy makers to make the changes needed to enable more freedom of religion for all streams of Judaism - Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist."
BUT WHILE a large percentage of Israelis might in principle support some of Hiddush's aims, it is unclear how many of them would be willing to actively campaign for change.
The same Smith poll, which surveyed 1,200 adult Jewish Israelis, found that only 43% of respondents would be more likely to vote for a political party that supported more religious freedom. And Israel Beiteinu is the only party in the government coalition currently pushing for changes in the religious status quo.
In contrast, the haredi Shas and United Torah Judaism parties and the modern Orthodox Habayit Hayehudi, who are all members of the government coalition, appear to have the resolve and the political clout to block most of Hiddush's suggested reforms.
In fact, among Hiddush's various proposals, only one - the institutionalization of a type of civil marriage - appears to have a chance of actually being implemented. And even this change in the religious status quo, supported by Israel Beiteinu and included in the government coalition agreement as a political goal, will likely be hotly contested.
During Shas's election campaign, for instance, the party's spiritual mentor Rabbi Ovadia Yosef warned that the wrath of God would come upon anyone who voted for a party that supported civil marriages.
"God forbid that anyone should vote for such a party," Yosef said, without ever mentioning Israel Beiteinu, the party that supported a civil marital arrangement.
"There is an absolute prohibition against voting for them. The sin of those who vote for that party is too severe to be forgiven, it is impossible to describe their iniquity. It gives power to the evil side; it gives power to the devil, to the evil inclination. Someone who does such a thing will receive his punishment. God will punish him."
But despite Yosef's antagonistic statements, Shas reluctantly signed a government coalition agreement that included an obligation to draft legislation for civil commitment ceremonies - brit zugiyut - for non-Jews.
MK David Rotem (Israel Beiteinu), chairman of the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, said last week that by December at the latest, the legislation to enable civil commitment ceremonies between two non-Jews would be brought before the Knesset for a vote.
This is an arrangement that has already received the support of many Orthodox rabbis.
Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar, for example, has expressed his support for civil marriages between two non-Jews, which he calls a "Children of Noah Pact" [brit bnei noah]. And Shas leadership has said that it would support any bill that receives Amar's backing.
HOWEVER, A much more controversial proposal is being prepared by a special committee headed by Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman that would allow non-Jews to marry Jews in civil commitment ceremonies. Rotem expected the legislation to be ready for a Knesset vote by next year. These ceremonies are intentionally not called marriages in order to avoid rabbinic opposition.
Some Orthodox rabbis, most notably former Sephardi chief rabbi Eliahu Bakshi Doron, have advocated instituting civil commitment ceremonies in order to skirt some of the halachic problems that arise from religious marriages. One of the most serious problems is mamzerim (children born of an illicit sexual relationship).
According to Orthodox Jewish law a woman who marries in a religious ceremony retains her status as "married" until she undergoes a religious divorce ceremony, which includes the giving of a writ of divorce (get) by an Orthodox rabbinical court. If she has a consensual extramarital sexual relationship with a man who is not her husband, and they produce a child, then that child is considered a mamzer and is forbidden to marry another Jew who is not a mamzer.
In order to avoid these problems, Bakshi Doron argued that it made more sense to allow secular Jewish couples who did not take Orthodox Jewish law seriously to join in civil commitment ceremonies which have no legal weight according to Halacha. Then a woman's infidelity to her partner would not carry the same grave ramifications for herself and her children.
Another added value would be that Israelis who are not Jewish according to Orthodox criteria and who are not Christian or Muslim would be able to marry in Israel. According to Central Bureau of Statistics data, at the end of 2008 there were 312,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union and their children living in Israel who lacked a religious classification. They make up about 30% of approximately one million FSU immigrants who came to Israel starting in 1989.
These people received automatic Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return, which was amended in 1970 to include not only the grandchild of a Jew but that grandchild's spouse and children. But while they are expected to perform mandatory military service and have the right to vote, they cannot get married in Israel. They must leave Israel and have a civil marriage abroad, which is recognized by the Interior Ministry when they return to Israel.
Rotem and Neeman, both Orthodox Jews, support Doron's position.
"A situation in which thousands of Israelis can't get married here simply cannot continue," said Rotem. "Why should someone have to travel to Cyprus just to get married?" Israel Beiteinu, headed by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, an FSU immigrant, is spearheading this legislation because many of its constituents are immigrants from the FSU who cannot marry in Israel.
But Shas and UTJ are bitterly opposed to it. Even Habayit Hayehudi might not support it.
Former religious services minister Yitzhak Cohen recently told the Post, "Israel Beiteinu's proposition will encourage intermarriage, assimilation. Just look at the situation in the US. Permitting civil marriages in Israel is a slippery slope that could lead to spiritual catastrophe."
MK Uri Orbach (Habayit Hayehudi) said he also opposed the initiative. "This is a Jewish state and we should not be allowing intermarriage." Commenting on Hiddush's initiative, Orbach said, "Every so often the Reform Jews try to strengthen their hold here in Israel under a different guise.
"But until the Reform movement manages to bring to Israel half a million Jews, they will remain an organization that makes its impact by petitioning the Supreme Court and by publicizing provocative press releases like this latest initiative."
Rabbi Gilad Kariv, head of the Reform movement in Israel, said that Reform Judaism's influence on the grassroots level is growing. "During the upcoming holidays we expect about 50,000 Israeli families to experience Judaism at one of the movement's 35 centers around the country, 10 of which are new," said Kariv. "We also have 5,000 affiliated families and another 5,000 families who are weekly users."
Hiddush's Regev, who as former head of the Reform movement's Israel Religious Action Center is a veteran activist for religious pluralism, admitted that in the current political climate it would be difficult to dismantle the Orthodox monopoly over religious services.
"The challenge we will present has value in itself even if we do not manage to bring change immediately," he said.