In 1990, I was asked to write a teshuva (responsa) for the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly of Israel, on the question: Is it permissible to hold a bar/ bar mitzva ceremony for the developmentally challenged?
The inquiry was prompted by the fact that special- needs children were being denied such ceremonies in Israeli synagogues for a variety of reasons, including the contention that they were not required to observe mitzvot.
After investigating the matter my conclusion was that indeed, so-called disabled children and others with special needs are required to observe whatever mitzvot possible, and that they may be called to the Torah and have a bar/bat mitzva ceremony symbolizing that fact. (The full text of the teshuva can be found in Volume 4 of the Responsa of the Va’ad Halacha of the Rabbinical Assembly of Israel.)
Relying on this teshuva, the Masorti Movement (Conservative Judaism in Israel) undertook a program of bar/bat mitzva instruction for children with special needs of every type – a program that has since provided classes on Judaism for hundreds of such children in public schools throughout Israel, culminating in bar/bat mitzvot held in Masorti congregations.
These ceremonies are oriented toward those who want to participate with no coercion, and the program is funded entirely by the Masorti Movement. It is a wonderful contribution to Israeli society for the benefit of these children and their families, without regard to their religious persuasion.
When the program began, this was the only opportunity available for such children in Israel – and it been a resounding success, contributing to the self-esteem and religious identity of so many. I must admit that it has been a source of pride to me to have had a part in this wonderful endeavor.
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Therefore I was terribly pained when this year, the mayor of Rehovot refused to permit an area school to conduct this ceremony at the city’s Masorti synagogue, something that had been done year after year.
Even worse was the fact that after negotiations to have the ceremony take place at the President’s Residence, at the last moment the permission to have a Masorti rabbi participate there together with an Orthodox rabbi was withdrawn by President Reuven Rivlin. When the Masorti Movement complained about this, accusations were made by the president that the movement was refusing to compromise and was exploiting the situation for its own purposes.
Wasn’t the willingness of the movement to conduct the ceremony together with an Orthodox rabbi a compromise, since only the Masorti Movement had anything at all to do with the entire affair? The movement alone was responsible for the year-long classes these children had attended, and had financed the entire program.
I was and remain shocked that Rivlin, who thus far in his time in office has shown great sensitivity to inclusiveness in Israeli society, would deny a Masorti rabbi the right to officiate at his official home. It is known that in the past he has made deprecating statements concerning all non-Orthodox movements, but since taking up the presidential post he seemed to have distanced himself from this.
Has he now returned to his previous position, embodying the classical secular-Israeli feeling that “the synagogue I do not attend has to be an Orthodox one?” I thought we were beyond that point. Certainly, the Israeli public has shown in poll after poll that it favors rights and recognition for the various streams in Judaism.
The President’s Office has stated that it should not be involved in religious conflicts, but by agreeing to host a ceremony with an Orthodox rabbi presiding while refusing to hold one when a Masorti rabbi is also involved, the president has done exactly that.
Has he condemned the actions of the mayor in vetoing a ceremony in a Masorti synagogue? By what right did he interfere in this affair, and deny these children the ceremony they had looked forward to? Mr. President – it is your duty to speak out against such actions, and to advocate in favor of religious pluralism. It is not too late to reverse your decision, to admit your mistake and prove yourself the president of all – and not only of the official religious establishment. Unfortunately, this is unlikely to happen.
The painful conclusion is that this incident is only one more example of what happens in Israel when the Orthodox establishment has a legal monopoly in many areas of religious life, and in which by implication, all other groups are illegitimate – a situation that is no longer sustainable and can no longer be tolerated in silence.
It is time to bring an end to this, as it brings shame upon Israel and only serves to distance world Jewry from Israel, even though the chances of doing so at the moment – when Shas and other religious parties are so entrenched in the government – are very slim.
Millions of shekels have been allocated in coalition agreements to fund the religious institutions of the ultra-Orthodox and the Shas school system.
Millions go to sustain a Chief Rabbinate that has shown itself to be a hindrance to women’s rights, that persists in depriving women of their rights to worship appropriately at the Western Wall; and that subverts all attempts to make conversion possible for thousands of new immigrants. Such an institution does not deserve to exist.
Pressure must be brought on the political parties to demand change, to support civil marriage laws and to provide equal rights for all expressions of the Jewish religion. If more and more Israeli couples would refuse to be married by the rabbinate and would choose instead to have ceremonies performed by rabbis of their choice, to be followed by civil ceremonies outside of Israel, this would at least demonstrate the Israeli public’s disdain for this institution.
Although this problem affects Israelis first and foremost, anything connected to the rights of Jews to worship freely must be of concern to all Jews everywhere.
The time has come for Diaspora Jewry to support religious freedom in Israel by changing the way it supports Israel through charitable giving.
There are several steps that can be taken that will benefit Israel but at the same time, will serve to correct the imbalance created by Israel’s politically controlled budget. Firstly, donors must pressure the Jewish Federations to make greater allocations to pluralistic organizations.
Secondly, instead of contributing money to Israel in a general way – which, in a sense, is also lending support to the government-sponsored institutions – they should direct their funds to the support of individual organizations – religious, cultural, medical, social – that meet the criteria of religious pluralism.
Instead of giving to unspecified causes, people should channel their financial support of Israel to the organizations and institutions that promote religious pluralism here.
They should see to it that a large percentage of their Israel giving – certainly at least half – should go directly to the religious stream to which they belong. In the case of Conservative Jews that would be the Masorti Movement, which funds the program for special-needs children as well as many other important programs, including subsidies for congregations and rabbinical salaries that receive little to no government help.
And finally, each Jew should take out an overseas membership in a Masorti congregation here – which one is unimportant – thus helping financially and also giving moral support to their Israeli counterparts.
Reform Jews should do the same for their institutions.
In addition, Diaspora Jews must make their displeasure clear to any representative of Israel who contacts them for whatever reason.
There is no excuse for continuing the current situation.
For decades now, world Jewry has tolerated this policy of discrimination quietly, out of a sense of loyalty to Israel. But Jews can continue to be loyal while still showing support for religious freedom.
If Diaspora Jewry is truly dismayed by what is happening here, it must do more than complain and write letters. It must actively support our institutions here, and thereby help bring about the changes needed – so there will be full religious freedom for all Jews in the Jewish state. The writer, a former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly and the founding director of the Schechter Institute, has written for The Jerusalem Post for over 40 years. He has served as head of the Masorti Movement’s Rabbinic Court for Conversion and is now a member of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly. A prolific author, two of his books have received the National Jewish Book Council Award as the best work of scholarship of the year. His most recent book is The Torah Revolution (Jewish Lights), and his next volume, Akiva: Life, Legend, Legacy (JPS), is scheduled for publication in October.
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