Between religion and state

The ideal balance lies between total separation and driving people away from observance of any kind.

Haredim 521 (photo credit:
Haredim 521
(photo credit:
Uri Regev leans back in a chair in the succa of downtown Jerusalem’s Hebrew Union College. With his white hair and beard and button-down shirt, he would appear, given a change of clothes, to be a typical haredi (ultra-Orthodox) rabbi. Regev would most likely take exception to that description, however, as he is a former head of the World Union for Progressive Judaism and is a founder of the human rights organization B’Tselem – not a favored group among right-wing religious Israelis.
As he chats, one grows aware of his command of the English language, honed from time spent in the United States and the necessities of his former position as founder and head of the Reform Movement’s legal arm. In this capacity, he was involved in several landmark cases in Israel, including the Supreme Court case that granted Reform and Conservative conversions performed abroad legitimacy here.
He is a controversial figure in the country today, particularly in the haredi sector, which views him as a major threat due to his work with his NGO Hiddush.
Hiddush, which denotes a novel interpretation in Talmudic parlance, is an organization dedicated to what Regev terms “religious diversity and equality.”
A former Tel Avivian, Regev has lived in Jerusalem since the late 1970s and has since busied himself with the issues of religion and state that have divided Jerusalemites in recent years. Among his recent activities in the capital, he organized what he termed a “tent of the stuck” to protest Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz’s refusal to allow public transportation to run through secular neighborhoods on Shabbat. At the time, Hiddush’s VP, former journalist Shahar Ilan, accused the government of taking the poor, who cannot afford private cars, and “selling them to the haredi parties for a few more months in power.” Working with youth forum Bamah, Hiddush placed tents and banners with such slogans as “Spring has come, but the bus hasn’t” on Shlomzion Hamalka Street in the city center.
Most of Regev’s work, which includes fighting gender segregation in the city, revolves around getting information into the hands of the media, relevant politicians and officials and concerned citizens.
Describing his formative years, prior to his move to the capital and his establishment of the Jerusalembased Hiddush, Regev notes that he grew up “in a secular environment in Tel Aviv.”
“I attended elementary and high schools that were associated with the Labor movement and found religion, so to speak, almost by coincidence when the principal of my high school selected me to participate in an exchange program that was sponsored by the Reform Movement in America. This was a transformative experience for me, not so much because I loved and admired everything that I saw, but because it taught me an important lesson that as a secular Israeli growing up I wasn’t aware of: [that] Jewish life is not about only the poles – you are either Orthodox or secular – but Jewish life is about a continuum, and that an option for creative Judaism, for positive but selective Judaism, a dynamic Judaism, exists out there and one can reconcile modernity with tradition with a commitment to civil liberties.”
As he was first exposed to Judaism during the “height of the Civil Rights Movement” in America, he says, his Jewish philosophy has striven from the start to integrate core Jewish values with the tolerance and diversity of American liberal democracy.
After graduating from a university program sponsored by the Israeli defense establishment, he went on to become a senior military legal adviser. Later on, after studying philosophy – both Jewish and general – and Talmud in an academic setting, he enrolled in the Hebrew Union College and received rabbinic ordination in 1986.
After that, he says, he helped establish the Reform Movement’s Israel Religious Action Center, the “public arm of progressive Judaism,” during which time, among other cases, he represented a television producer and a computer engineer who “were discriminated against because of their Shabbat observance.”
WHILE SPEAKING at Hebrew Union College, he appears calm and collected, using a measured tone, but at the same time, he does not hold back from blasting those he sees as threatening the fabric of the country’s religious, social and political life.
The rabbi’s first words upon sitting down to be interviewed were a harsh indictment of Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar, whom Regev accuses of undermining the legitimacy of the state. Citing a recent article by Amar, Regev accuses the chief rabbi of “talking about the civil courts of Israel being in the category of the courts of the gentiles” and thus forbidden, and for interpreting a passage requesting the destruction of the rule of evil, as applying to the Jewish state.
“What will it take for people to realize that there is something the matter here?” he asks. In Israel, he says, “the government is so politically corrupted” that officials can utter “even the most extreme teachings that call to question the legitimacy of the state.”
Holding forth on this theme, he segues into a critique of the national-religious Tzohar organization, which has been campaigning to reform the Chief Rabbinate and return it to what the group’s founder, Rabbi David Stav, says are its Zionist roots.
“Tzohar has many virtues and has done many good things, but one shouldn’t confuse Tzohar with a commitment to religious freedom or to religious diversity or to mutual respect,” due to its rejection of Reform Judaism, Regev says. Moreover, he believes Tzohar’s idea of reforming the rabbinate is not practical.
“This is not about an overhaul,” he asserts. “The rabbinate has to be closed down.”
Asked if he is in favor of free-market religion, he responds that there “should be a free market, because I think that the American model teaches us, ironically, what people do not understand because it is sort of counterintuitive: namely that America is as religious as it is – and it is one of the most religious countries in the world – by virtue of the separation of religion and state and not in spite of it.”
He stresses that “religious freedom is a great enhancement of religious life and diversity. Religious coercion, as we find in Israel, results in alienating and disenfranchising, and therefore people rejecting religion rather than finding their place on this beautiful rainbow and continuum of religious observance.”
Finding a counterpart to Amar in the Education Ministry, Regev cites Rabbi Yehuda Zoldan, who is in charge of religious education for the ministry and who wrote on his department’s public website that one should undermine the democratic process and go against the will of the majority if the majority supports policies that violate one’s understanding of Torah. Zoldan was specifically referring to cases in which religious soldiers are ordered to evacuate Jews from West Bank settlements.
According to Regev, “because of politics, Israelis have brought about an anomaly which is a major threat to the rule of law and to the integrity of a democratic regime, namely that not only are there people on the margins who challenge the legitimacy of majority rule and democracy, but you find them in the rabbinate and government.... These are senior officials who are growing and rearing a new generation that is being educated to see the clash between religion and state in this way, namely disrespect for majority rule and democracy.”
He hedges, “I am not advocating a separation of religion and state, but what we have here is a mingling of religion and state to the detriment of the state.”
There must exist a third way, he believes, that stands between total separation of religion and state and what he sees as a coercive Chief Rabbinate that is driving people away from religious observance of any kind.
It was in search of this third way that he says he founded Hiddush, which is “dedicated to realizing the promise of Israel’s declaration of independence for freedom of religion and for equality regardless of religion.”
“This is what Hiddush is about,” he says, “the desire, based on a sense of critical need for the State of Israel to realize this founding premise that has not been fully realized as yet, for religious freedom and for equality regardless of religion.”
His organization’s position is “that we accept the essence of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state and believe that realizing the premise of religious freedom and equality will both strengthen Israel as a Jewish state and it will strengthen Israel’s democracy – that is the core definition of what Israel is about.”
To reach this goal, “we felt there was a need for an organization like Hiddush that focuses only on issues of religious freedom and equality.”
In order to garner support from both the political Left and the political Right, he continues, Hiddush largely ignores all issues related to the regional conflict and anything else not directly connected to issues of religion and state.
As such, he says he has been successful in gaining the approbation of such figures as authors Yossi Klein Halevi and Amos Oz, and attorney Alan Dershowitz.
“They all feel equally comfortable endorsing the message of Hiddush, which they would not have felt able to do if we added on other controversial issues,” Regev says.
Returning to the Chief Rabbinate, an issue that seems close to Regev’s heart, he says the institution is “political in nature” and that the selection of the chief rabbi is an extension of coalition politics, making it essentially a “payoff” to make the haredi parties happy.
“The idea of a Zionist rabbinate is gone,” he laments. “The majority control of the Chief Rabbinic Council is haredi. The Zionist forces are on the margins.”
TURNING HIS attention to Jerusalem, he glosses over the issues of gender segregation in the public sphere, the running of buses and opening of stores on Shabbat, and other issues with which he and his organization have been intimately involved.
Instead, he says, there is a different, underlying issue that must first be resolved before there can be progress on any of the other fronts. The issue? A lack of housing for haredim that leads them to migrate into secular neighborhoods, combined with an increasing sense of religious “triumphalism.”
Asked if Jerusalem will one day become a fully haredi city, at least on the Jewish side, Regev replies that the current inter-religious fighting in Jerusalem “is unfortunate” because “there was a time when haredi and secular Jews lived in the same buildings and lived in mutual respect and mutual accommodation.”
According to Regev, “while they did not share beliefs or practices, they respected each other. In Tel Aviv, when I was growing up, this was certainly the story. I’m afraid that those days are over. In part, I believe that it has to do with Orthodox triumphalism and an attempt to dictate forms of conduct in the public sphere that result in a [backlash]. This is a dialectical process, and people react strongly and react in a way that is often reflected by hatred.”
He recalls that when he first moved to Jerusalem in 1978, “there were three restaurants open on Shabbat. You now look around you and there are hundreds of places. There are pubs, coffee shops, discos, restaurants that are open on Shabbat.”
As such, he continues, there are “conflicting trends” in the capital.
“On the one hand, you have a growing breakdown of previous restrictions. On the other hand, 62 percent of the firstgraders in the city are ultra-Orthodox. The nature of municipal politics is such that without haredi support, it is impossible to gain the mayoralty. So what you find is a growing abuse in terms of municipal funding, in terms of the allocation of municipal land and other such things. You also have a radicalization that can be seen in the issue of gender separation in the city. It is certainly not a one-direction or one-track development.”
Proposing a controversial solution to the problem of increasing secular/ultra-Orthodox friction in Jerusalem, especially in neighborhoods with a growing haredi population such as Kiryat Hayovel, Regev says that secular and religious Jews must be separated.
“There may be some [haredim] who look at Kiryat Hayovel as a challenge in conquering another neighborhood and turning it into a religious neighborhood, but while there are some who follow this expansionist philosophy, there are many who simply are looking for reasonable housing, and it’s clear to us that if Israel does not provide accessible and reasonable housing for haredim, they are bound to be looking for it in secular neighborhoods, and there will be growing friction and conflict,” he predicts.
“I therefore think it is in the interest of Jerusalem and the State of Israel to treat the challenge of housing for haredim seriously and in a thoughtful, preplanned way,” he says. “For instance, the building must be associated with sources of work and incomegenerating opportunities. Otherwise, you are dooming them to a life of dependency.”
Considering the present situation, he continues, “and I say this painfully, Jerusalem and Israel are better off separating the communities rather than mixing them, and therefore I hope for the sake of the residents of Kiryat Hayovel that this is not yet a lost cause and the local activists will be able to maintain the local character of the neighborhood. However, this will be dependent on finding alternative solutions for haredi housing.”
AT PRESENT, his main focus is “raising consciousness and providing reliable and critical data as to the impact of the lack of religious equality on a variety of aspects of Israeli life, in the private sphere, the social sphere and in the state sphere.”
To this end, Hiddush has created the Israel Religion and State Index, which Regev says is “the biggest systematic polling of public opinion and tracing of trends in public opinion on matters of religion and state. We have published a variety of research papers and have reached out to policy makers of a number of critical issues such as the Tal Law and the issue of the draft, and we are involved in providing legal support for people who encounter problems due to a lack of religious freedom.”
The opposition that he has encountered has been heartening “in a perverse way,” he says with a smile.
“When leading haredi political analysts and leaders such as MK Rabbi Moshe Gafni [United Torah Judaism] attributed to Hiddush the essence of the Trajtenberg Committee’s recommendations [in response to last summer’s protest movement] that dealt with the haredim, I saw that as a great badge of honor.
There is no question that we were not responsible, but the perception that somehow Hiddush has taken on this omnipotence and influence behind the scenes was great.”
The haredi community does seem threatened by Hiddush.
According to ultra-Orthodox Internet news website Yeshiva World News, Hiddush “has undertaken to wage an unrelenting war against haredi Jewry in Eretz Yisrael. Armed with a budget and a state media willing to be partner to such a noble cause, the organization can boast success in fueling the anti-haredi sentiment in Israel, from championing the battle for equal rights for women to anything else that challenges the life style of the frum tzibur [observant community].”
Gafni, quoted in the same article, said he objected to the large salaries that Regev and Ilan received, which he claimed amounted to more than two thirds of Hiddush’s budget and totaled more than NIS 1 million annually.
One popular Haredi writer and commentator, who asked to remain anonymous, says that, in his estimation, Regev’s views on the separation of secular and ultra-Orthodox Jews contradict his stated position in favor of diversity and tolerance. Such a view, he claims, constitutes “apartheid” and discrimination against haredim and shows that Hiddush’s agenda is for freedom for Reform and secular Jews only.
According to Regev, his organization seems to have caused the haredim to mobilize.
“Rabbi [Arye] Deri said that the haredi community has a problem because their old rhetoric just will not do, because Hiddush comes with facts and figures and the haredim need to be able to counter this in other ways. The haredim now see a need for their own center to develop these facts and figures,” he says. “A series of such pronouncements and statements, as negative and hostile as they have been, have shown us that in a short period of time we have become an impactful entity in this front [of the battle over] religion and state.” •