Religious Affairs: Fighting for a tolerant Judaism in Israel

A Yesh Atid triumvirate of national-religious MKs seeks to attract moderate voters from the community to its brand of Orthodox Judaism.

 MK Shai Piron and MK Elazar Stern (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
MK Shai Piron and MK Elazar Stern
The 19th Knesset witnessed an unprecedented level of debate, division and dispute over the Jewish identity of the State of Israel, the role of religion in public life and the freedom, or lack thereof, for people to express their Judaism and live it in the manner they deem most fit.
And throughout the brief life of this Knesset, one struggle in particular became ever more prevalent and was fought at an increasingly fierce pitch in the corridors of power and in the media.
This was the battle between the political representatives of the liberal, progressive wing of the national-religious community and the more conservative contingent of the sector, and it underlined the way the two sides perceive the place of Judaism in Israel in very different ways.
It was MKs Aliza Lavie and Shai Piron of Yesh Atid, along with MK Elazar Stern – formerly of the Hatnua faction but now in their party – who were the ones largely flying the banner of change for the long-established status quo on religion and state.
Meanwhile, MKs from the conservative wing of the national-religious community within Bayit Yehudi, frequently from its Tekuma constituency but often from Bayit Yehudi itself, sought to stymie or water down many of the reforms proposed by their Yesh Atid counterparts.
And during the current election campaign, Piron, Lavie and Stern have sought to highlight their liberalizing yet firmly religious and Orthodox credentials, in an effort to attract voters from what they describe as the moderate wing of the national-religious movement.
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post, this troika says it will continue to fight for these values in the next Knesset, but also expressed a great degree of disappointment in the Bayit Yehudi party for what they described as its frequent obstructionism in changing an outmoded attitude to religious life in Israel.
High on the list of complaints was Bayit Yehudi’s decision to block legislation that would have broadened the haredi-dominated body for the election of Israel’s chief rabbis.
The election took place in summer 2013 and the race for the position of Ashkenazi chief rabbi pitched Rabbi David Stav, chairman of the Tzohar rabbinical association, against haredi candidate and eventual victor Rabbi David Lau.
Stern proposed legislation which would have guaranteed that 40 women would sit on the body, and would have watered down haredi influence on the panel. Bayit Yehudi vetoed the bill, however, and Lau won the election.
Since then the chief rabbi has bitterly opposed two key reforms to religious services – the abolition of marriage registration districts that Bayit Yehudi supported and Stern’s conversion reform bill, as well as other measures proposed by the Yesh Atid trio.
And it was not only the haredi chief rabbis but the hard-line national-religious rabbis and their loyalists in Bayit Yehudi who essentially vetoed the passage of the conversion bill as legislation, and insisted it be watered down and passed by government order instead.
“There was definitely a missed opportunity,” asserted Piron. “I think Bayit Yehudi had the chance to make serious changes; they could have brought about a national-religious chief rabbi, but the party made every mistake to ensure this didn’t come about.”
Piron, who served as the education minister in Israel’s 33rd government, said he believed Bayit Yehudi chairman Naftali Bennett to be “a partner” on many issues regarding the face of Judaism in the state. Yet he observed that there were “certain rabbis who were the ones who in the end decide” on such matters.
Piron was referencing the coterie of hard-line national-religious rabbis, including Shmuel Eliyahu, Dov Lior and Shlomo Aviner, who hectored Bayit Yehudi and its representatives throughout the duration of the last Knesset and publicly opposed many of the proposed reforms on religion and state.
Lavie echoed Piron’s sentiment, saying she had not expected the level of opposition to the legislation she proposed.
“They said during their last election campaign that they wanted to return Judaism to the people, to make Judaism more accessible and to amend things, but this is not what happened. They were against everything, it was impossible to work with them,” she lamented.
Lavie said that even though the likes of late MK Uri Orbach and Bennett himself were amenable to reforms, “the group that was strongest on religion and state issues was the Hardal [haredi national-religious] group.”
Lavie hastened to underline, however, the numerous pieces of legislation she advanced on issues of religion and state – especially the law guaranteeing that four women sit on the 12-member Committee for Appointing Rabbinical Judges, a measure designed to lead to the appointment of more moderate judges to the rabbinical courts network, and thereby improve their treatment of women.
Lavie’s law was approved in Knesset, although she noted that four Bayit Yehudi MKs absented themselves from the final vote.
But other legislation she sought to pass encountered greater opposition and parliamentary blocks, frustrating Lavie’s hopes for liberalizing Jewish life in Israel.
She proposed legislation to prevent the phenomenon of the “race to the authorities,” in which one of the spouses of a married couple experiencing difficulties will file for divorce without exploring all avenues for reconciliation in order to ensure that divorce proceedings are heard in the legal system they believe to be most advantageous to them.
Lavie noted that her legislation to amend this issue was blocked by Bayit Yehudi MKs and the Religious Services Ministry.
Non-legislative efforts to increase awareness of the issue of agunot, “chained” women unable to gain a divorce; gain rights for women to receive stipends for Torah study; prevent sexual harassment against women performing national service; and up opportunities for religious women to join the army were more successful, and Lavie highlighted a raft of such measures that she has been able to advance over the last two years.
Whether the liberal tendencies of the national-religious Yesh Atid triumvirate is to the taste of the majority of national-religious voters is unclear.
The party is a firm proponent of civil unions, including for same-sex couples, as an alternative to religious marriage through the Chief Rabbinate, something which even many liberal rabbis in the national-religious movement – including Stav – oppose.
Piron and Lavie both reiterated their support for such a measure, while Stern is slightly more circumspect about the issue, saying his goal is that Jews in Israel should want to marry through the rabbinate. He nevertheless gave qualified support to civil unions for those who either cannot or do not want to marry through the religious establishment.
Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid has also spoken out in favor of granting equal legal and budgetary status to the Reform and Masorti Movements in Israel, an idea which would does not sit comfortably with large sections of the national-religious movement.
Piron said he had no issue with providing equal funding to the non-Orthodox movements, and argued it is undemocratic to deny budgets to one favored denomination over another.
And all three acknowledged that their perspective might not be shared by different sectors within the national-religious community, but insisted the values of democracy as well as Orthodox Judaism must be upheld in the state.
“Not all national-religious people can accommodate their values with those of the pluralists within Yesh Atid,” conceded Piron.
“But we can’t speak about wanting to live according to liberal, democratic values in general, but then when it comes to religion and state suddenly forget these principles and insist on implementing a traditional perspective,” he continued.
Stern said, meanwhile, that the major problem is Israeli citizens have developed a negative image of Judaism because of the way the institutions and functionaries of the religious establishment have behaved in recent years.
“Rabbinical courts ask conversion candidates ridiculous questions, divorce proceedings in rabbinical courts negatively discriminate against and abuse women, but those courts insist that everything be kept under their auspices, and the chief rabbi says that it is forbidden by the Torah for women to serve in the army,” observed Stern.
And despite their reformist zeal, Lavie, Piron and Stern all acknowledge that they are committed to Orthodox Judaism. Lavie said explicitly that she would not advance changes which contradict Jewish law, and Piron said he sought to advance the moderate national-religious path he himself has adopted, taught and worked towards during his non-political career.
Eyebrows have been raised and complaints voiced discreetly by the non-Orthodox movements that the three activists within Yesh Atid on religion and state issues are Orthodox MKs, albeit liberal ones.
As Stern alluded to in his tirade against the religious establishment, the national-religious Yesh Atid troika does not seek to dismantle what the Reform and Masorti Movements see as the Orthodox monopoly over religion in Israel, but to moderate it.
All three insist, however, that in Israel’s complicated social and religious fabric, compromise is required on all sides; moreover, the notion everyone can be satisfied is a chimera which will prolong the struggle over religious life.
“If we don’t want to divide religion and state, then we have to bridge between the two worlds of pluralism and religion,” contended Stern. “This bridge has a price in terms of Jewish and democratic values, which both sides need to pay; both sides need to concede certain things.”
“We are presenting an alternative and there are people who think like us, who want to amend things but to say loudly that we are a Jewish and democratic state,” observed Lavie, picking up the theme. “It’s impossible in 2015 to withhold rights from other people.
Taking this middle path, by preserving the religious establishment but wresting it away from those they believe have corrupted it, is certainly not an easy path to tread: It opens all three up to accusations and attacks from the two sides surrounding them – from the Orthodox world, that they are compromising too greatly and endangering the Jewish character of the state; and from the secular or pluralist world, that they are struggling to preserve the ancien regime at the expense of greater religious choice and freedom.
Yet it is perhaps gratifying that in this country of such bitter division on the more “explosive material” that constitutes our debate over the place of religion, as Piron puts it, there are efforts afoot to bridge the divides.