Analysis: A nation divided on Tisha Be'av

The struggle over religious pluralism casts a pall over the country as Tisha Be’av approaches.

Jews praying at the Western Wall on the eve of Tisha Be'av, July 31, 2017. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Jews praying at the Western Wall on the eve of Tisha Be'av, July 31, 2017.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Tisha Be’av, the Fast of the Ninth of Av, is the darkest hour of the Jewish calendar and indeed of the Jewish people itself.
On it we remember and mourn the destruction of the two temples in Jerusalem, the loss of Jewish sovereignty and national self-determination twice over, and all the calamities that befell the Jewish people ever since, including the destruction of Betar, the Crusades, the expulsion from Spain, and the horrors and murderous genocide of the Holocaust.
It is well known that while the Talmud states the destruction of the First Temple was due to the Jewish people transgressing the most severe prohibitions in the Torah, it declares that the Second Temple was destroyed due to “baseless hatred.”
While the meaning of “baseless hatred” is somewhat amorphous, it is nevertheless clear that in the State of Israel, sometimes referred to as the “Third Temple,” the Jewish people have not yet overcome their frequent hostility and antagonism toward one another, particularly over matters of religion.
Just two weeks, ago haredi MK Yinon Azoulay said that non-Orthodox Jews were responsible for the series of earthquakes in northern Israel; Bayit Yehudi MK Bezalel Smotrich has called progressive Judaism “a fake religion”; and former chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar, currently serving as Sephardi chief rabbi of Jerusalem, once said that progressive Jews “poison the wells of holiness” and are taking their followers to hell.
And this very Thursday morning, a Conservative rabbi was detained for questioning by police, due to a dubious law passed by a parliamentary ruse making it a criminal offense for an individual performing a Jewish wedding not to register it with the Chief Rabbinate.
The long-term and ongoing struggles over issues such as prayer rights at the Western Wall, conversion, Jewish marriage, and equal status for Reform and Conservative Judaism form the backdrop to such antipathy.
Those seeking greater religious pluralism, specifically for Judaism, in the Jewish state have sustained numerous blows in recent years in the face of tenacious and implacable opposition from both haredi and hard-line National Religious elements.
The question is asked therefore if there is any possibility or likelihood that religious pluralism or coexistence can take hold in the State of Israel.
At a basic level and on the substantive issues, the answer would appear to be a resounding and emphatic “no.”
Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, a leading figure in the conservative wing of the National Religious movement, put the situation into stark relief.
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post, he said simply and declaratively that Reform and Conservative Judaism “is not Judaism.”
“This [Judaism] is something else they have invented, so they cannot say it is Judaism,” the rabbi said.
His reasoning was clear. Progressive Judaism cannot make any claims for standing or recognition in the Jewish state, since it is not in fact Judaism.
Aviner therefore said he cannot understand why progressive Jews “are interfering with the Western Wall,” and that giving converts who converted through the Reform and Conservative movements citizenship under the Law of Return, as is the law today, is a mistake he would reverse.
Rabbi Aryeh Stern, the Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Jerusalem, was more temperate but equally emphatic.
“There is an ideological clash [between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Judaism], so compromise will not work,” Stern told the Post.
“Reform conversion is not acceptable to Orthodox Judaism, so we cannot have one alongside the other,” he asserted.
Regarding egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall, Stern rejected outright the legitimacy of such a practice.
“The Western Wall is not a place where any kind of compromises can be made. It is the holiest place for the Jewish people, a holy place should be treated with holiness, and therefore there has to be separation between men and women, a principle that is so obvious and familiar to us in synagogues that we are not going to abandon a principle like this,” said the rabbi. “We are not capable of agreeing to something like this. It’s a matter of principle at the holiest place to the Jewish people.”
What we are talking about, said Stern and Aviner, are clear matters of ideology, religious doctrine and principle, and as proponents of one particular doctrine, Orthodoxy, which holds political sway in Israel, they are simply incapable on a theological level of accepting the legitimacy of another denomination.
Rabbi Donniel Hartman, president of the pluralistic Shalom Hartman Institute, but who is himself Orthodox, is all too aware of this standpoint, and said simply that pluralism, therefore, “isn’t on the table.”
He pointed out that the religious parties have heavy political clout, and that the majority of Israelis do not care enough about religious pluralism to force through political change on these issues.
But, said Hartman, what is obtainable and should be strived for is greater tolerance. Even so, this too must come through political pressure, since ideological tolerance is also going to be difficult to obtain.
“Tolerance now has to be in someone’s political interests. Until someone says to the ultra-Orthodox [and hard-line National Religious] that this is the line you won’t cross, this is what I care about,’ then they won’’t have a reason to be more tolerant,” said Hartman.
The rabbi said therefore there needs to be a block of 10 to 15 MKs in the Knesset in the center and center-right of the political map “that care that Israel is a place where all Jews feel at home.”
Said Hartman, “This is challenge. When will we feel that baseless hatred is a real existential threat, and not just Hamas and Iran? Right now it’s not a high priority.”
Ultimately, Hartman said, the only path to tolerance and even eventually pluralism is through education, something his institution is heavily engaged in.
There is already some level of tolerance from the National Religious opponents to pluralism.
Aviner said that “differences of opinion should not lead to divisions of the heart,” and that “every Jew is invited to live in Israel; it’s the state of all Jews.”
His tolerance is of a relatively low level, however. “This doesn’t mean that all Jews can determine what the Torah says,” he added, saying that the opinions and standing of non-Orthodox Jews would still not be accepted even if they came en masse to Israel.
“They should feel at home, but in my home,” he said with a laugh.
Stern was more generous, saying that, for instance, giving budgetary allocations from state funds to progressive Jewish communities in Israel would be “less problematic” and something that he would be prepared to compromise on.
“If this creates a connection with and contentment in the [Jewish] world, it could be that this is worthwhile,” he said.
“The general masses of Reform people are not connected to Reform ideology. Should we say, God forbid, that they are not Jewish? We accept them and love them and always want to maintain a good connection and have real partnership.
But despite the determination by the Orthodox establishment not to compromise on the substantive issues, Rabbi David Golinkin, president of The Schechter Institutes associated with the Conservative movement, has a different take entirely.
To start with, he made a serious pitch for religious pluralism within Judaism, referencing the arguments and sometimes deep divisions over Jewish law between the Talmudic schools of Hillel and Shammai, the Talmudic institutions in the Land of Israel and Babylon, Ashkenazim and Sephardim and Hassidim and the Lithuanian mitnagdim.
“We are supposed to be united, but that doesn’t mean we have to think and act the same. It is unity versus uniformity, and uniformity has never been the case,” he said of the Jewish people. “The idea that there is a one-size-fits-all Judaism and that we all should do the same and act the same is in opposition to all Jewish and halachic history.
“The idea of one Chief Rabbinate is unprecedented. Even when we had a Sanhedrin, there were major halachic differences, and arguments between different rabbis, and we know of local practices that differed from each other,” Golinkin asserted.
But on a non-state level, the rabbi pointed out, religious pluralism already exists de facto on the ground.
The haredi community has its rabbinical courts, which it trusts, especially for conversion, the state operates the state rabbinical courts, which are used by the general populace for marriage, divorce, conversion and other issues, but are not trusted by the haredi community for the purposes of conversion.
Meanwhile, Reform and Conservative rabbis frequently perform weddings outside of the Chief Rabbinate and convert several hundred people a year through their movements.
A new conversion court was set up in recent years by liberal religious-Zionist rabbis which has also converted several hundred people, while a brand-new initiative also set up by liberal religious-Zionist rabbis will shortly start marrying people outside of the rabbinate who do not want to use the Chief Rabbinate for ideological reasons or whom the rabbinate refuses to marry for various reasons.
“Pluralism is happening and is continuing to progress, because that’s what the people of Israel want, but the government of Israel will continue, for the purposes of coalition politics, to impose a one-size-fits-all model,” said Golinkin. “But eventually the State of Israel will catch up with the way Judaism is being practiced on the ground.”
And Golinkin pointed to the detainment of the Conservative rabbi on Thursday, Rabbi Dov Hayun, Golinkin, as exactly the reason why this communal, de facto pluralism is needed.
“This is why many Orthodox, Conservative and Reform rabbis now perform hundreds of marriages every year, which are not recognized by the rabbinate and by the State of Israel. These young couples would rather have a meaningful ceremony with a rabbi on their wavelength than by a rabbi in a black coat who represents a coercive bureaucracy,” said the rabbi.
Golinkin’s comments reference the gradual erosion of the authority of the Chief Rabbinate in recent years, as numerous organizations have filed and won petitions in the High Court of Justice on matters of religious freedom and pluralism.
These victories have come because of the essential dichotomy and conflict between the attempt to preserve one religious doctrine in a democratic state that seeks to protect minorities and individual freedoms.
As Tisha Be’av approaches, the detainment of Hayun demonstrates in the most unequivocal manner that the government, the public and all involved need to hold a serious debate about the nature and character of the state they want.
Hayun’s detainment demonstrates what might happen if the country chooses an uncompromising path preserving the Orthodox religious establishment’s control of religious life; Jews detaining other Jews.
As Hartman said, “When we take Tisha Be’av seriously, we’ll behave accordingly.”