A time for reform

The time for the Orthodox monopoly in Israel is running out.

Sea of haredi men 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Mike Segar)
Sea of haredi men 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Mike Segar)
The government’s recent decision to fund Reform and Conservative rabbis is a significant step forward on the road to equality for the different streams of Judaism in Israel.
The Orthodox rabbinical establishment has habitually dismissed the Reform and Conservative movements as irrelevant. They argue that the Israeli public is not interested in what the non-Orthodox have to offer.
But if non-orthodoxy is so marginal in Israel, why were the Orthodox so aggravated by the government decision? And why are they fighting it tooth and nail? This was the key question put to their representatives after the government decision. Their answers were predictable: An outpouring of self-serving rationalization laced with hatred, demagoguery and total ignorance of the thinking and activities of non-Orthodox communities in Israel and the Diaspora. But the angry tone showed that the rabbinical establishment does in fact understand that the days when they could simply dismiss the non- Orthodox movements in Israel are over.
They realize that the persistent activities of the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel are slowly eroding the Orthodox monopoly over religion and the rabbinical establishment’s claimed hegemony over Israeli-Jewish identity.
The significant growth over the past few decades in the array of cultural, social and ideological choices open to Israelis did not skip over the question of Jewish identity. Indeed, the clear dichotomy between absolute secularism and Orthodox religiosity, which was part of the Israeli DNA for years, no longer fits the Israeli mindset. More and more Israelis are seeking something more nuanced and are ready to embrace a more complex mosaic of identities.
The ultra-Orthodox seizure of the rabbinic establishment in Israel and the retreat of national religious Zionism to the hills of Judea and Samaria intensified this process.
Many Israelis now see the Orthodox rabbinical establishment as completely alien to their life’s experience. Many see it as a corrupt institution, which perpetuates itself through political blackmail and cynical exploitation of the democratic game.
Given this state of affairs, recent Supreme Court rulings on matters of state and religion and the state’s recognition of non- Orthodox rabbis are not pioneering moves ahead of their time, but rather a faithful expression of the feelings of most Israelis.
They reflect a deep change that has taken place in the position of the non-Orthodox movements in the social fabric of Israeli life. A major study conducted by the Jerusalem-based Guttman Center for Surveys – A Portrait of Israeli Jews: Beliefs, Observance, and Values of Israeli Jews, 2009 – bears this out.
The results of this intensive research project, conducted for the Israel Democracy Institute and the Avi Chai Foundation and first presented in January 2012, show that 8 percent of Israeli Jewish citizens define themselves as Reform or Conservative and that over 30 percent had taken part in a Reform or Conservative event.
Interestingly, only 7 percent of Israeli Jews defined themselves as ultra-Orthodox. Roughly half those polled favored accepting non-Orthodox conversions and 61 percent said the Reform and Conservative movements should have a status equal to the Orthodox in Israel.
Despite the best efforts of rabbinical establishment spokesmen to demonstrate scorn for the activities of the non-Orthodox movements, their palpable anger at the recognition accorded by the state to Reform and Conservative rabbis suggests that these numbers are well-known to them. As is the inevitable conclusion: That time for the Orthodox monopoly in Israel is running out.