A Torah for all

“Minister Bennett believes that public leaders in Israel need to draw Jews close and not to excommunicate them.”

Reform Movement prayer service at the Western Wall  (photo credit: Y.R)
Reform Movement prayer service at the Western Wall
(photo credit: Y.R)
Shortly before Shavuot, whose foremost theme among others is the giving of the Torah to the world via the Jewish people, the Chief Rabbinate decided to embark on an assault on Diaspora Jewry. It threatened to revoke the kashrut certification of kibbutzim that let their Torah scrolls be read by egalitarian groups of Diaspora Zionist youth.
At the end of May, eighth grade students of the Conservative Movement’s Solomon Schechter School in Manhattan were confronted with the absurdity of Israeli Judaism in the 21st century. As the group of young Zionist Jews arrived at their host kibbutz, they were informed that the Torah scroll they had reserved for their egalitarian daily worship could not be available after all.
This was because the kibbutz mashgiach, who certifies the kashrut of the kibbutz’s kitchens on behalf of the Chief Rabbinate, had informed the kibbutz that permitting egalitarian groups like theirs – which include all genders equally – to use the host’s Torah scroll would result in the loss of kashrut certification for its guest house.
With the kibbutz suddenly threatened with blackmail, the Schechter group was forced to pray on the first day of the new month of Iyyar without a Torah scroll. This group of religiously observant Conservative and Zionist kids was targeted by Israel’s ultra-Orthodox rabbinate because its expression of Judaism is not considered legitimate.
What a lesson to teach the innocent young Jews of the Diaspora, who are taught that Israel is the homeland of the Jewish people, by the Jewish people and for the Jewish people, as Lincoln might say – meaning all the Jewish people. On their pilgrimage to the Holy Land, the message they are given by the supposedly religious authorities is that your Judaism, your Jewish identity, is not legitimate here.
This demonstration of bigotry is not new, unfortunately.
In December 2015 Chief Rabbi David Lau publicly remonstrated Bayit Yehudi chairman and Education Minister Naftali Bennett for visiting the Manhattan Schechter School. Bennett had tweeted a video of his visit saying “Meeting with the pupils of the wonderful Conservative school ‘Solomon Schechter’ in New York. So much love of Israel and so much love of Judaism.”
His office released a statement noting that “Minister Bennett believes that public leaders in Israel need to draw Jews close and not to excommunicate them.”
Yizhar Hess, director of the Masorti (Conservative) Movement in Israel, told The Jerusalem Post at the time that “Rabbi Lau has forgotten, along with some of the MKs of the haredi parties and even some of the MKs from Bennett’s party who criticized the visit, that the State of Israel is the national state of the Jewish people, and that this people, in Israel and in the Diaspora, believes that there is more than one way to be Jewish.”
There are those who, like Lau, claim that Orthodoxy is the only legitimate version of Judaism by pointing smugly to the 2013 Pew Research Center study that showed higher levels of assimilation among non-Orthodox Jews in the United States. However, instead of encouraging the religious observance of all Jews, the official religious authority would prefer to alienate them by its insufferable bigotry toward fellow Jews.
Rather than serving as a spiritual guide to the nation, the rabbinate has become noted for its parochial obsessions with stringent Orthodoxy, which expresses itself by hostility to non-Orthodox streams of Judaism in Israel and the Diaspora.
Rabbi Gilad Kariv, head of the Reform movement in Israel, has accused the rabbinate of “behaving like a branch of the United Torah Judaism and Shas parties,” instead of a state body. “The wave of incitement… against Reform Judaism is not connected to the Western Wall or mikvaot, but rather to the understanding and the panic of haredi politicos that the majority of the Israeli public is disgusted by the Orthodox monopoly,” he told the Post.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded at the time in a press statement: “I reject the recent disparaging and divisive remarks by ministers and members of Knesset about Reform Jews. Reform and Conservative Jews are part and parcel of the Jewish people and should be treated with respect. This is the government’s policy. This is my policy.”
That may be our prime minister’s policy. It is time he insisted it also become the policy of the Chief Rabbinate.