Religious freedom for all

Naftali Bennett (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Naftali Bennett
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is to be congratulated for his article castigating Chief Rabbi David Lau for his remarks against the Conservative Movement and praising Conservative Judaism in America for its work in combating assimilation (“The Chief Rabbinate,” December 18). It is about time that members of the Orthodox establishment here protested the constant misrepresentation of Conservative Judaism as a destructive force, bringing about a spiritual holocaust.
Obviously Rabbi Riskin does not agree with Conservative Judaism’s philosophy, even while appreciating its educational work. He believes that it does not uphold Jewish law – Halacha – and disagrees with many of its practices, which is his prerogative. We in the Conservative Movement, on the contrary, maintain that it does abide by Halacha. One of the reasons it was founded was to conserve Jewish law and Jewish tradition at a time when some other movements were declaring that Jewish law was no longer binding.
Our break with Orthodoxy was not over the binding nature of Jewish law, but over the way in which Jewish law was understood and interpreted by Orthodoxy. As a movement committed to seeing Judaism through the glass of history as an ever-evolving entity, we have always believed that Jewish law was flexible by its very nature and had within itself the ways of changing and adapting to new times and new needs.
For those of us who live in Israel, however, the deeper question is not only the legitimacy and need for Conservative Judaism in America and throughout the Diaspora, but its status in Israel. It is not enough for members of the government, like Education Minister Naftali Bennett, to recognize the importance of Conservative Judaism is America while continuing to deny it a rightful and legitimate place in Israel. If there is to be true freedom of religion in Israel, the present situation cannot continue. The existence of an Orthodox Chief Rabbinate which alone has official standing and the legal power to control aspects of religious and even civil life in Israel means that Israel is the only modern democratic state in which Jews are denied complete religious freedom. As long as marriage and divorce, for example, are exclusively in the hands of the Orthodox rabbinate, religious freedom is incomplete. It is all well and good to praise Conservative Judaism in America, but that is insufficient if at the same time Masorti/Conservative Judaism is denied legitimacy in the State of Israel. True religious pluralism requires the granting of equal status to all the streams of Judaism in Israel as well as in the rest of the world.
American Jewry is up in arms about the way in which non-Orthodoxy is treated by the Israeli rabbinate and government officials and it is also up in arms about the denial of recognition and equality to these groups in Israel. This was made quite clear to President Reuven Rivlin in his meeting with Jewish leaders in New York. It is about time that Israelis also joined in this protest.
All the surveys taken show that the majority of Israelis believe that these streams should receive recognition in Israel, but nothing is done about it. The reason is clear – politics.
I am not opposed to Orthodoxy.
I am opposed to an official Chief Rabbinate that has governmental powers. I am opposed to having my tax money go to support a rabbinate that does not represent me, while my own religious organization receives little or nothing.
Either support all groups or support none.
Masorti Judaism in Israel is already playing an important part in sustaining Judaism and showing how religion can be both true to tradition and also accommodating to the modern world. It is demonstrating that religion can exist without coercion and can answer the needs of people who have views other than those espoused by the official rabbinate.
There is a place for such a movement in Israel and it will only contribute to Judaism and serve those who are looking for an alternative to the choice of Orthodoxy or nothing. The sooner we achieve full religious freedom here, the better for all – Orthodox, Masorti, Reform and secular as well.
The author is a former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly and the founding director of the Schechter Institute.