Mevasseret Zion, Israel – With the holy city of Jerusalem visible in the background, a man and woman standing side-by-side lead prayers for about 50 congregants who have come to welcome the Sabbath in this suburb’s Reform synagogue.
Their prayer book includes poetry, the women wear prayer shawls, the sermons call for social justice and the songs are performed in a folksy manner to the tune of a live guitar.
This scene, common in liberal synagogues across America, is an anomaly in Israel, where religious life is dominated by a strict ultra-Orthodox establishment that sees such gender-mixing, ordaining of female rabbis and alterations to the traditional prayers as anathema to their way of life and resists any inroads by the more liberal streams of Judaism.
But more liberal Jews now see a crack in that monopoly.
Following a landmark Supreme Court ruling, Israel’s attorney general recently announced that a limited group of 15 non-Orthodox rabbis will begin to receive government funding like some 2,000 of their Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox counterparts.
The Reform and Conservative movements in Israel are celebrating the decision as a watershed. While the two movements dominate American Jewish life, they are largely sidelined in Israel, where they are derided by the Orthodox religious establishment as second-class Jews who ordain women and gays and are overly inclusive toward converts and interfaith marriages. The generous government support for the Orthodox rabbis over the years has added to the marginalization.
The debate boils down to the core of religious life in Israel, and the tenuous relationship between state and religion. It also touches on the essence of the Zionist vision of creating a state that can be both Jewish and democratic.
While most Israelis are secular, Israel’s founding fathers gave Judaism a formal place in the country’s affairs. Ultra-Orthodox rabbis strictly govern Jewish practices such as weddings, divorces and burials.
Their monopoly has often forced Israelis to choose between a secular lifestyle that often ignores Jewish tradition and a stringent religious one dictated by the Orthodox that is often out of sync with democracy and modernity. The current status has also caused tensions with Jews in North America, most of whom identify as Reform or Conservative.
Israel grants citizenship to any Jew, including those recognized by the liberal streams. But once in Israel, those who do not meet the Orthodox standards of being Jewish can suffer. For example, they can be barred from getting married or having a proper Jewish burial. Instead, they must go overseas to marry, and special cemeteries are set up to bury non-Jews.
The liberal streams have long fought for formal recognition, with minimal success. They’ve established synagogues, youth movements, schools and kindergartens. Together, the Reform and Conservative movements have about 100 congregations. A recent survey by the Guttman Center at the Israel Democracy Institute found that 8 percent of Israeli Jews identified as either Conservative or Reform.
But most Israelis, and certainly state institutions, regarded them as a somewhat alien offshoot of Judaism imported from North America and not meshed with how religion was practiced in Israel.
The new decision is far short of a full-throated recognition. The court ruling for the first time classifies Reform and Conservative rabbis as “rabbis of non-Orthodox communities.” But it applies only to 15 heading congregations in farming communities and outlying areas where they were the only rabbis – so they qualified as “community leaders” eligible for state funding. Still excluded are those operating in cities, where Orthodox rabbis are present.
To avoid clashing with the strict state-run rabbinate, the financing will not be done directly from the Religious Affairs Ministry but rather channeled through the Ministry of Culture and Sports. And the 15 won’t be able to serve in state capacities like the rabbinate or the military.
But with a precedent established, liberal streams are now aiming for greater breakthroughs.
Rabbi Gilad Kariv, who heads Israel’s Reform movement, said that together with recent strides toward liberalizing the conversion process, the state funding marked the most significant development to date in breaking down the Orthodox monopoly.
“It is one victory out of many that are needed in order to reach full equality in Israel between the denominations,” he said. “The important thing is that the Israeli government will not be able to say anymore that the non-Orthodox denominations do not deserve equal treatment.”
The precedent was enough to spark outrage from the religious establishment and Orthodox political parties, which wield significant political power and often act as kingmakers in Israeli politics.
Yaakov Margi, the minister of religious affairs from the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, threatened to resign if forced to provide funding. Ultra-Orthodox lawmaker Moshe Gafni accused the legal system of attempting to “undermine the Jewish infrastructure of the state.”
“All of a sudden, there is money for Reform and Conservative clowns for whom Judaism is a mockery,” he said in parliament.
At a charged parliamentary meeting last week to discuss the new funding scheme, an angry Gafni had Kariv removed from the room when he tried to speak.
“I have no problem with heads of these communities getting funding for their cultural activities. My problem is with the state of Israel recognizing them as rabbis,” Daniel Hershkowitz, an Orthodox Cabinet minister, told The Associated Press. “It has been clear for thousands of years how one becomes a rabbi. Just like the state does not decide who becomes a doctor or a lawyer, it shouldn’t be deciding who becomes a rabbi.”
Hershkowitz has demanded an urgent meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to voice his objections.
The development was made possible thanks to American-born Reform Rabbi Miri Gold, who petitioned the Supreme Court in 2005 and demanded equal financing. Gold, born and raised near Detroit, heads a congregation in Kibbutz Gezer in central Israel. Like other members of the Reform movement, Gold also thinks the state shouldn’t be financing religious institutions at all. But she wasn’t ready to have her tax money go to the ultra-Orthodox while liberal rabbis like herself were barred.
“More and more Israelis are taking back their Jewish identity and realizing that Orthodoxy is not the answer,” said Yizhar Hess, who heads the Israeli Conservative, or “Masorati,” movement. “This is a shift that has yet to materialize in politics, where they have yet to realize that Israeli society is ready for a paradigm shift.”
Liberal rabbis don’t expect the change to happen overnight. “It’s fine with me that there is more demand now for Orthodox rabbis,” Kariv said. “Give me a generation and we’ll change that.”
Why arent the Women wearing the Tefillin? are they non-frum??
Before all the usual hateful and mindless comments about how this is worse than apikorsus and simply a form of avodah zorah, perhaps realize that for some of these yidden, its a first step towards a deeper and long-term path back to yiddeshkeit. Save your rants and think about how to meaningfully engage with these groups and show them the beauty of becoming more involved with traditional orthodox practices.
are they putting on tefilin shabos? just for the boys or also the girls?
unreal how far u can get from being a yid in isreal!
. Just like the state does not decide who becomes a doctor or a lawyer, it shouldn’t be deciding who becomes a rabbi.”
is he for real of course they government decides who is a doctor and lawyer they must go to school and pass certain tests and then get a license from the city or country.
If he does not want the government to get involved who is a rabbie there is a simple solution separate religion and state and do not take any money from the government once you take money they have a right to dictate the rules
The reformers are not going to get too far. The reform and conservative as well as the open orthodox upstarts are declining fast. Soon only chareidi Jews will be left in America as well as in Israel. I read this past weeks report on the UJA study showing the loss of these liberal groups. Its like the people on the sinking tytanic smiling while in a short while they will all be dead.
In the thousands of episodes related in Tenaach, is it ever mentioned, that somebody ever put on, or wrote, Tefillin or Mezuzahs? Things were not the same as now.
Funny that some people find this to be so horrible when all you have here is some well intentioned people attempting to maintain some sort of connection to Judaism.
While on the other hand running around on Shabbos like a chaya throwing bottles and setting things on fire and shrieking like a hyena is apparently perfectly fine.
On the one hand a group is trying to restore ties to their heritage in a peaceful way that bothers absolutely no one. On the other hand a group is mechalel Shabbos in public on a regular basis while claiming to be defending Shabbos (interesting huh). And yet some commenters here will call the first group an abomination and the second group heroes.
We should focus on preventing intermarriage. Lets show hahavas Yisroel, to bring them closer to the real deal.
Please! No rock throwers, spitting, or excluding our own!
To #7 : Why attack the Modern Orthodox?
To #9 : Yossi:
The T’nach also doesn’t mention anyone putting on a talis with tzistzis. Are you saying that because the T’nach does not record every mitzvah, it was never done? That makes no sense.
Why are this goiym wants to be jewish? What’s bed with there lifestile till now? Its very hard to be jewish (they will need to change a lot, stop wearing pants, stop with short sleeves, stop coming in to the men side of the suel, start circumise ther kids (don’t thing they are) start cutting your hair, put tzizis on your kids, observing shabbos & much more,,,,,,, its not there easy)
why not subsidize the J4J clergy also. they are as legit as conservative, gay, humanistic, recon, reform or whatever.
For those who would put forward the argument that at least what they are doing is “better than nothing” and that it might lead them to the proper path, I would like to humbly disagree. If you have nothing, then you are starting from the beginning, which admittedly is difficult. However, if you go through one of these groups, you are pumped so full of misinformation that you actually have to unlearn everything you were taught in addition to learning everything the right way. It’s the difference between starting a trip and finding out you’ve been driving the wrong way for six hours, having to go all the way back and start again.
The bigger problem, and I speak from personal experiences is that after being fed the trash that gets passed for Judaism, most people want nothing more do with the Torah. I grew up in one of their “synagogues” and I was so disgusted and turned off by what I learned that I decided that I wanted nothing more to do with being Jewish. Most of my classmates felt that same way, and went to join who knows what. I at least got to see that what I experience was not actually Judaism, but convincing me was much harder by the fact that I had a negative view going in.
If you want my opinion, conservative are more pagan than reform. After all, conservative actually try to put on tefillin but they put them on in the PRESENCE OF WOMEN in the morning. This is in effect asking “bunny to come to your bris”. In reality the reform are less aware of halacha and jewish orthodoxy and in reality there is an explanation in some ways for their lack of adherane to Torah. The conservative on the other hand want it their way and of course, if they know better than the reform, why not just be orthodox yourself.
No, that is the inherent heresy.
I call jews who are “converted” under the reform and conservative movements “members of the flag”. As they really are not “members of the tribe”.
Reform and Conservative are more PERMISSIVE than “liberal”. The word liberal is being used in a less than a liberal ideology sense here.
Is te woman in the front wearing a blue gartel?? Very Chassidish!!! :o)
If any of them want to do teshuva down the road, he/she is going to have to check his/her yichus vary carefully because of all the intermarriage and phony geirus the Reform are doing. When someone wants to marry a ba-al teshuva who comes from such a family, or if one of their ba-alei teshuva wants to get married, it’s going to be very important to know their background because of their questionable Jewishness.
Some of the most chashuve conservative and reform rabbonim are willing to acknowledge the differences they hold with their frum colleagues but they are civil about it (except when it comes to anyone who would advocate violent or abusive behavior in the name of promoting their brand of yiddeshkeit).