A Jewish revival meeting: Is religious pluralism possible in Israel?

In a packed synagogue hall on Monday night, Nov. 26, Israel’s Consul General David Siegel posed a question: How many people present care deeply about religious pluralism in Israel?
November 29, 2012

In a packed synagogue hall on Monday night, Nov. 26, Israel’s Consul General David Siegel posed a question: How many people present care deeply about religious pluralism in Israel?

A sea of hands went up.

Jews are odd, right? The rockets have just stopped falling on Israel, a hot war in Gaza is barely cool, and yet 280 people of many ages and denominations came together the night after a long vacation weekend to wrestle not with issues of war and peace, but of synagogue and state.

Organizers of the town hall on religious tolerance in Israel planned the event back in October, prompted by the arrest of Israeli civil-rights activist Anat Hoffman. 

On Oct. 16, Hoffman, executive director of the Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center and chair of Women of the Wall, was leading a group of 250 visiting women, Hadassah members, in prayer at the Western Wall — the Kotel — while wearing a tallit and reading from the Torah. Jewish women around the world are free to do both those things. In Israel they are illegal at the Kotel.

Jerusalem police arrested Hoffman, handcuffed her, took her to jail. They strip-searched her and locked her up overnight.

The arrest prompted an outcry from American-Jewish groups.

The Israeli police who arrested Hoffman were following Israeli law. But here in Los Angeles, it was Siegel, the Israeli consul general, who initiated the town hall-style conversation to discuss and debate the concerns the arrest generated. 

Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills Senior Rabbi Laura Geller assembled an inclusive, cross-denominational panel: Rabbi Nicole Guzik of Sinai Temple (Conservative); Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of B’nai David-Judea (Orthodox); Rabbi Judith HaLevy of the Malibu Jewish Center & Synagogue (Reconstructionist; she is also president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California); Rabbi Dovid Eliezrie of Chabad of Yorba Linda (Orthodox); and Shep Rosenman, an Orthodox attorney and a founder of LimmudLA. I served as moderator.

Numerous other synagogues joined in as co-sponsors — the audience was rife with rabbis.

Following the outbreak of the Gaza war, some community leaders pulled their support for the Town Hall, saying such a discussion was inappropriate in light of current events. It was Siegel who insisted the event go on as planned.

“These are important issues that concern Israel’s future,” he explained. In short, keep calm and carry on.

As Rabbi HaLevy explained in her introduction of Siegel, these issues for him are also personal. He is the son of an American rabbi who moved to Israel and helped start the Conservative movement there. 

In his presentation, Siegel used his personal history to chart what he said was the good news: the burgeoning variety of Jewish religious expression in Israel.

“When my father started,” he said, “nobody in Israel had ever heard of a Conservative Jew. They called the movements ‘Conservativi’ and ‘Reformi.’ There weren’t even Hebrew words for them.”

Today, he said, more than 500,000 Israelis claim membership in non-Orthodox movements. He displayed an image on a screen that showed the logos of dozens of organizations in Israel that promote progressive approaches to Judaism, including progressive/Orthodox.  

Dozens of Knesset members, including the maverick member of Knesset, the Orthodox Rabbi Chaim Amsellem, are working to wrest control over many aspects of Israeli civil society away from the Orthodox rabbinate. The trend is toward a more inclusive approach to Jewish practice, more in keeping with Sephardi, rather than strict Ashkenazi, traditions.

“The message is clear,” Siegel said. “If you care about Jewish revival in Israel, you’re not alone.”

The other panelists agreed: Israeli Jews are awakening to the variety of Jewish engagement long enjoyed by Jews abroad.

But as much as the consul general wanted to direct the audience’s attention to the good news, many on the panel and in the audience remained focused on the very real current problems.

Israel has no constitution spelling out religious rights. Founding Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion cut a deal with Orthodox religious leaders in 1948, granting them authority over marriage, divorce, burial, holy sites, the Sabbath — all “personal status” issues. He argued for a strict standard of religious observance in order to avoid “splitting of the House of Israel into two.” 

The consequences have ranged from the inconvenient to the dire, as progressive religious-rights groups like Hiddush have documented. Thousands of secular Israelis must go abroad to have a non-Orthodox wedding. Israeli soldiers killed in battle, whose Jewish conversions the rabbinic courts do not recognize, cannot be buried in Jewish cemeteries. Public transportation shuts down on the Sabbath — leading to an increase in drunken-driving deaths. 

Jewish life may be blossoming, Rabbi Geller acknowledged, but, she added, “I can’t be the kind of Jew I want to be in Israel.”

Rabbi Guzik, who heads Sinai Temple’s Israel Center, posed this question: As an educator trying to instill a love of Israel in Jewish children, how can she teach a young woman here to don a tallit — a prayer shawl — when she could be arrested for wearing it in Israel?

Rabbi Eliezrie argued for strict observance of Jewish law. Traditions of thousands of years should not be tossed aside, he argued.  He also cautioned against painting Israel’s Orthodox Jews, the Charedim, as a monolith, or as the enemy. Not only are there major distinctions among them, he said, they also need to become integrated into Israeli life, as much as more progressive Jews. Eliezrie argued that the religious awakening among Israel’s Jews is heading in the direction of more religious practice, not less.

“I think the return to religion in Israel will never mean a return to Orthodoxy,” Rabbi Kanefsky, who leads an Orthodox congregation, countered.

At the same time, Kanefsky cautioned against drastic changes that undermine the Jewish nature of the Jewish state.

“Coherence is not a luxury,” he said. “Coherence is survival.”

Yes, agreed the other panelists, but change is also inevitable. Israeli society, in general, is liberalizing. More stores and restaurants are staying open on Shabbat. Last May, the government announced it would allow non-Orthodox rabbis to receive state funding. And the High Court of Justice ordered a religious court near Jerusalem to seat a female Reform rabbi. These developments came after much time and long fights, but the consul general and most of the panelists acknowledged the trend is clear.

But what about Anat Hoffman?

When it came time for audience questions, it was clear her arrest still serves as a distressing symbol of religious oppression.

“I prayed with Anat Hoffman at the Wall,” said Helen Grossman, 22, a Temple Emanuel member. “It changed my life.” The young woman said Hoffman’s arrest and harsh treatment crushed her. How could she see her way to embrace a country that did that?

“I think we all agree that what happened was unacceptable,” the consul general responded. An investigation into the police actions is ongoing, he added. He also pointed out that in a country of laws, those who engage in civil disobedience and break laws must not only be prepared to pay the price, but to reflect on what that would mean if everyone, including those you disagree with, did the same.

Meanwhile, Siegel urged Grossman to use the arrest as a spur to more involvement, not less.

“We need to see ourselves as a coalition,” he said. “Be inspired and not turned away.”

The way out of despair, Rabbi Geller told her, is clear. “Change will really happen when Israelis want that change,” she said. “Anat Hoffman is that Israeli.”

Rabbi Kanefsky pointed out that holy sites like the Kotel may, in fact, be the most difficult places to effect change. On the one hand, such sites are charged with symbolism. On the other, as polls have pointed out, they simply don’t matter as much for the daily life of Israelis.

“The Kotel is the end of the process,” Rabbi Kanefsky said.

The process of change must include American-Jewish support, Siegel said. A Reform synagogue in his own Jerusalem-area neighborhood closed for lack of funds, and groups that work toward religious pluralism, including many Orthodox ones, struggle to survive. Looking out on the big audience, the consul general suggested one good first step would be to gather a task force of concerned L.A. Jews to work and study with their Israeli counterparts.

Acts of civil disobedience like Hoffman’s may help draw attention — it led to Monday’s town hall — but actual changes in Israel’s approach to religious pluralism will be the result of something much less dramatic.

The end of religious discrimination in Israel will come when Israelis themselves, alone or in groups, with the support of their Jewish counterparts abroad, rise up and push for changes through the legislative and court system.

That’s not dramatic — that’s just democracy.

For a list of Pluralistic Jewish Organizations in Israel, visit http://en.panim.org.il/p-11/.

Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Twitter @foodaism

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