Outrageous comments about Reform Jews by representatives of the Israeli ultra-Orthodox community have become too commonplace not to go unchallenged.
When Religious Services Minister David Azoulay last year stated: "Let's just say there's a problem as soon as a Reform Jew stops following the [halakha] Jewish law. I can't allow myself to say that such a person is a Jew." The reaction was powerful from many sectors, including the modern Orthodox leadership in America. More recently, ultra-Orthodox (or Haredi) MK Israel Eichler compared Reform Jews to mentally ill patients.
And on the day the Israeli cabinet voted to support a dedicated space for egalitarian worship at the Western Wall, Moshe Gafni, head of the Knesset’s Finance Committee, said that “Reform Jews are a group of clowns who stab the Holy Torah,” and added that “there will never, ever be recognition for this group of clowns, not at the Wall or anywhere else.” About the same time, Rabbi David Yosef, son of the late revered Rabbi Ovadia Yosef charged that the Reform movement “is a collaboration with idolatry. Reform are idolaters - simply and literally.”
I am not a rabbi, but I know that such rhetoric about members of our own community is deeply misaligned with core Jewish values. This is defamation plain and simple, and condemning such statements is vital. We have long ago known from our experience in the United States that hateful comments by public figures (such as we have witnessed in this year’s presidential contest) are directly related to public attitudes towards targeted groups and to propensity for violence. They cannot go unanswered lest they be perceived as legitimate.
Calling out these extreme statements by ultra-Orthodox leaders in Israel about Reform Judaism for what they are – hate – is crucial. But the legitimacy of such comments is buttressed unfortunately by some policies of the State of Israel. Therefore, the challenge requires that far more than simply periodic public condemnation, as important as that is.
Of course, the rhetoric in itself is highly disturbing because it conveys that religious freedom in Israel is not important. Indeed, such rhetoric is similar in tone to the language used to demonize Jews and Israelis around the world that we rightly and regularly condemn. And it is disturbing because it risks causes long-term damage to the relationship between US Jewry, the vast majority of whom are not Orthodox, and the State of Israel. Israel has an enduring interest in preserving this strategic relationship.
And while public expressions of hate can lead to hateful behavior by the community exposed to these messages, in the case of Israel, it is the discriminatory policies that exist on religious matters that fuel these public expressions and create a reality that does not foster religious pluralism.
To begin to change attitudes, therefore, means focusing on a change in policy.
There are many policies regarding religion and state that one can focus on, but the most egregious are the rules about marriage. The Chief Rabbinate, the official government body that has legal and administrative authority over Judaism in Israel, sets the rules. Because it is dominated by Haredim or ultra-Orthodox Jews, the laws over the Jewish life-cycle (marriage, divorce, conversions and burial) are controlled by Haredi interpretations of Jewish law. As a result, hundreds of thousands of Israelis are not permitted to marry because they don’t meet Haredi standards for who is considered halakhically Jewish. Because there is no alternative, like civil marriage, to that established by the Rabbinate, hundreds of thousands of individuals in Israel are forced either to go abroad to marry or not to marry at all. This creates a huge social crisis in Israeli society.
In the 1950s, when Supreme Court Justice Haim Cohen sought to marry a divorced woman, he was barred from doing so because according to religious law, a cohen, one of the priestly sect, cannot marry a divorcee. Cohen married his wife in London. The Israeli press had a field day with this story – “Supreme Court Justice can’t marry in his own country.” But then, it was seen as an unusual situation. Today, with hundreds of thousands, many of them former Soviet Jews, who are deemed halakhically not Jewish, by the state, this problem is no longer an anomaly.
The consequences are profound, mostly on those who are directly affected. But the effects are not limited only to those directly affected.
The status quo leads to cynicism about state institutions and the law itself.
It raises questions about Israel’s commitment to equality for all its citizens.
It undermines respect for religion itself in society.
And it further undermines relationships between Israeli and Diaspora Jews, many of whom are passionate, engaged Jews but whose religious practice – Conservative, Reform or Reconstructionist – would create difficulty for them if they attempted to marry in Israel. American Jews support Israel not only because it is a Jewish state but because it shares our deeply held democratic values.
It is time to start a serious conversation in Israel on how to provide an alternative, civil marriage to enable thousands of Israelis to make normal life decisions without religious coercion. It is time that American Jews step up and make clear that, to ensure the well-being of Israel and to strengthen its relations with the Diaspora community, action on this issue is imperative.
Solving this problem is surely not a panacea for all the challenges that exist regarding religious freedom. But it is among the most pressing – and one that has the most immediate negative impact on a large segment of the population of Israel.
Taking a step toward civil marriage for all Israelis would be seen as a serious recognition that there is much work to be done and would begin to erode the hegemonic control of these vital issues by Ultra-Orthodox Jews. Such an initiative first have benefits for many Israelis, for Israeli-Diaspora relations, and for all of us who would like to see a more respectful and tolerant worldwide Jewish community.