Focus on Issues: War over Religious Pluralism Fuels a Further Polarization

Yair Cohen and Ruti Florscheim were beaming – and it wasn’t just in anticipation of their first night together as newlyweds.

The Israeli couple had been married minutes before the leaders of the Reform movement, in front of 4,000 “guests” attending the Union of American Hebrew Congregations convention in Atlanta. Yair Tsaban, Israel’s minister of absorption, had flown in to witness the Dec. 1 nuptials and declared the wedding “kosher and legal.”

Ruti’s parents were at the wedding, too, but the rest of the couple’s family and friends were back home on Kibbutz Yakum.

It didn’t matter, though, to Ruti and Yair, who are not religious.

They wanted to use their own experience as a public example of the problems encountered by non-Orthodox Israelis who want to marry, and so agreed to let the Reform movement make them the “poster couple” for religious pluralism.

Theirs is but one example of the human problems created by the way the State of Israel handles matters of personal status.

The wedding was an early salvo launched by the Reform movement in a rapidly building war over religious pluralism in Israel.

The opposing sides are the liberal religious and secular Jews, led by a two- year Reform movement campaign expected to cost $2 million, vs. the Orthodox, some of whom are organizing a campaign of their own to be launched in February.

The two sides have staked out their positions for a fight that promises to be as polarizing as the “Who is a Jew” issue was a decade ago.

Yair and Ruti could not marry at home because he is a descendant of the priestly class of Kohanim and she was divorced from her first husband, a union prohibited by the Orthodox interpretation of Jewish law, which controls all matters of personal status in Israel.

At the same time, Israeli civil law recognizes as legitimate non-Orthodox marriages performed outside Israel, so the Reform movement brought them to Atlanta.

The wedding had been broadcast around the world by major news programs.

“We wanted to show how they [the Orthodox rabbinate] refuse, just refuse, a simple couple just because of my name,” said Yair, who manages the kibbutz kitchen.

“If I did something it’s because they pushed me to do it,” he said.

The Reform-led coalition for pluralism has the backing of several organizations in Israel and members of Knesset, who are expected to introduce a bill that would legalize civil and non-Orthodox religious marriages.

They seemed to win the first round of the current battle in mid-November, when Israel’s High Court of Justice endorsed the legitimacy of non-Orthodox conversions in Israel but thrust responsibility for the final decision into the hands of the Israeli parliament.

Orthodox interests are represented by the Orthodox parties in the Knesset, which have been pressuring Prime Minister Shimon Peres to endorse legislation to prohibit non-Orthodox conversion and marriage, in exchange for their support of his other policies.

Their goal is to block the legislative efforts of the advocates for pluralism.

The religious pluralism crisis is the inevitable result of lingering and fundamental contradictions in the way questions of Jewish status are handled in Israel, say those at the forefront of the battle.

“There is a dichotomy,” Rabby Uri Regev, director of the Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center, said in an interview in Atlanta.

“On the one hand are civil issues of the Law of Return and on the other are issues of personal status,” he said. “In many ways this is a reawakening of the `Who is a Jew’ issue.”

Israel’s Law of Return grants automatic citizenship to any Jew or person with one Jewish grandparent.

An Orthodox effort in the 1980s to restrict the law, which also applies to converts, to apply only to those converted according to Orthodox Jewish law sparked a major outcry among Diaspora Jews – and ultimately failed.

But even though individuals with Jewish parents or grandparents – such as thousands from the former Soviet Union – are granted citizenship, they are not recognized by the Orthodox rabbinate, which controls all marriage, divorce, burial and conversion in Israel.

Some 150,000 Israeli citizens from the former Soviet Union who cannot prove their halachic Jewishness are not willing – or able – to become Orthodox in order to convert, say some.

“They are not about to turn Orthodox, so they have no chance to convert,” said Regev. “It is clear that without an alternative conversion policy we are doomed to exacerbate problems of intermarriage and Jewish identity in Israel.”

Although advocates hope that the recent High Court decision may alleviate some of these problems, they feat that it will fall victim to political wrangling.

According to Absorption Minister Tsaban, “the new immigrants are the ones at whose expense this battle is being waged.

“Many non-Jewish spouses would like to be able to convert. Such individuals should be able to enter our nation through many doors, Orthodox and non- Orthodox.

“Our underlying principle must be to draw people closer, rather than to drive them away,” he said in Atlanta.

The issue plays out daily for Jews of other backgrounds as well.

In 1991 a man from Portland, Ore., converted to Judaism under Orthodox auspices. He then went to Israel, fell in love with a woman and went to his local rabbinate to register to get married.

He was turned away by the rabbinate, said Regev, because he was not fully Sabbath-observant and so the rabbis questioned the legitimacy of his Jewishness.

He got married in England a few months ago.

Couples who adopt non-Jewish children and have them converted to Judaism outside Israel – even by Orthodox rabbis – are also encountering problems.

The validity of the conversions is being questioned by the Israeli Orthodox rabbinate, a situation that will almost certainly lead to problems years down the road when the children try to get married and are prohibited from doing so because the rabbinate questions their Jewishness, Regev said.

For their part, Orthodox leaders in Israel and in the Diaspora regard the effort to achieve religious pluralism as an assault on the core values of Judaism, and warn that if they are successful they will have a devastating effect on Jewish identity.

“It would be, God forbid, a tragedy,” Israeli Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, said in an interview here this week.

“This would be a split in the Jewish people,” he said. “Israel is the only one state in the world where the number of Jews is growing.”

“If we want to prevent intermarriage and assimilation,” there can be no religious pluralism, he said.

Rabbi Moshe Sherer, chairman of the Agudath Israel World Organization, said non-Orthodox Judaism is “a plague that should not be imported to Israel where it could end up, God forbid, that the third generation would intermarry.”

“Once you permit civil marriages [in Israel] when you are taking the final step to split the Jewish people into two segments that cannot marry with each other because their offspring would not be considered legitimate,” said Sherer, who also serves as president of Agudath Israel of America, an Orthodox group.

“Now that we have already seen the sad effects of this religious pluralism in the Diaspora, it is beyond belief that Israel would want to import such a plague to the Holy Land,” he said.

The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, which represents centrist Orthodox Jews, has also weighed in on the issue, threatening to withdraw from domestic Jewish groups if they endorse religious pluralism in Israel.

In addition to further pushing apart the already-polarized Orthodox and non- Orthodox communities in America, the coming battle promise to create serious tension between Israel and Diaspora Jewry.

After meeting in Jerusalem on Dec. 7, the executive committee of the Jewish Agency for Israel formally took up the issue and produced a sharply worded statement in favor of pluralism.

The Agency “views with the utmost importance the preservation of the unity of the Jewish people and the principle of pluralism” the statement said.

It called on the Israeli government to “refrain from amending legislation or passing new legislation which would redefine the subject of `Who is a Jew’ in a way which may estrange major parts of the Jewish nation.”

Avraham Burg, the Jewish Agency chairman who is himself Orthodox, said such an effort would amount to “a declaration of war,” which would create an enormous gulf between Israel and Diaspora Jewry.

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