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New Human Rights Law Could Split World Jewry, Reform Leader Fears

April 28, 1989
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A proposed Israeli law guaranteeing human rights has as much potential as the “Who Is a Jew” amendment to split American and Diaspora Jewry from Israel, the head of the Reform movement’s rabbinical seminary warned this week.

The reason is that “while in principle it contains provisions for the free expression of religion, it de facto separates out from that the areas of marriage and divorce,” Dr. Alfred Gottschalk, president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion said here Tuesday.

“Authority in those key areas is maintained by the Orthodox religious courts,” he told reporters at a National Press Club breakfast meeting.

He was referring to the fact that weddings and divorces performed in Israel by Reform and Conservative rabbis are not recognized by the government as valid.

The new law is seen as a step toward a written constitution for Israel, and its provisions are expected to be included in the constitution. It provides for a special constitutional court that would rule on whether proposed legislation violates the provisions of the human rights law.

Gottschalk said that while some members of the Knesset would like to see marriage and divorce included in the law, they appear to be willing to go along with the exclusion to prevent opposition by the Orthodox parties to the entire law.

Justice Minister Dan Meridor has predicted that the law will be adopted by a broad majority “within a reasonable period.”

“As a political compromise, it is understandable. As a compromise of principle, it is incomprehensible,” Gottschalk said. “At this juncture in the development of the state it should certainly have been included in the total package.”


Gottschalk said he believed that if the human rights bill contained provisions for the complete free exercise of religion, it would put an end to the Orthodox parties’ efforts to amend the Law of Return to reject as Jews those converted by Reform and Conservative rabbis.

An agreement by Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir last December to back such an amendment caused a storm of protests from American Jews, which resulted in Shamir backing off.

While the issue “was put to rest for now,” the amendment is still in the Knesset and “will come to light again, certainly by the time the next election comes around,” Gottschalk said.

“The human rights bill gives us an opportunity to discuss this issue again before it heats up and surfaces” in the next election, he said.

While conceding that the Reform movement is not completely happy with the Law of Return as it is presently written, he said that “one could live with it.” But he stressed that any attempt to amend it will result in the non-Orthodox losing ground they have gained in Israel.

He said the issue does not personally affect a large number of people, although it could be in the thousands if the numbers of Soviet Jews going to Israel increases greatly. Many are married to non-Jews or had non-Orthodox weddings.

“It is truly a battle over principle — religious equality to all who identify themselves with the Jewish people,” Gottschalk said.

To foster such equality, he urged that Israel recognize Reform rabbis and institutions in Israel. Currently only Orthodox rabbis enjoy recognition.

Gottschalk said that while HUC-JIR was given government land for its Jerusalem campus, it was recognized as an educational institution, not a religious institution. Only Orthodox synagogues receive government funds.

Gottschalk conceded that the Reform movement has expanded its own concept of “Who is a Jew” by declaring that someone is a Jew if he or she has a Jewish father or mother. Halacha requires a Jewish mother.

But he argued that this was not a new concept, but rather a return to an “ancient tradition,” since from biblical times to the Roman conquest “your status was determined through your father’s house.”

He said that during the Rabbinic Period it was decided that a Jew was someone born of a Jewish mother since, with the Roman conquest, many women were taken by soldiers. Children were born and no one knew who were their fathers.

He said this was a correct approach, but “I don’t think it was in the mind of the rabbis to exclude the others.”

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