Chipping Away At The Orthodox Monopoly


The ecstasy of many non-Orthodox Jews following January’s election is over and a sober reality has begun to set in.

Sure, for the first time that anyone can remember the new Israeli government does not include any haredi or fervently Orthodox parties. But the inclusion in the coalition government of an Orthodox party — Jewish Home — has tempered hopes for sweeping changes that would end the virtual pariah status of non-Orthodox streams of Judaism in Israel.

For years, the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel have been seen as illegitimate forms of Judaism, and haredi Jews in the government have ensured that the Orthodox hegemony in the country over anything to do with religion, lifecycle events and kashrut remained intact.

Today, there are about 60 Masorti or Conservative congregations with about 15,000 members.

The Reform movement has 30 synagogues and community centers and 10,000 affiliated Israeli families. But both movements, which are seen by many Israelis as American transplants, complain that they are at a disadvantage because there is no separation between church and state. As a result, government funding of religious institutions — including synagogues — is largely limited to Orthodox institutions.

Any inroads in the Orthodox vise-hold on the state have come from the courts, which over the years have chipped away at the Orthodox monopoly. In 2009, for example, Israel’s High Court of Justice ordered the state to allocate resources to non-Orthodox streams of Judaism that perform conversions. And in a landmark ruling in April, Jerusalem’s District Court upheld the right of women to pray at the Kotel or Western Wall wearing prayer shawls, contrary to the Orthodox practice enforced there.

With the country’s new finance minister, Yair Lapid, repeating his campaign pledge to press for equal government funding of all streams of Judaism and for civil marriage, many non-Orthodox dared to dream that legislative changes were also on the horizon.

But such hopes were dampened by the announcement by one of the most prominent members of the Jewish Home Party, Eli Ben-Dahan, the new deputy minister of religious affairs, that his party would oppose any such legislation. That effectively kills the legislation, because the coalition agreement requires any legislative changes involving religion to be approved by all coalition members.

Thus, instead of major changes regarding religious pluralism, the country is poised for incremental steps that are getting mixed reactions.

There is talk that an alternative to traditional marriage is being worked out and the Reform and Conservative movements are hinting they might accept it. But for Rabbi Uri Regev, president of Hiddush, a nonprofit that promotes religious pluralism in Israel, it’s a non-starter.

He charged that Lapid is carrying out a “slight of hand because while he speaks of civil marriage, the truth is that his party is not trying to advance it but rather to advance domestic partnerships. That’s not marriage. It’s a civil union and the point is, it ain’t marriage. It would be listed [in the government register] as a covenant of couplehood. You won’t be married at all, but simply registered as a partner in a covenant of couplehood. That’s doubletalk.

“Lapid may have brought himself to believe it is civil marriage,” Regev continued, “but in fact it is explicitly not marriage because they have surrendered the institution of marriage to the Orthodox rabbinate.”

Nevertheless, Yizhar Hess, executive director and CEO of the Masorti(Conservative) movement in Israel, said he views it as a first step.

“We talked in the last several weeks with several ministers who said they are committed to radical changes with regard to marriage in particular,” he said. “It is premature, but the idea is that if a couple would like to be called under the umbrella of a civil union, they could be married by anyone and it would be listed as a civil union and not a marriage. It is slightly different, but if it is only a name change and the rights are the same as a married couple, we would be able to live with it. We are now waiting to see what happens.”

“I don’t want to lose hope,” Hess quickly added. “I do believe Lapid’s promises were sincere and that people in Lapid’s party are sincere when they say they want to create a change in the tensions between state and religion in Israel. It is only two months since the government was formed and I need more months to assess this. But I’m optimistic at this stage. … If it has the same status as marriage, that is a compromise we can live with.”

Rabbi Gerald Skolnik, spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center and president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, echoed that view and painted an upbeat picture of the future.

“I’m not in favor of civil marriage, but if it was allowed it would permit greater flexibility; couples could have a religious ceremony of their choice. I’m not saying this is the desired option … but I would go along with it because religion and politics in Israel need to be disentangled. When religion becomes a vehicle for political power struggles, nothing good can happen. … I do think that to some degree we’re dealing with a matter of semantics. I’m not concerned about it.”

In addition, Rabbi Skolnik said the very fact that such changes are being seriously discussed at the ministerial level is groundbreaking.

“The fact is that [Jewish Agency Chairman Natan] Sharansky has a serious proposal to address different kinds of prayer at the Kotel, and that there are proposals to change the structure of the religious councils and to permit civil marriage,” he said. “There is change on the horizon.”

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, the Reform movement’s congregational arm in North America, said he regards the proposal as a “positive step, but it is not the full equality and freedom we have been fighting for.”

“Some people think it would be a first step and others say it is an inhibitor to what we are fighting for,” he said. “Our position is that we believe that full equality in marriage is essential and I think that civil marriage is the most effective way to accomplish it in Israel — and it is supported by the vast majority of Israelis. Every poll in recent years found that they believe it is important and an essential change to make in their country.”

Asked about the proposal under consideration to permit civil unions, Rabbi Jacobs replied: “We’d like to see the actual proposals in their deal and will consider anything that will move us forward.”

Rabbi Gilad Kariv, executive director of the Reform movement in Israel, said the inclusion of Jewish Home in the coalition government has tempered hopes for major changes in church-state issues.

“It was quite clear to us in Israel that once there was an Orthodox party in the government — and especially when it was given serious political leverage — that dramatic changes would not take place generally speaking, and especially not in the short term,” he said. “It has been quite clear to us that the end of religion and state would not happen.”

Naftali Bennett, the head of the Jewish Home Party, last week proposed what he called three “revolutionary” proposals that would reform the country’s Orthodox religious councils, which provide such services as marriage registration, burial arrangements and other life-cycle events.

But Kariv dismissed them saying: “It’s time to realize that Bennett does not carry any new revolutionary vision in regard to religion and state relations. He is not seriously considering a new model that would bring religious pluralism to Israel or cancel the Orthodox monopoly. He is not our ally and in some ways is more challenging to us.”

He said, for instance that Bennett has created a new department in his religious services ministry that would promote Jewish identity — despite the fact that there are already several department within the Ministry of Education that deal with that.

“They are taking a governmental arm to promote Jewish identity with an Orthodox orientation among non-Orthodox Israelis,” he said.

On the other hand, Rabbi Kariv said, “We can celebrate the fact that the new government will probably not push forward a new conversion bill and try to overrule old court decisions dealing with religion and state.” He said the presence of Lapid and Tzippi Livni in the government would assure that.

Already Livni, who is the new justice minister, has told Bennett that she would not support changes he is developing governing holy sites that would limit the activities of Women of the Wall. Any amendments to the law would require her approval.

Rabbi Kariv said he is convinced that without public pressure from concerned Israelis and American Jews, “the new government will maintain the status quo regarding traditional issues of religion and state.”