Sunday, April 25, 2010

Religious Freedom in Israel

A reader who calls herself Laura SF left this comment on an earlier post
My husband & I talk about it from time to time, usually in the context of "If the U.S. starts turning seriously antisemitic..." Until there is real freedom of religion for Jews in Israel, I can't see any sizable number of American Jews moving there for any reason. It's not "easier to be a Jew" there unless by that you mean haredi or identified-but-secular. And don't get me started about the "who is a Jew" madness... (my italics)
Let's see if we can unravel this a bit.

Laura is referring to the limitations on Reform and Conservative Judaism in Israel, of course. Yet what are they, in reality, why are they there, and what might be done about it?

There are no limitations on religious behavior, of course. It's a free country and people can believe in whatever they wish. Moreover, they can organize to believe in the public sphere, too. Within short walking distance of where I sit right now there is a Reform synagogue, two or three Conservative ones, and a handful of experimental ones which play on the edges of Conservative and Modern Orthodox, if you're using American terminology. There are also a couple of Haredi yeshivas, three churches, and if you're willing to walk twenty minutes there are lots of mosques, of course. There are dozens of orthodox synagogues of all hues and colors, a convent - and of course, lots of secular folks who never visit any of these institutions. There's an Arab family who recently moved into our building, but that's a different subject.

As I write I can hear the bells of a church: it's Sunday morning, mind.

All in all, it's as free and open a place as any.

The issues Laura is referring to exist, of course, but they're limited to the legal status of rabbis. For reasons I'm not going to get into this morning, marriages in Israel must be religious (Jewish Muslim Druze or Christian), though civil marriages performed elsewhere are recognized, and civil unions have legal standing as marriages for just about all purposes. The implications are that only orthodox rabbis may officiate at weddings, and people with no Jewish grandparents who wish to move to Israel under the Law of Return must have been converted by an orthodox rabbi. (Or use a loophole, of which there are a number). (Or come in on the refuge track, or as cheap labor and then have children and stay...)

So to be clear the real question isn't who's a Jew, but who's a rabbi. On that one the honest answer is that Orthodox rabbis of all hues are recognized, and the others: not. Or mostly not. I recently celebrated at a wedding officiated at by an American-trained Conservative rabbi. I didn't ask which loophole he used.

Why is this so? Because of democracy. There used to be a very large majority of Israeli Jews who instinctively defined a rabbi by the orthodox terms, even though many of them were secular. Secular Israeli Jews accepted the orthodox definitions; as the joke went: the synagogue they didn't go to was always orthodox. Back in the days when the rules were legislated, there was next to no constituency in Israel for Reform or Conservative Judaism.

Over time this has been slowly changing. There's a chain of schools - Tali, it's called - which is pretty recognizably Conservative. Rabbi Ehud Bender, the top Conservative rabbi, is a public figure whom the media, at least, treats as a rabbi. Non-orthodox representatives sit on the municipal panels that deal with matters such as Kashrut. Yet it's slow going, for the simple reason that the orthodox rabbis are entrenched in the institutions, and dislodging them or even simply adding others alongside them takes political action. In a democracy, political action succeeds when enough people want it to. If the orthodox don't want change, and the secular are fine with the orthodox rabbis so long as they don't interfere in their own lives, who's going to force through change? It will have to be newcomers.

The Russians wish to change some things, which is an important motivation to vote for Lieberman's Yisrael Beitainu party - but he's got only 12% of the vote, which is far from a majority. Meretz used to be in favor of such changes, but their insistence on disconnecting from reality on more important matters has eroded their representation down to almost nothing.

The bottom line, Laura, is that you've got it backwards. Were 500,000 Reform or Conservative Jews to move to Israel, learn the ropes, and set out to change the way Israel does these things, they'd be joined by a reasonable number of people who are already here, and they'd have their change or at least a compromise that everyone could live with- and Israel would be a stronger place for their being here. Sitting far away and kvetching about things from the sidelines isn't going to help.

The neighborhood I live in is proof: it has an unusually high concentration of former Americans - and look at all the options on offer.

A final comment: I have gone to services at the nearby Reform synagogue three or four times in recent years. Each time I go I'm struck anew by the degree to which they aren't that different from the other synagogues all around them, but they are different from Reform or Conservative places I've gone to in the US. The difference is because of Hebrew. The moment the service is in Hebrew, and therefore it's point of departure is the traditional service and prayerbook, it fits onto the continuum of what Orthodox synagogues do. Perhaps it's just off the edge of the continuum, but recognizably so. This, compared to services I've seen in some American places which I was hard put to recognize.

PS. The wrong rabbis are taking control of the Western Wall. This is a real problem - but it's the result of the fact that all the rest of us let it happen.

Update: Barry corrects me. The Conservative rabbi is Ehud Bendel, not Bender, but he has moved elsewhere. I expect the most obvious person who now occupies the same social-political position is Uri Regev, a Reform rabbi.


Laura Beck (Laura SF) said...

I appreciate your addressing this question - actually, I'm flattered at being quoted by you on your blog! I admire your thinking (and your writing) very much. However, I'm a bit disappointed with your response - that we shouldn't "sit far away and kvetch," we should come to Israel and change things.

First, I think that's awfully chutzpahdik. Why is it *our* responsibility to change the way Israel works? *You're* the ones who live there! *You're* the ones who allowed rabbis to have power over Jewish status, marriage, divorce, and burial. Remember that my "kvetch" was written in response to your (implied) question about why more American Jews aren't making aliyah. Since you are in essence asking us to move from a place where we're perfectly comfortable, where we have jobs, friends, family, AND freedom of religion, I think it's up to *you* to make Israel a more desirable destination for us. It's already a huge problem for us to imagine moving to a more dangerous neighborhood - where we have to worry daily about war, terrorist attacks, and the Iranian nuclear threat. We understand that you can't do much about those things - and we're sympathetic. But you *can* do something about the Orthodox strangehold, and yet you don't. I guess you'd rather whinge about it and wait for the North American Jews to come and save you?

Second, you glide right past a major issue - that only Orthodox-converted Jews (and not all of them!) are considered Jewish in Israel. My husband is a highly committed, observant Conservative convert. His conversion was perfectly halachic - a year plus of intense study, followed by a hatafat dam, mikvah, beit din. But the rabbis of the beit din weren't Orthodox, so according to Israel, he isn't Jewish - isn't that right? We support Israel - publicly, vocally, and with our money - but Israel doesn't support us. So how is that supposed to work? Why should non-Orthodox American Jews make sacrifices for the only country in the world that *doesn't* consider them Jewish?

I suppose you could say we owe it to the Jewish people, as a whole, to help in the nation-building project - and our contribution could be to liberalize the religious environment there. I guess I'm not that selfless. I think - like most migrants - I would need to see significant benefit to myself and my family to uproot us all and move to a foreign country where we don't speak the language, don't know the culture, don't have the connections... and have to worry about terror & war on top of that. And I think it's adding insult to injury to expect us to accept all those disadvantages (accruing to any immigrant) and *also* be told my husband isn't even a Jew.

I hope this rather long response helps you see the situation from a non-Israeli point of view. Again, I wouldn't have brought any of this up if you hadn't asked about American Jews' making aliyah.

Laura Beck (Laura SF) said...

Re-reading this post, I have another question - how is the current situation in Israel the result of "democracy," given that the majority of Israelis are completely secular? You say that if forced to choose, they will choose Orthodox rabbis - but wouldn't they really rather have the option of no rabbi at all? Secular marriage, divorce, burial, whatever? And - how much of a choice do they really have (or did they have, when the laws went into effect)? Were there Conservative or Reform Jews available back then?

Sorry, this sounds like sheer apologetics to me. Like justifying the imams implementing sharia law in Iran...


Lee Ratner said...

Yaacov, I remember reading that another reason why Orthodox Rabbis were given something of a religious monopoly over kashrut, Jewish marriages, and conversions was basically an attempt to buy the peace. From what I heard, David Ben-Gurion made this offer to get some of the more strident anti-Zionist Orthodox Rabbis to tone down their anti-Zionist rhetoric, particularly the Ultra-Orthodox ones.

Yaacov said...

Laura (and Lee),

My apologies for stepping on what seems a personal issue.

I wasn't advocating that American Jews move to Israel. Back when I was in my early 20s I used to do that a lot, but I haven't been in my early 20s for quite some time now (two of my kids are already beyond their early 20s...). I simply noted a story.

Of course, were large numbers of Jews to move to Israel it would be great, for Israel, for them, and most importantly for the Jewish people. But that's not going to happen.

I don't know if Israel "should" be more appealing to American Jews. Israel is what it is, an extraordinarily complex place getting along astonishingly well in the face of diverse challenges. There's endless room for improvement, of course, but what is achieved is achieved by the people who are here grappling with the challenges. The (ever-changing) outcome is the sum of their efforts - and of course, many of the efforts are contradictory.

On the specific topic of Reform and Conservative Judaism: no, I don't think it's like you see it at all. You both seem to have the impression that the Orthodox rabbis are somehow blocking the Reform and Conservative ones from stating their case to the Israelis, or offering them their wares, or some such. I can see why you might have that impression, but allow me to state, flatly, that this is not the case. Rather, at all times since 1948, there has never been a significant group in Israel with much interest in the two American strands of Judaism. This is not because of the Orthodox, but because of the secular majority: secular Israelis, by and large, find the American movements odd, and are not attracted to them.

The same goes for the option of secular marriages. Of course there are endless kvetches about the obtuse rabbis who've got a monopoly on marriages. Yet repeatedly over the decades there have been political forces who have tried to challenge this, and they've never gained traction. This is because a large majority of secular Israelis fundamentally accept the current situation. Some of them gripe and accept, some accept wholeheartedly - and I expect the second group is the vastly larger of the two. It includes almost all of the mizrachi Jews, who are secular in a vaguely orthodox sort of way, and it includes most ashkenazi Jews whose parents grandparents and backwards all married in an orthodox ceremony and so will they.

The fact is that it's quite easy nowadays to marry otherwise, in Cyprus (a 20-minute flight from Tel Aviv), or through various other loopholes, yet only a very small minority do so. Most people get married the way their grandparents and parents wish them to do, since weddings are important family events.

Finally, regarding your husband, Laura: I would recognize him as Jewish in a heartbeat, were he to come here. But again, the issue has been on our political agenda for decades, and it never gains traction. The reason is that the numbers of Reform and Conservative converts wishing to move to Israel is so small, that it's not worth the major hassle of the political confrontation. We've got too many other things on the agenda, including many issues we feel to be more important... which means, there's no constituency, which means, yes, it's a democratic decision.

Anonymous said...

Dear Dr. Lozowick,
you shouldn't "waste" this (to me) important explanation and lesson in democracy on a comment


JG Campbell said...

Hi Yaacov

Thanks for this post, including your reply to Laura Beck.

But I wonder if you could help me with three general factual questions:

(1) Is it the case that converts to non-Orthodox Judaism in the Diaspora are recognized as Jewish by the state of Israel, though not by the Israeli Orthodox rabbinate, for the purposes of aliyah?

(2) Is there a Shiah muslim population of any size in Israel and does it have recognition from the state in the same way that Sunnis do?

(3) Is it right that Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican Christians are recognized by the Israeli authorities while the various Protestant churches - Presbyterians, Baptists, Pentacostals etc - are not?

Best wishes,

Joe in Australia said...

This is a fascinating thread, and it's made me realise something: Israel is Orthodox because of ben-Yehuda.

Think about it: the definitive element in early Reform wasn't Shabbat or Kashrut; it was sermons and services in the vernacular. In Hungary the mere fact that a drasha was given in Hungarian was enough to define a synagogue as status-quo rather than Orthodox. The maskilim promoted the study of German and other non-Jewish languages precisely because it gave Jews the opportunity to access non-Jewish culture.

So how does this work in Israel, where there is no vernacular other than Hebrew? Everything is different. There's far less of a language barrier to participation in Orthodox services, so families have less need for a lowest-common-denominator sort of service. The sermon in most synagogues is in the language they speak every day. You don't need an Orthodox education to participate in at least a basic discussion of classic Jewish texts. It becomes very hard for the average congregant to distinguish between modern and historical liturgical changes, because they're all in the same language. As a result left-wing Orthodox congregations tend to remain within the fold.

Obviously there are people with an ideological preference for Reform or Masorti/Conservative Judaism. But why should a Jew who is not especially religious, not especially ideological, seek out a Reform synagogue? Better to go to an Orthodox one that is nearby, that his acquaintances go to, that his family may use or have used.

So it seems that Orthodox Judaism owes a huge debt to Eliezer ben-Yehuda and his colleagues. I wonder if he knew this would happen?

Barry Meislin said...

Actually, following the logic of your contemplations, it owes a huge debt to Ben-Yehuda's mother-in-law....

Yaacov said...

Silke -

You may be right but it's too late to move. I'll put a note up about this thread.

Jonathan -

1. There is a discrepancy, but I'm not sure what it is. Immigration is controlled by the minister of the interior, which is why a couple elections back the Russian parties of the day campaigned on the immortal "Nash Kontrol", Our Control slogan: that they needed enough votes to demand the minister of the interior be one of them (this worked at the time, tho the ministry is now controlled by Shas). Jewish marriages are controlled by the rabbinate, which is part of another ministry. But I"m not quite certain how the differences work out. Also, keep in mind that the number of prospective immigrants who converted and come on their own is minuscule. Often you get people like Laura's husband, were they to come, who could immigrate as her husband irrespective of his religion, but simple converts coming on their own are rare.

2. Shia: not that I know of. There maybe one or six, but I've never heard of them.

3. I've never heard the Christian interdenominational distinction you've asked about. I remember back in 1979 or 1980 I had a friend who was a Catholic priest and an Israeli citizen; he told me Catholics find it easier to acquire Israeli citizenship if they've got Vatican backing, which Protestants obviously don't have. But that was then. Nowadays, with the rise of Evangelical Zionism in the US, I very much doubt our authorities are meaner to them than to others. Not far from where I live they've got what they call The Christian Embassy, and there seems to be quite a community around them, tho it's anyone's guess what they actually do.

Joe -

A fascinating observation, thank you. Ben Yehuda was despised by the Old Yishuv of his day (today we'd call them Haredi); makes you wonder what if they'd known...

Allow me to add that another part of the low appeal of the Reform and Conservative to secular Israelis is that living in a Jewish state means they're Jews all the time; American Jews need a synagogue as the place where they express their Jewishness, or where they enact much of their Jewish activity. Secular Israelis don't want to go to any synagogue, they want to be secular, yet living in Hebrew, by the Jewish calender, in a Jewish society, means they're Jews without setting aside time to be so.

Menachem Mendel said...

As a Conservative rabbi who served a congregation in Israel, studied at Bar-Ilan University, lived in a religious neighborhood, blah blah blah, here is what I think.

First of all, the reality of religious-state relations in Israel and the ultra-orthodox monopoly on religious functionary activities is pathetic. It is corrupt, blasphemous, etc., and the national-religious community seems to waking up to this perverse situation. But this has little to do with the state of the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel.

Reform and Conservative Judaism is alive and well in Israel it just has nothing to do with the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel. There are tens of thousands of people who do not feel bound by halakhah, emphasis the ethical aspects of Jewish tradition, observe some Jewish rituals, etc. (a.k.a. Reform) and others who are fairly traditional in their behavior, observe halakhah and are found on a continuum of observance, are modern in a cultural sense of the word, are interested in a critical appraisal of Judaism and Jewish History (a.k.a. Conservative). People who fit into either of these two groups can be found in all corners of Israeli society, both in what is erroneously known as the "secular" and "religious" camps. Where the Reform and Conservative movements fail is that they have yet to understand that the social, cultural, and, yes, legal, frameworks and structures of Israeli society are not those of America. One of the most glaring areas are the ideas of Denominationalism and Establishmentarianism, two important ideas in the history of religion in America and Europe, and the differences between how they manifest themselves in America and in Israel.

The synagogue is not central to religious life of most Israelis, for most Reform and Conservative Jews it is. This has roots in both economic and social reality. In Israel people don't identify or belong to a religious denomination, this is not a defining factor in the lives of most Israelis, religious or not. There are other groupings, but very few people have membership in a religious denominational organization.

On one foot, both the Reform and Conservative movements, after decades of being in Israel, have yet to really go native. There are many native Israelis involved with both of these movements, but IMHO they have usually been Americanized in their thinking about the way religious movements function in Israel. There is a very long list of exciting religious projects and groups working in Israel that I would define as embodying the best of what is known in America as Reform, Conservative, or Modern Orthodox, yet they are not affiliated with any "movement." No small number of the people involved in these groups have been exposed to different expressions of Judaism in America or have studied at HUC in the US or Jerusalem, and the Schechter Institute in Israel, but what they have formed fits the Israel experience and reality, and it doesn't always fit into the "orthodox" interpretation of how religious movements should work in Israel which is often espoused by the Israeli Reform and Conservative movements. For a scholarly treatment of this question, see

Cohen, Asher, and Bernard, Susser. “Reform Judaism in Israel: the Anatomy of Weakness.” Modern Judaism 30, 1 (2010): 23-45.

In my opinion, the emphasis should be on giving Israelis the tools to go off and create their own groups, institutions, etc., without worrying about which movement they should identify with. Again, go native.

Knowing that any wedding that I performed wasn't recognized was offensive to me, but I liked to look at the longer-term picture when it comes to the legal sphere, which I believe will eventually be different.

Laura Beck (Laura SF) said...

Hi Yaacov,

Thank you very much for your kind response. I guess I do take the issue pretty personally... and my encounters with some haredi folk in Israel didn't help matters (the worst was a Brooklyn-ite Hasid, naturally). As an aside, I should note that my rabbi (who was raised very Orthodox, also in Brooklyn) is extremely enthusiastic about the Masorti movement in Israel. So...

@Menachem Mendel - thank you for your analysis. You make a point that I really hadn't considered before, about the American-ness of Reform & Conservative institutions, and how they don't really fit into the Israeli landscape. My family has never really identified with the institutional nature of much of American Judaism, so... I have sympathy!

Thanks again -

Lee Ratner said...

I think that Menachem Mendel's point makes a great deal of sense. Before the mid to late 19th century, every synagogue was pretty much independent of each other and did there own thing. The same goes for each yeshiva or cheder. Even when the Jewish population was at its most organized, like it was in Poland-Lithuania, Judaism was much less institutionalized than most Christian churches.

When Reform, Conservative, and Modern Orthodox Judaism began to emerge in mid-19th century Germany, all three of them kind of adopted a pseudo-Protestant organization but again much less centralized than most Protestant churches. This semi-institutionalization of Judaism was carried over to America where it thrived because it matched how the Christians were organized. In Eastern Europe and the Middle East, the every synagogue and yeshiva for itself attitude remained in place. Since most Jews making aliyah before the 1930s were from Eastern Europe and the Middle East than the every synagogue for itself attitude was imported to and this helped the Orthodox became more established.

Joe in Australia's thesis is interesting but I think its wrong. The Maskilim encouraged Jews to learn the local language rather than Yiddish but they also advocated a mini-revival of Hebrew as a secular language, at least in written form, rather than a purely religious language. Reform, Conservative, Modern Orthodox, and even Ultra-Orthodox Judaism were all different takes on how to be Jewish after the ghetto walls fell.

Menachem Mendel said...

As a follow up to what I posted, I think that one can also see a similar attempt at constructing a denominationalist identity in Israel among some of the moderate religious population. I am hearing more and more people talk about defining themselves as "Orthodoxi Moderni," a clear American import if there ever was one. American Judaism itself seems to be entering a post- or non-denominational period, so to think that what many American Jews are now abandoning is what Israelis are searching for is not very realistic.

Yaacov said...


I haven't heard the "Orthodoxi Moderni" one, but if it's happening, I'd guess it's a reaction to the splitting of the old Zionist-orthodox camp into semi-haredi, semi-Shas, very-lite-orthodox etc: the old tag no longer serves for anything coherent, and your term may be an attempt to find one that does.

Anonymous said...

I heard a piece on Abraham Geiger last night who they said introduced organ and congregation singing into synagogues - the snippets they had sounded very like protestant service to me -

Wikipedia says he was the founder of Reform Judaism and makes him sound very much like he wouldn't be fond of Israel these days.

Is the American Reform Judaism you are talking about here based on him or something different?


Ruth said...

I belong to a conservative congregation and pay the fee for the whole family. I discussed the issue with my husband. The main issue for us is the different approach to women in orthodox and conservative Judaism.

Yaacov said...


I doubt Geiger would much have liked Israel at any point, these days or other days. He was way too proud of his Vaterland to have any patience for Jewish nationalism. But that was then.


Yes, well. The problem being that over the past 25 years or so, the orthodox consensus on this has mostly disintegrated. But that's a subject for another day (and a fascinating one, of course).

Lee Ratner said...

Modern Orthodox Judaism began in Germany just like Reform and Conservative Judaism began in Germany as responses to emancipation. Particularly, I believe that Modern Orthodox Judaism traces its origins back to Rabbi Hirsch. They did evolve into their final forms in America though.

My basic take on all the Jewish denominations is that they are responses to how to be Jewish once the Ghetto no longer existed. Modern Orthodox Jews argued that Jews can be modern people, fully participating in civil society of their countries and still be Orthodox.

Jon said...


I'm Orthodox. And yet honestly I think you're making the right decision if synagogue services are the center of your religious life. I think if the Orthodox lifestyle centered around the synagogue instead of Jewish learning (as Yaacov points out in a recent post) then change would have happened long ago.

Menachem Mendel said...


See here for a recent discussion about the use of the word Modern Orthodox in an Israeli context.