Reform Jews, in the court of public opinion and the Supreme Court itself, are starting to come out on top. First, the recent decision to expand the egalitarian section of the Western Wall. Now, the High Court ruling that non-Orthodox Jewish converts may use public ritual baths.
Call it what you will — my colleague Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the American Union of Reform Judaism, describes it as a ‘seismic shift’ — we are witnessing fundamental change to Israel’s religious landscape. The strictly-Orthodox stranglehold over state-sponsored religious institutions is coming undone.
In the wake of the decision to allow non-Orthodox converts access to publicly funded baths, Israel Eichler of the United Torah Judaism, said: “Not every mentally ill person can come to the operating room and decide the rules of medicine.”
“It is intolerable that the directors of ritual baths will have to allow organizers of Reform religion-changing ceremonies into a Jewish ritual bath,” he continued.
As a person who suffered from mental ill health in the past and, of course, as a Reform Jew, I would rather ignore his doubly insulting remarks. That — or simply dismiss them as panic by the strictly-Orthodox religious establishment. Many of my colleagues, including Rabbi Jacobs, and the leader of Israeli Reform Jews, Rabbi Gilad Kariv, believe they show precisely this desperation. These strictly-Orthodox Jews have been reduced to foul incitement because, like us, they understand they are now fighting a losing battle.
In the same week as Eichler’s comments, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Reform rabbinic plenary, convened in Israel and met with Benjamin Netanyahu. Then, at the invitation of the Diaspora Affairs Committee, 400 Reform rabbis visited the Knesset. Still, we cannot afford to be complacent. This Wednesday, in response to Eichler’s request, the Knesset will debate the mikveh matter. They do not have the jurisdiction to reverse the Supreme Court’s decision, but strictly-Orthodox lawmakers can still exercise two forms of power.
First, they can and will continue to block changes over laws where the Knesset does have jurisdiction: that means a person’s legal status as a Jew; marriages; weddings; funerals, and which rabbis do and don’t get paid by the state. Strictly Orthodox Jews still control the levers of religious life in Israel.
Second, they can continue their campaign of incitement against Reform Jews. Last year David Azoulay, a member of the strictly-Orthodox Shas party and Israel’s Religious Services Minister, said Reform Jews were a “disaster for the nation of Israel.” Israel Eichler’s comments are only the latest in a long succession of such comments.
We have to be cautious drawing conclusions from last week. Reform Jews are far from home and dry in Israel. In fact, those who have achieved the hard-won victories are going to have to double down on their efforts. The strictly-Orthodox establishment will only double theirs. They will ramp up the legal discrimination that has so far prevented Reform Jews from living their Jewish lives fully in the Jewish state. They will pull up their sleeves and continue playing dirty, and persist with their incitement.
Reform Jews are gaining momentum in their struggle for religious freedom in Israel — but Israel Eichler’s comments remind us we are only at the beginning of the end of this long battle.
Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner is the Senior Rabbi to Reform Judaism in the UK.