It didn’t take long before the Israeli Chief Rabbinate’s outrageous discrediting of Rabbi Avi Weiss turned into an international battle. The latest attempt by the Chief Rabbinate to flex its muscles against modern and more egalitarian trends developing in American Orthodoxy clearly failed.
It is, however, merely a small stepping stone in a broader, festering conflict facing Israel as it labors to define its essence as a Jewish and democratic state. What lessons are to be learned, and what further steps need to be taken?
The assault of Israel’s increasingly Haredi Chief Rabbinate on the American Orthodox rabbinate is relatively new, but the conflict over issues of religion and state between Israel and American Jewry has a long history. For decades, the “Who is a Jew” battles threatened to drive a wedge between the two communities.
Most recently, the Women of the Wall controversy brought Israel’s diplomatic representatives in the US to send SOS signals to Israel. Yet, the organized Jewish community and its leadership refrained from seriously protesting the systematic discrimination against non-Orthodox Judaism. Instead, it mostly engaged in damage control.
When grass-roots outrage reached peak levels, though, the leadership moved into a highly effective action mode to avert the impeding threat. Thankfully, constructive pressure from the American Jewish community, coupled with legal battles in Israel’s Supreme Court (many of which I had the privilege of spearheading) resulted in Israel’s acceptance of non-Orthodox converts as eligible for Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return and registration as Jews in Israel’s civil population registry.
Those victories were momentous, but sadly, they remain incomplete in the area of freedom of marriage. Civil marriage and divorce are still not legal in Israel for Jews: the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate holds sole authority over this realm.
This monopoly denies hundreds of thousands of Israelis the right to marry and similarly renders the majority of children growing up in the American Jewish community ineligible to legally marry in Israel.
Israel’s former Supreme Court Chief Justice, Prof. Aharon Barak, described this reality as a violation of human rights, human dignity, religious freedom and equality. Not surprisingly, the majority of Israelis support religious freedom and the right to marry, and oppose the politically orchestrated Orthodox rabbinic monopoly.
The Chief Rabbinate is immersed in its own parochial, narrow-minded interests and has very little understanding of the American Jewish community. Blinkered as they were, they did not anticipate the international outcry not only from supporters of Rabbi Weiss, but from others who felt that the Chief Rabbinate just went too far.
Civil liberties lawyer and staunch defender of Israel Alan Dershowitz sent a forceful letter to Israeli President Shimon Peres saying, “I am disturbed by this and by its ramifications, and call upon the leaders of Israel…to understand that they mustn’t bend to baseless religious tyranny.”
ADL head Abe Foxman publicly wrote that, “The Chief Rabbinate has taken steps, which threaten to expand, rather than narrow, the divide between Israel and American Jews.”
New York Congressman Eliot Engel also attacked the Chief Rabbinate’s decision: “This trend of rejecting status letters written by Rabbi Weiss and others undermines the bond between Diaspora communities and the state of Israel.”
It is no wonder that the Chief Rabbinate reversed its decision, given the embarrassment to Israel — not only to the Rabbinate – caused by the protests from the United States and the threat of legal action in Israel.
There are two lessons to be learned. First, American Jewry must not sell itself short as a powerhouse for sanity, progress and positive change in Israel. This latest example shows once again, following the recent Kotel controversy and past “Who is a Jew” battles, that a well-coordinated campaign involving both American and Israeli groups and high-profile individuals, coupled with legal action, political pressure, and wide media coverage can impact change. It wasn’t that long ago that such change was achieved on a world scale, with the historic success of the Soviet Jewry movement.
The second lesson is that while the Chief Rabbinate and Israeli politicians hope to return to business as usual until the next crisis unfolds, this episode should be used as a catalyst to venture beyond this specific controversy and address the root problem. Rabbi Weiss himself was farsighted and courageous in recognizing this critical need, stating:
“Israel as a state should give equal opportunities to the Conservative and Reform movements. Their rabbis should be able to conduct weddings and conversions. For that matter, civil weddings should also be recognized by the State…Such an open attitude is not only important for non-Orthodox Jewry, but for Orthodoxy as well.”
A growing number of leaders and organizations in Israel and the United States share this vision. The American Jewish Committee and the National Council of Jewish Women have announced their support for freedom of marriage and religious diversity in Israel. Community leaders and intellectuals, Orthodox rabbis among them, have embraced the urgent need for freedom of marriage and ending the Chief Rabbinate’s monopolistic authority.
This battle is essential for the future of a united Jewish People and the well-being of the State of Israel. What is needed now is a continued, assertive, and wide partnership between American Jewry and Israelis to fully realize Israel’s founding promise of “freedom of religion and equality!”
If the battle for Rabbi Weiss was a successful demonstration of the impact of American Jewish pressure in the context of a conflict over Halacha, where supposedly there is no room for compromise or surrender, efforts would be exponentially more successful if concerted pressure were to be directed towards Netanyahu, Lapid, Edelstein, Livni, et al, for marriage freedom for all, and for religious diversity and equality of all major streams of Judaism.
Such collaborative pressure from the US and Israel would surely compel them to recognize that Israel’s identity as a Jewish and democratic state is not compatible with religious coercion and monopoly, They would realize that the future of Israel’s partnership with American Jewry and safeguarding Jewish unity is at stake and that we cannot allow Israel to remain the only democracy in the world that denies its citizens the right to marry.
Hiddush and like-minded organizations in Israel and the US are committed to make this a reality!