The new coalition government that was sworn in this week will see the ultra-Orthodox parties once again in control of official religion and state affairs in Israel. This was to be expected, as PM Netanyahu was openly courting the haredi parties even as he was dissolving his previous coalition.
Religious freedoms will not find meaningful support in this government. The few coalition members who are concerned with these matters will kowtow to the Orthodox parties, lest their fragile political majority shatter. Still, hope springs eternal, and I’ve encountered some heartening grassroots efforts that aim to empower individual religious decision-making. Below, I highlight four initiatives that inspire me – the first two are primarily non-Orthodox initiatives, and the second two are Orthodox.
The coalition for an inclusive Jerusalem
This Shabbat, there will be a special Shabbat program at Park Nayot in Jerusalem from 10:00 – 13:00 organized by a coalition comprised of a majority of the city’s civil society organizations, including Yeru-Shalem and many others. Activities will include a singalong of Jerusalem and Israeli songs; dancing for the whole family; fun, satiric theater and a puppet show; stories of Jerusalem, workshops, a children’s parade, and more. The program is called “Our Shabbat”, and is part of a week-long series of events leading up to Jerusalem Day.
The Yeru-Shalem coalition, formed in 2011, celebrates and champions the rich diversity of Jerusalem. They promote cultural and communal activities that are inviting to all, and aim to maximize cultural activities on Shabbat in Jerusalem, in accordance with the needs and world views of the diverse Jerusalem citizenry. In this spirit, Yeru-Shalem launched its “Shabbat project” in 2013, expanding it to a fuller scale in 2014 under the name “Yerushalayim Shel Shabbat” (Jerusalem of Shabbat).
Yeru-Shalem envisions a reinvigorated Shabbat, accessible as a “space” of interest and inspiration for the entire Jerusalem public; as well as a day of cultural, spiritual, and communal “Oneg” (recreational pleasure and leisure).
The idea of arranging a private Shabbat bus line in Israel has been floating around for years, but the effort it takes to organize such an initiative has daunted many. Without a Shabus, people without cars who live on the periphery of Jerusalem are stuck on Shabbat, unable to visit family members on the other side of town without paying for taxis. The poor, the disabled, the elderly and the young are stranded while the rest of the populace zips around freely in private vehicles, which many acquire because public transportation is not available.
Jerusalem’s Shabus coop was launched last weekend, after a year of planning. Already, there are more than 600 dues paying members, and they have raised more than NIS 111,000 – enough to pay for an administrator and the drivers. This has been volunteer driven, initiated by local Jerusalem activists in response to the voiced needs of the citizens.
MK Naftali Bennett’s Ministry of the Economy approved Shabus as an official cooperative half a year ago, and according to law only dues paying members of the coop may use the buses. As a non-profit, the more people make use of Shabus, the less each ride costs – it’s not about making money, but rather about citizens coming together to provide a service. Decision-making is democratic, and operation of the low-key minibuses is not conspicuous. Something that I particularly appreciate is that none of the drivers are Jewish – so no Jews are working on Shabbat to make this possible.
3) Hashgacha Pratit
In a victory for restaurant owners in Jerusalem who have been fighting the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly on kashrut certification, the attorney general told the High Court in early May that restaurants receiving kashrut certification outside the Rabbinate should not be fined if they don’t use the word kosher.
For example, Rabbi Aharon Leibowitz’s private kashrut organization Hashgacha Pratit does not actually use the word kosher, but observes “halakha” (Jewish religious law) concerning food ingredients and their preparation.
The Rabbinate’s kashrut certification is faulty on multiple levels. First, the kashrut supervisors receive their salaries from the restaurants, which allows them to blackmail the restaurants. Further, supervisors are disincentivized from reporting kashrut violations, as they could lose their incomes if the establishments are shut down. The Rabbinate’s monopoly also creates a more fundamental problem: it eliminates any possibility of accountability by serving as both the provider and regulator for the official kashrut certification industry.
According to halakha, one must be considered “ne’eman” (trustworthy) in order to run a kosher establishment. Therefore, instead of providing kashrut certificates, Hashgacha Pratit requires restaurants to sign a covenant of trust. All staff are taught how to maintain a kosher kitchen, and are included and respected. Rabbi Leibowitz asks, “The real test of kashrut – is what happens when the inspector turns his back?”
4) Conversion courts outside the Rabbinut
Rabbi Seth Farber has made it publicly known that there are already four Orthodox rabbinical courts doing halakhic conversions in Israel un-recognized by the state. He explains that the rabbinical court system operates without checks and balances or meaningful oversight.
Having studied the sources on conversion for more than seven years, Rabbi Chuck Davidson has come to understand that Israel’s special “beitei din” (rabbinical courts) for conversion are following the halakhic approach of Rabbi Uziel, z”l, the first Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel. The chief rabbi understood the converts’ acceptance of mitzvot as an acceptance of the halakhic system, leaving every convert’s actual practices to be a personal matter between Jew and God. Rabbi Uziel’s approach was explicitly held by other gedolim (major rabbis), but perhaps in order to broaden acceptance of the Rabbinate’s converts, these same Zionist Orthodox rabbis on the Rabbinate’s special conversion courts who maintain Rabbi Uziel’s position have nonetheless developed and continue to perpetuate an intricate game of deceit, requiring converts to lie outright about their acceptance of all the mitzvot in order to complete their conversions.
In parallel to the development of these Orthodox conversion courts, which provide transparency, authenticity and accessibility, Rabbi Chuck Davidson has compiled a compendium of rabbinic rulings on conversion that span thousands of years. His goal is to launch an education campaign, sharing his research on conversion so that all halakhic converts will be accepted by Israeli society, and the rabbinate’s centralized conversion system will be rendered irrelevant.