An Apology To Non-Orthodox Judaism (Again).

It seems that I often repeat myself, but here goes.

I’m sorry that we keep pushing you away.

I’m sorry that our political and religious leaders continue to disrespect you.

I’m sorry that not only can’t we find political solutions to our religious difference but that the establishment seems to continually exacerbate them.

On many topics from theology through practice, Orthodox Judaism and other forms simply disagree.  In Israel, this disagreement takes on a powerful role since Orthodox Judaism, in its multiple versions, is the only form recognized by the State of Israel.  And since, issue of personal status such as marriage and divorce are established in law as the purview of the country’s religious establishment that means that only Orthodox rabbis sanctioned by the State can perform them.  In addition, due to the complexity of Jewish Law, many couples find that they are not eligible to marry in Israel. Inevitably, democratic values and Jewish Law collide. Navigating this collision necessitates that one or the other will have to give way.

Yesterday, a Conservative rabbi was summoned by police and interrogated for performing a wedding which the local rabbinic court deemed banned by Jewish Law.

“Police knocked on Rabbi Dov “Dubi” Haiyun’s door in the northern city of Haifa around 5 a.m. to bring him in for interrogation, following a complaint by a local rabbinical court, according to a spokesperson for the Masorti Movement in Israel, which is analogous to the US Conservative Movement…

A spokesperson for the rabbinical courts accused Haiyun of performing weddings for couples who are prevented from marrying under Jewish law … calling the practice “criminal and illegal.”

The religious court, which is recognized by the state, asked the police to investigate Rabbi Haiyun for not obeying a summons to appear before it to explain why he illegally performed this banned marriage.  Rabbi Haiyun claims he worked out an arrangement to come later given that he was speaking at the President’s residence later that day. He was surprised by the police wakeup call.

Whatever the exact details of the case, this event highlights the undo power given into the hands of the Israeli Orthodox rabbinic authorities; power which enables them to wield Orthodox interpretation of Jewish law in a spirit which contradicts democratic principles of religious freedom.  This is an especially blunt instrument when used against non-Orthodox, and even liberal Orthodox, streams of Judaism.

It seems like we Israelis, or at least some of us, keep doing it. Whether it’s when representatives of the Chief Rabbinate call non-Orthodox rabbis names or blame them for international calamities, or work hard to disenfranchise them in this way or another, we are choosing religious power over democratic values. I know democratic and Orthodox religious values sometimes clash. They do.

But who do these actions help? How do these actions bring us closer to redemption? How does banning these marriages in Israel and forbidding non-Orthodox rabbis from performing marriages in Israel achieve anything?

I learned for a few years at the famed Yeshivat Har Etzion in Alon Shevut. When I first heard Rav Amital, one of the two yeshiva heads, promote a greater separation of religion and state in Israel, I didn’t follow his reasoning completely. I asked if that wouldn’t hurt the Jewishness of the State. He shrugged the question off. He felt that enough States symbols were Jewish to keep Israel as a Jewish country. Those who recently pushed for the Jewish State law disagree with him.  But I think he was right.

As an Israeli citizen, I am appalled that such a law preventing non-rabbinate rabbis to perform marriages is on the books and ashamed that a non-Orthodox rabbi was called in for questioning over it. The seemingly unnecessary Jewish State law, I believe, also continues in this direction.

We don’t need to agree with the non-Orthodox on their theology, approach to Jewish Law, or interpretation of which elements are central to Jewish existence. We can have critical and honest disagreements about core issues.

But, enough!

It is time to separate state marriages etc. and religion.

Personally, I will follow the Torah as I and my teachers understand it.

Let other citizens follow their own approach.

So at least on behalf of myself, and those of my friends who agree with me, I again apologize to my non-Orthodox friends and colleagues.

In a few days, we will mourn the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem and the beginning of Jewish exile.  It’s time we find ways to build a more respectful discourse.

About the Author
Rabbi Berman is the Associate Director at Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi. In addition, he has held numerous posts in education from the high school level through adult education. He founded the Jewish Learning Initiative (JLI) at Brandeis University and served as rabbinic advisory to the Orthodox community there for several years. Previously, he was a RaM at Midreshet Lindenbaum where he also served as the Rav of the dormitory.