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Israel, Religion, and State: Can a Girl Lead Birkat Hamazon?

Nativers and I During Break at Religion and State Seminar (Photo Courtesy Abigail Leibowitz)

Whenever we have Shabbat as Nativ together, I savor leading Birkat Hamazon so that I can sing my family’s tune for the additional Shabbat verse “Harachaman” – a melody that no one else seems to be familiar with. But for the Yemin Orde students, the simple fact that a girl leads benching shook their world. One of my students, Aviv, recognized me when I walked into her class as the girl who led benching on Shabbat. She exclaimed, “aren’t you the girl who led benching? I was in shock!”

Reflecting on this incident, I realized that the aversion to egalitarian Judaism is not only a consequence of cultural differences between American and Israeli Jews but a direct result of the foundational structure of Israel.

In January, I participated in a Religion and State Seminar, in which I learned in greater depth the goals of Women of the Wall, and about the struggle of Conservative Judaism’s rabbis to practice in Israel and offer people an option that is different from Orthodox Judaism.

The Israeli Rabbinate controls marriage, divorce, family law, and conversion. They also pay the salaries of all city and neighborhood rabbis. Throughout Israel’s entire existence, the National Religious and Ultra-Orthodox have had a chokehold on the Rabbinate, excluding anyone who did not conform to the Orthodox interpretation.

It’s a strange political framework in which a state is enforcing one particular version of Jewish law while still attempting to be democratic.

We first heard from representatives of the World Zionist Organization (WZO). The WZO manages 20-25% of the land in Israel, so its decisions significantly impact the makeup and framework of the country. Within the WZO, different parties represent diverse interests and populations. The MERCAZ party represents Masorti Jews- Israel’s version of the Conservative Movement. In the annual World Zionist  Congress, Conservtive Jews turn out in extremely low numbers, and many attribute this phenomenon to the divisiveness of Israeli politics.

Dr. Yizhak Hess explained that the low turnout is a devastating phenomenon because Israel is, ironically, the only democracy in the world where Jews cannot practice freely. The only way this may ever change is by diaspora Conservative communities voting in the WZO elections and influencing the makeup of the WZO. When asked if he believes Conservative Judaism as it exists in the US is possible in Israel, despite being an inhenertenly American transplant, Hess explained his opinion as a country made up of immigrants, Israel could be fertile ground for this kind of transplant.

Because of the WZO’s connection to the Jewish National Fund (JNF) and other national institutes, it holds the capability to influence consequential policies. Take, for example, the case of dispossessing Bedouins in order to plant trees. Recently, the JNF intended to plant trees on land in the Negev that belongs to the Bedouins, but the MERCAZ party in the WZO was among the liberal voices who voted against this policy.

We then heard from the director of the Jewish Pluralism Watch. This organization monitors the Knesset, educational system, and government decisions as they relate to Jewish pluralism.

To understand why there is so little pluralism in Israel, one must travel back in time. Ben Gurion believed that Judaism is a culture and shouldn’t dictate day to day life. However, when fighting for the establishment of a Jewish state, the Agudat Yisrael ultra-Orthodox party was opposed to his vision, so in order to placate them, Ben Gurion made concessions to them that undermined his vision.

In the famous Status Quo Letter, Ben Gurion promised that Agudat Yisrael would be in charge of education, marriage, kashrut, and shabbat in exchange for their support of his government. The Chief Rabbinate institution – which ended up controlling these four subjects – was not even initially conjured by Ben Gurion. It  was established in 1921 by the British Mandate who didn’t want to arbitrate personal affairs. If people feel that the Chief Rabbinate wields disproportionate power, diaspora Jews have the capacity to change this through WZO elections.

The Jewish Pluralism Watch now works with the US embassy on issues related to the right to religious freedom, and freedom from the coercion of the Rabbinate. Indeed, one of the primary issues- marriage- was noted in the US State Department’s report on human rights abuses in various countries. It’s interesting that 25% of people in Israel get married outside the Rabbinate but they must travel abroad to get married.

Regarding the educational systems, according to the Status Quo, each denomination is given discretion over their own curriculum with minimal requirements enforced by the state. This has led to the ultra-Orthodox education suffering from a serious lack of secular studies which inhibits their integration into society. Indeed, I recently witnessed first hand the hardships inflicted by this lack of oversight on Haredi education. One of my MDA drivers, Nave, disclosed to me that he was formerly religious (in Israel, they call people who became non-religious “chozrim be’she’elah” – lit. returning with questions). He studied in a Haredi yeshiva high school in Akko which did not provide any English studies and he therefore cannot speak English. He terribly regrets this, as he would have loved to be able to speak to Nativ volunteers in English.

We then heard from Yochi, the CEO of Women of the Wall- bringing crucial context to the movement we got to know firsthand when we participated in their Rosh Chodesh davening. After gaining control over the Western Wall in 1967, Israel handed over jurisdiction to the Orthodox Rabbinate, who claim they are simply enforcing the “local custom.” Essentially, this is a diplomatic way of saying they will prohibit any form of egalitarian services.

To further couch their discrimination in democratic-sounding lingo, the Kotel Rabbi ruled that no one – men or women – is allowed to bring Sifrei Torah into the Kotel. On the surface, this seems like “equal justice under law.” However, this is entirely discriminatory against women, as the Kotel already provides countless Torahs on the men’s side, yet refuse to provide Torahs on the women’s side. The Kotel Rabbi has even been quoted claiming women requesting torahs are “prostitutes.”

Contrary to popular belief, the goal of Women of the Wall isn’t full egalitarian prayer, as this is already allowed in the Kotel’s egalitarian section, but rather to gain full prayer rights specifically in the Women’s Section. This appears contradictory as gender-separated prayer is characteristic of stringent Orthodox communities. When asked why, then, create all this ruckus in the Women’s Section when the egalitarian section provides a space for women to read Torah, Yochi answered that there are many Orthodox women who adhere to the custom of separate prayer, but at the same time want to be allowed to lead a Torah service.

During the seminar, we had the chance to hear from MK Alon Tal- the only American-born MK (whose wife coincidentally went to Blair High School, just down the street from me). He was instrumental in drafting and proposing the Kotel Bill, which  would fund renovations of the egalitarian section, rendering it actually suitable for prayer. Women of the Wall supports this compromise for now, but will continue fighting for full rights in the Women’s Section and will put up a Mechitza in their Rosh Chodesh services. On one hand, I empathize with Women of the Wall and their commitment to very specific parameters. On the other hand, I empathize with many of the Nativers who feel unheard and neglected within an egalitarian movement meant to represent them.

Leaving a country hallmarked by separation of Church and State to live in country where day to day life and practices are dictated by a stringent Rabbinate, I have experienced the beauty and the pain of the infusion of Judaism into the fabrics of this country. This Religion and State seminar helped me understand these complexities in greater depth and left me contemplating- can Israel be both Jewish and democratic?

About the Author
Abby is a student and volunteer on the Nativ College Leadership Program. Originally from Israel, she moved to Silver Spring, MD as a baby and grew up there with her parents and twin brother. Inspired by Jewish concepts of Tikkun Olam and the Jewish refugee narrative, she hopes to go to law school and work in human rights law. Back in the US, she led a student advocacy group called F.A.I.R- Fans of Asylum and Immigration Reform, taught at Temple Emanuel Religious School, and was a teacher’s assistant at CityDance School and Conservatory. During her free time Abby loves to take dance classes, play backgammon (and win of course), and read!
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