This past week two headlines dominated Israeli and Jewish media, the passage of the Nation-State bill, and the police questioning of a Conservative movement rabbi over a marriage he officiated. Both these news stories elicited very different and contradictory responses from the Jews community. The divisions were not only in Israel with the most liberal protesting but in the United States. There is a widening chasm between Israeli and Diaspora Jewry and the conservative and liberal leanings of each respectively. There seem to be more concerns with offending liberal Jewry, political correctness, the opinion of the non-Jewish world than the wider context these two instances have for Israel and Judaism in general and Jewish continuity. Most importantly, these responses speak to giving to the increasing lax religiosity of American Jewry, who is dealing with a crisis of assimilation and intermarriage. For Israel to give in would be pandering to liberal and American Jewry that has lost its focus.
In the early hours of Thursday morning, Israel time, the Knesset passed with a vote of 62-55 and two abstentions the Nation-State bill, Nationality Law. The law only confirmed what has been an important part of modern Israel’s creation and existence for the past seventy years, that Israel is ‘national home of the Jewish people.’ The bill is a Quasi-Constitutional Basic Law and focuses on affirming Israel’s Jewish signs, the flag, and shield, Hatikvah, the national anthem, recognizing Jewish holidays and remembrance days, and making the Hebrew Calendar official.
The news media hailed the new law as controversial whether in Israel, the Diaspora or the non-Jewish media. The major concern, that Israel did not appear democratic or concerned enough with religious minorities particularly the large Israeli Arab population and does not address the status of Jewish denominations within Israel. The law demotes the status of the Arabic language from official to special, promotes settlement of Jewish communities and defines Israel relationship with the Diaspora but still defines Israel as an Orthodox Jewish state. The reaction from the Diaspora was mostly negative except Orthodox groups. Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism went as far as calling it “a sad and unnecessary day for Israeli democracy,” Jacobs was critical the law did not “promote a Judaism in Israel that is inclusive and pluralistic and reflective of our values of equality for all.”
After the law passed, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called it “a pivotal moment in the annals of Zionism and the State of Israel.” Continuing he expressed, “We enshrined in law the basic principle of our existence. Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people, that respects the individual rights of all its citizens. This is our state — the Jewish state. In recent years there have been some who have attempted to put this in doubt, to undercut the core of our being. Today we made it law: This is our nation, language, and flag.”
Hours later and equally as divisive, was Haifa police questioning and detaining Conservative /Masorti Rabbi Dov Haiyun on Thursday morning, July 19, for performing marriages outsides the auspices of the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate. Orthodox rabbis are the only ones in Israel with the authority to officiate Jewish marriage, divorce, burial and conversion in Israel, no other denomination is recognized in the country. A law passed in 2013 made it illegal if non-Orthodox weddings are conducted following the traditional rites a practice Rabbi Haiyun adheres to, and there is a maximum two-year sentence for not reporting marriage.
When Haiyun refused a summons to meet the Haifa police wanting to reschedule from Thursday to Monday, they came to his home at 5:30 a.m. taking him down for questioning. The Haifa Rabbinical Court wanted “to investigate the rabbi after he violated the criminal code and the Marriage and Divorce Law in Israel.” The Rabbinical Courts Administration originally claimed Hayun performed a marriage where “at the time” the bride was “potentially” a mamzer, the child of married women, who had an extramarital affair, a questionable status at best and usually not allowed to marry within the religion. This was two years ago, they now say her status was cleared up. The story blew up when Hayun posted what happened on Facebook requesting his story be shared, it went viral. Most of the outrage came from the Masorti / Conservative movement, especially in the Diaspora.
The divisive reactions prove just how contradictory and hypocritical the Jewish community, while the greater problem is they do not even care how the infighting plays out on the global stage. The problem is taboo to mention because it goes against the politically correct. The Diaspora’s objections have to do with the crisis they are refusing to acknowledge, the liberalization of the Jewish religion and increasing intermarriage. The two events in Israel this past week highlight the problems. A politically liberal American Jewry opposes any language that implies or breaths inequality, advocating social justice for all they are concerned for the Arab minority, yet fails to acknowledge or remember what happens to the Jewish community when the position is in reverse. Recently, incoming Jewish Agency chairman MK Isaac Herzog was attacked for calling intermarriage in the Diaspora a “plague” requiring “a solution,” and he was forced to backtrack on his remarks but he was right.
According to a 2013 Pew Research Center survey, the intermarriage rate in the US is 48 percent among all American Jews, 60 percent among non-Orthodox Jews between the ages of 25-54, the number inflates to an overwhelming 71 percent not factoring Orthodox Jews, where 98 percent marry within the religion. The intermarriage rate was 43 percent in 1990 and just 17 percent in 1970. The problem is the greatest among millennials where 32 percent say they are “Jews of no religion,” two-thirds of Jews of no religion are not raising their children to be Jewish. As Pew notes, “Jews who have non-Jewish spouses are much less likely than those married to fellow Jews to be raising children as Jewish by religion and much more likely to be raising children as partially Jewish, Jewish but not by religion, or not Jewish at all.” Assimilation has become more important now than Jewish continuity.
The bigger problem is that the intermarriages are not just coming from the children of intermarried couples or those who do not identify as Jewish but a majority who consider themselves religiously Jewish. According to Pew, “Among Jews by religion who are married, 64% have a Jewish spouse and 36% have a non-Jewish spouse. By comparison, just 21% of married Jews of no religion are married to a Jewish spouse, while 79% are married to a non-Jewish spouse.” The number shrinks dramatically “among Jews by religion who got married in 2005 or more recently, 55% are married to a Jewish spouse and 45% are married to a non-Jew.”
After Pew released their survey, Jack Wertheimer, professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary told the New York Times, “It’s a very grim portrait of the health of the American Jewish population in terms of their Jewish identification.” Alan Dershowitz ominously and prophetically began his 1997 book, The Vanishing American Jew In Search of Jewish Identity for the Next Century by stating, “American Jewish life is in danger of disappearing, just as most American Jews have achieved everything we ever wanted: acceptance, influence, affluence, equality. As the result of skyrocketing rates of intermarriage and assimilation, as well as “the lowest birth rate of any religious or ethnic community in the United States,” the era of enormous Jewish influence on American life may soon be coming to an end.” Even as far back as 1989, historian Arthur Hertzberg lamented the problem, intermarriage causes to Jewish continuity. In response to Calvin Goldscheider’s review of his essay “What Future for American Jews?” in the New Yorker, Hertzberg wrote, “The evidence has been mounting that, at most, 30 percent of the children of intermarried couples receive any considerable exposure to Jewish traditions, and that even fewer feel connected to the Jewish community.”
American Jewry is fighting a losing battle as now for the first time; the Jewish population in Israel is greater than in the US, 6.6 million to 5.7 million with only 4.2 million identifying religiously as Jews. The divisions in Israel contrast sharply with American Jewish denominations and are divided by Haredi (“ultra-Orthodox”) 9 percent, Dati (“religious”) 13 percent, Masorti (“traditional”) 29 percent, and Hiloni (“secular”) 49 percent of the population, 22 percent considered themselves Orthodox, while 78 percent are non-Orthodox. With the majority secular, there is a growing objection to the Haredi Orthodox controlling life cycle events and marriages.
The religious and secular remain at odds over whether Israeli should be a religious or democratic state, at the core of the conflict over the Nation-State law. According to Pew most “Jews across the religious spectrum agree in principle that Israel can be both a democracy and a Jewish state.” The Ultra-Orthodox, find religious law should take precedence over democracy, while the secular feel the opposite.
The Panim organization published a study in April indicating fewer Israelis are choosing Orthodox marriages in 2015 39,111 couples married through the rabbinate, the number decreased to 36,205 couples in 2017, the decline was the most in Tel Aviv. At the same time, private marriages increased by 8 percent from 2016 to 2017. However, according to Pew Research Center’s 2016 survey Israel’s Religiously Divided Society, most Israelis oppose “Conservative and Reform rabbis to conduct marriages in Israel,” 54 percent in total including 28 percent secular Jews, this could be because so little of Israelis Jews 5 percent in total identify with those movements.
The objection, however, is much less than from the Diaspora on the issue. Over a third of American Jewry identify with the Reform movement, 18 percent with Conservative Judaism, 10 with Orthodox, and six percent with the Reconstructionist and Jewish Renewal movements, while 30 percent do not identify with any of the denominations. An overwhelming majority of American Jews at 90 percent identify with the liberal non-Orthodox denominations. According to Pew the recent trend is to switch to a more liberal denomination, “one-quarter of people who were raised Orthodox have since become Conservative or Reform Jews, while 30% of those raised Conservative have become Reform Jews, and 28% of those raised Reform have left the ranks of Jews by religion entirely.” The Conservative movement does not perform interfaith marriages but advocates welcoming interfaith families afterward, recently, Conservative rabbis have been questioning the holdout. The Reform movement is one of the most welcoming to intermarriages, including performing the marriage ceremony. The Reconstructionist movement is taking it a step future allowing Rabbis, who are intermarried joining the Secular Humanistic Judaism and Renewal movements in that practice.
American Jewry is so desperate to try to keep those that marry outside of Judaism even by a string associated with the religion that they do not realize how they are compromising Judaism’s values and history. The community has come a long way in acceptance from when the usual practice to be parents sitting shivah for their intermarried child to welcoming them with open arms and not even with the expectation of a conversion, all of this happening just within the last half of a century. We have always been a people of laws, the Torah, the Mishnah, the Talmud, 613 mitzvot but we now seem to worship at the door of political correctness than at the Aron HaKodesh. While no longer the world’s Jewish majority the risk of alienating American Jewry with anything that offends their liberal sensibilities becomes an outrage. Assimilation has become more important than respect for the religion.
I am tired of the contradictions, the keeping up the politically correct pretense. I went to modern Orthodox Jewish day schools in Montreal, Canada, where modern Orthodox is more the mainstream, while the other denominations are marginalized. I remember learning about the acceptable status to be considered Jewish, being taught what a mamzer was even before we were old enough for sex education and the horrible status associated with such designation. I remember at ten-years-old seeing a Hanukkah card that made fun of the denominations, going through each one, joking about the greeting as one went down from Orthodox, Conservative, Reform to Reconstruction where they thought so little of its observance they said one should say Merry Christmas. I remember sitting in a class Herzliah High School where we had an impromptu discussion on intermarriage and we shamed the only alumni we knew that intermarried, the abhorrence and indignation were great, filled with we will never do that. It might seem another place and time but I graduated elementary school 25 years ago, I graduated high school just over 20 years ago, in such a short time of our perceptions and beliefs altered too radically.
Judaism has become a community of contradictions and hypocrisy. Now I see too many of my peers from Jewish school intermarrying, and out of political correctness being forced to say Mazal Tov and Congratulation to their marriages, the birth of children, while they post their celebrations and decorations of Christmas and tree that outweigh the importance of any Jewish holiday. I see among those that intermarry hypocritically make a huge deal of their grandparents surviving the Holocaust, yet only two generations later they are raising children exposed more to Christianity than Judaism. My peers, even the in-marrieds, often ignoring keeping kosher for the Instagram friendly social media moment at the next it restaurant.
I see the contradiction in how some judge others level of observance, so-called “frum shaming” but hide their attachment their association with the most liberal denominations. The hypocrisy of those who claim they are observant only to post social media posts of their Shabbat dinner. I see the opposition to the nation-state bill, although anti-Zionism is the new anti-Semitism and they do not recognize the importance of securing ownership of our country. I see the indignation over the police questioning a rabbi over non-Orthodox marriage when the liberal denominations so eagerly perform marriages for inter-faith couples and welcome them with the same exuberance as in marriage, yet it threatens so much Jewish continuity.
I am not alone, we all feel we have to sit by, be proper not offend; now I will. I applaud the Nation-State bill for formally recognizing that Israel is a Jewish state and integrating Jewish traditions as part of the formal character of the country. For nearly 3000 years Jews have been fighting and dying for the day that Israel would be ours, we can now be selfish, and not do what will gain international favor because their actions were never concerned about gaining our favor. I believe that the buck has to stop somewhere and if Judaism will continue the major Jewish laws have to be adhered to, and it up to Israel our holiest place to take that responsibility, whether offensive or not. If the liberal denominations do not want to be offended, the US is the den to play with the laws of the religion and the place where anything goes.
This past week in history some of the most disastrous and sorrowful events in Jewish History occurred coincidently on the Hebrew date of Tishah b’Av, where our Holy Temples were destroyed not once but twice. Throughout history, the date continued to bring despair to the exiled Jewish community. Our ancestors died for a reality that now exists, a Jewish nation that protects them from anti-Semitism. As Chabad points out, “To date, Jewish history spans over 3,300 years. To be born a Jew today is not an accident of birth but the sum total of over 3,300 years of ancestral self-sacrifice, of heroes who at times gave their very lives for their beliefs. Greeks, Romans, Crusaders, Nazis, and Communists all tried to obliterate Jewish practice and faith but failed. The indomitable Jewish spirit survived and clung to its traditions despite all odds.”
The reason partially for such strong reaction and criticism of Israel’s actions this past from the Diaspora is that according to Pew attachment to Israel lessens based on religious observance. The Pew poll found that among Jews by religion, 50 percent find Israel important to them but the number shrinks to 23 percent for Jews of no religion. Beth S. Wenger, Professor of American Jewish History and history department chair at the University of Pennsylvania finds the position directly relates to American Jewry concerns over the Palestinians. The fact that it is liberal non religious Jews, who are increasingly criticizing Israel, speaks volumes.
A recent survey entitled “Together and Apart: Israeli Jews’ Views on their Relationship to American Jews and Religious Pluralism,” proves what has long been discussed, living in Israel gives a far more Jewish experience at any level of observance then it does in the Diaspora. According to the study, with a “two-to-one ratio, Israeli Jews believe that a Jewish life is much more meaningful in Israel than in the U.S.” The study also found that over 60 percent of Israelis do not want the government to consider the views of the American Jewish leaders when devising policy. Israelis also hold a negative view of American Jewry’s religious habit, with “a plurality of 46% vs. 41%” believing “most non-Orthodox American Jews assimilating in the next 10 – 20 years.”
Israelis are right, instead, of giving in on to American Jewry’s liberal views politically and religiously, a little tough love is necessary. Where if not in Israel, is supposed to be the guiding light to the Diaspora on religious laws is it’s official policy supposed to agree with the increasingly irreligious views of American Jewry because they oppose or is Israel supposed to beacon of how to abide by the religion and do everything possible to preserve it and our country? We only got this far because our Jews ancestors adhered to the religion and their faith, democratic or not, religion rarely is. The marriage laws and the nation-state law causing such objections are part of the reason Judaism still lives on despite all the obstacles faced.
Bonnie K. Goodman has a BA and MLIS from McGill University and has done graduate work in religion at Concordia University. She is a journalist, librarian, historian & editor, and a former Features Editor at the History News Network & reporter at Examiner.com where she covered politics, universities, religion, and news. She has a dozen years experience in education & political journalism.