The Election’s Hidden Casualty: Jewish Religious Pluralism

Shabbat was ending and I was walking with a special friend, a proactive member of Mea Sharim, an Ultra- Orthodox anti Zionist bastion in the heart of Jerusalem. He wanted to show me as a guest the Steiblach, a focal point of prayer. I noticed their strategy was to delay the Havdallah prayer service as late as possible. Why? As they are trained, Maariv and also other prayers must come first before Havdallah takes place. The spirit of Shabbat must be kept as late as possible. When discussing the reasoning he made it clear that they are not Reform. “We are not Reform, there is a proper way to do the prayers”. This man, a pious person who dedicates his whole day to work and mitzvos is not an exception. In fact, his way of describing the Reform is rather kind compared to much of what is expressed in Israel.

During the aftermath of the Pittsburgh massacre, the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel David Lau refused to label the place where the massacre took place as a synagogue. In an interview with Makor Rishon, a religious and nationalist paper affiliated with right-wing parties, Rabbi Lau was quoted as saying “any murder of any Jew in any part of the world for being Jewish is unforgivable”. However his description of the location was specifically labelled “a place with a profound Jewish flavor.” His and other Ultra Orthodox coverage refused to recognize the location as a synagogue. The comments were condemned by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who declared the location “a synagogue”. He responded in a tweet at a time: “Jews were killed in a synagogue. They were killed because they are Jews. The location was chosen because it is a synagogue. We must never forget that. We are one.”

While it may be a shock to some, many, even among the helonim (or secular) Jewish Israeli population view the Reform as a form of unauthentic Jewry. If they do not succeed in fitting in, it is their own fault they say. They should work with the Orthodox Rabbinate. Among the Orthodox streams, the helonim are universally preferred to the Reform. In their view, while the secular respect tradition, they are not “strong of spirit” to embrace all the ways. On the other hand, the Reform are viewed as corrupting the way Judaism needs to be followed. Movements such as “Women of the Wall” are often brought out as examples of how the Reform are “polluting” Judaism. In Israeli political circles only the Orthodox Rabbinates’ way is embraced. Advocacy for other movements is often left to North American Jewry to defend, most if not all whom do not actively live in the State of Israel.

There was a time when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu actively valued religious pluralism. He in fact regularly met with members of the Reform and Conservative Movements and in his younger days was exposed to their culture while residing in the United States. In fact, in North America, the Reform and also the Conservative Movements, with a rich tradition stretching back centuries are the majority. Not everyone can or wants to be Ultra Orthodox, which values a tradition that some view as incompatible to modernity. There is a collision between a dogmatic view of religion and others that insist that religion evolves with the times. For the longest time, the movements lived side by side, many affiliated to the same Jewish Federations system. As a result, many children grow up knowing Jewish neighbors from different streams and generally were able to co-exist respecfully. Yes disagreements exist but overall a harmony presides over the walls of the Jewish communities in North America.

However, times are increasingly changing. Years of right-wing coalitions are kept together with the presence of Ultra Orthodox parties: mainly Shas and United Torah Judaism, parties against any form of religious plurality. While there was a time when the Israeli government would listen to the demands and needs of North American Jewish denominations, a major turning point was the Israeli government’s rejection of a egalitarian prayer area at the Western Wall. The Ultra Orthodox threatened to bolt the coalition applying enormous political pressure. Benjamin Netanyahu succumbs to the demands in order to remain in power. In the ensuing political tug of war which included issues such as control over conversions by the Ultra Orthodox Rabbinate, the voices of other Jewish denominations found less and less room to express themselves. While there has been a share of articles highlighting their plight, often the attitude in Israel is simply a “tough luck” attitude. If they do not want to be part of us, either go somewhere else or be recognized as a “goy” or a gentile. There is an “Israeli” way of doing things.

It all started in the time of David Ben Gurion, Israel’s founding Prime Minister. He made a policy decision to accord the Ultra Orthodox Rabbis then presiding over a smaller portion of society then they are now, control over key aspects of Jewish life including marriage and burial rights. The expectation was, atleast in society at large, that other streams of Judaism such as Reform and Conservative were still an integral part of the Jewish world and in general the country was seen as one of people of faith in a broad sense. This non Orthodox majority, while having to marry under the auspices of the Orthodox, were still respected as part of society.

Increasingly two Judaisms are forming: An ultra Orthodox Judaism run by the rabbinate of Israel and the Reform\Conservative led Judaism in North America. The two do not see eye to eye. Increasingly, the criticism of Israel in the West is being voiced not by Israel’s traditional enemies but by fellow Jews. Many are members of more liberal streams of Judaism that are rejected by the Ultra Orthodox Rabbinate. While some here would simply cast them away as outcasts, rejecting a large percentage of World Jewry is dangerous. In fact similar factionalism helped to a decisive Roman victory during the Great Revolt from 66 – 73 CE. Disunity among us is ever dangerous and the topic has been left off these elections radar screens.

This article is not a critique of the Ultra-Orthodox Rabbinate which has a place in religious matters in Israel but is rather emphasizing the exclusionary nature of everyone else. This is an article about Israeli society as a whole and their perspectives on Diaspora Jewry. As Israel becomes more and more sure of itself in the world as a proud, rich and powerful state, increased factionalism is creating a chasm between its Jewish inhabitants and World Diaspora Jewry, many of which have been the state’s proudest bastion of supporters historically.

One should begin to discuss the divide between Israeli and World Jewry and the topic not being raised is a major omission. While discussions of Netanyahu’s collaboration with Kach supporters, and of Israel’s geopolitical situation are paramount to these elections, long term it may very well be this rising divide that may define us profoundly, sorrowfully with no significant examination of its consequences.

About the Author
Born in Israel but raised in Canada, Gil Lewinsky worked as a journalist in Jewish newspapers including the Jerusalem Post after completing a Masters degree in International Relations. His past topics include a book written about the Status of Gaza under International Law soon after its conquest by Hamas in 2007. He is perhaps best known as one of two people that brought a flock of Jacob Sheep from Canada to Israel in 2016, making history. He currently works as a teacher and public relations professional in Israel.
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