David Breakstone
Reflections on Israel and the Jewish world

The good news is that they’re finally afraid of us

The detention of Rabbi Dov Hayun last Thursday for questioning in regard to his officiating at Masorti (Conservative) weddings in Israel set off shock waves throughout the Jewish world. Many were unaware that there is actually a law in this democratic Jewish state of ours that stipulates that “anyone who does not register his marriage or divorce, or who does not register the marriage or divorce at which he officiated is to be imprisoned for two years.” Others who were familiar with the law didn’t believe it would ever be acted on. And the great many who are confused by the matter didn’t know a) that the only legal way to wed in this country is through a religious ceremony, b) that in regard to Jewish weddings, the sole body authorized to approve the marriage is the ultra-Orthodox Chief Rabbinate, c) that only a select group of certified Orthodox rabbis are permitted to officiate at such ceremonies, and d) that Rabbi Hayun, and the dozens of others who marry Jewish couples in accordance with Jewish law, have no way to register the happy new couple.

Accordingly, there is a strong legal case to be made that Rabbi Hayun did not transgress any law in not registering the marriages he’s performed, as the absurdities of the system we have in place does not permit him to do so. But it is not the legalities of the rabbi’s case which interest me here, but rather the reason the rabbinate decided to make an example of him, as it was reportedly in response to a complaint filed by the Haifa Rabbinical Court that the police acted.

So here’s the silver lining. They’re finally afraid of us – and for good reason.

The rabbinate filed its complaint now because it has realized that those who oppose it are finally a force to be reckoned with

“Us” is the ever-growing number of individuals and NGOs who utterly reject the monopoly of the Chief Rabbinate in determining matters of Jewishness, merit of a brit mila, right to marry, permission to enter a mikveh, standards of conversion, conditions for divorce, and entitlement to Jewish burial.

“Us” includes not only the Masorti (Conservative) and Reform movements, which have been leading this battle for decades, but also non-religious Israelis deeply committed to their Jewishness, the movement for secular-humanist Judaism, and, very significantly, the more inclusively inclined Orthodox who have become increasingly aggressive over the past several years in championing choice within strict halachic parameters. “Us” is the Jewish Agency that has been so vociferous and effective in promoting pluralism within Israeli society.

But most importantly, “us” are the thousands who are literally voting with their feet, shattering the glass under a chuppah not sanctioned by the Chief Rabbinate in open defiance of the status quo.

And “us” has now grown to proportions that have put the fear of God (or of the loss of power) into those who seek to exercise total control over matters of our personal status. Some 2,500 couples chose to marry in unrecognized Jewish ceremonies last year, equivalent to 7% of the 36,205 couples who married under the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate (a drop of 7% from the 39,111 in 2015.) In addition, according to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, approximately 6% of Israelis are living as married couples without having undergone any wedding ceremony at all.

“Us” now includes 80 Masorti and 50 Reform congregations around the country. It includes 25 ordained Secular-Humanist rabbis. It includes a-religious yeshivot. It includes 325 TALI schools and kindergartens in which 50,000 children receive a pluralistic Jewish education.

“Us” is Hashgaha Pratit, which offers alternative Orthodox kashrut supervision to that of the Chief Rabbinate and is in the process of providing alternative marriage services as well. “Us” is Tzohar and Itim and Giyur K’Halacha and Women of the Wall and Beit Morasha and Israel Hofsheet and Hiddush… “Us” is Panim, an umbrella of 60 organizations – with apologies for not mentioning them all here – dedicated to making of Israel a society in which all streams and expressions of Judaism will be welcome and accessible to a public thirsting to drink from the wells of our tradition but no longer willing to kowtow to the hegemony of the Chief Rabbinate.

There is still so very, very much more to do to in regard to fulfilling this dream. But to those who are rightly appalled by events of this past week – not only the detention of Rabbi Hayun, but also by the very problematic Jewish Nation-State Law and the overtly discriminatory surrogacy legislation – this is not the time to throw in the towel.

The rabbinate filed its complaint now precisely because it has realized that “us” is finally a force to be reckoned with, because it recognizes that “us” has the people on our side (and maybe God as well!). Surely there will be more battles that “us” will lose, more incidents we will find abhorrent, but 70 years of effort is too short a time after to which to give up the struggle following 2000 years of longing for return.

As we mourn the destruction of the Temples and the loss of our sovereignty, may we find comfort in acknowledging how exceedingly much we have achieved since regaining our independence rather than wallowing in the awareness of how far we have yet to go. And may we be emboldened as we move forward by the hope embodied in the words with which we conclude the reading of Lamentations: “Renew our days as of old.”

About the Author
Dr. David Breakstone is the Executive Director of the Yitzhak Navon Center for a Shared Society. He previously served as deputy chair of the Jewish Agency executive and the World Zionist Organization and as the conceptual architect and founding director of the Herzl Museum and Educational center in Jerusalem. He welcomes correspondence from those determined to forge Israel as the shared society it was always meant to be at