March 12, 2017

Religious Sectionalism in Israel


Aryeh Lande ‘18


Today, the Reform Movement is the largest stream of Judaism in the United States with almost 900 congregations, servicing over one million members. Additionally, hundreds of thousands more identify as Reform. It is an extremely diverse group that represents a more liberal branch of Judaism.  
This can be seen in the work of of Reform Rabbis who have been at the forefront of liberal issues such as gender equality, civil rights and humanitarian aid. Reform Jews span all races, classes and sexualities and its numbers continue to grow.
Despite its size, however, Reform Jews, along with Conservative and Reconstructionist Jews, are not given the same legitimacy as the Orthodox streams of Judaism. This growing marginalization is dangerous and destructive in the United States, as liberal-minded Jews do not feel as connected to Orthodox Jews as they once did.
Nowhere is this sectionalism more pronounced, however, than in the State of Israel. There, the case had long been that Jews are forced to decide whether they are either a member of the Dati, religious sect, or the Hiloni, unaffiliated sect; there was no in between. This is starting to change, though, as streams like Reform Judaism are expanding their presence in Israel. They have been able to capture a more liberal base who are drawn to the ideas of a strong, but open Jewish identity and community. Many people have been repulsed by the strict and often corrupt Chief Rabbinate and instead have turned to Reform Judaism.
Today, there are over 40 official communities of Reform Jews in Israel and that number is growing. As they have continued to increase, Reform and other liberal organizations have been lobbying for laws, such as the ability to have an egalitarian section at the Kotel, non-Orthodox rabbis paid by the state for communities like their Dati counterparts and the freedom for liberal rabbis to officiate at religious ceremonies.
Some headway has been made after decades of pushing by organizations like the Religious Action Center, working in Israel’s Supreme Court and others like Women at the Wall, who actively protest for policy changes. Still, while there have been victories, freedoms of religious practice are being actively stymied by the powerful religious voting blocs. Yes, an egalitarian section was added to the Kotel, but it still does not give women the right to pray out loud at the women’s section nor has the egalitarian section been developed as was planned in the original agreement. This can be accredited to Netanyahu’s backtracking on the deal and its delivery to Israel’s clogged bureaucracy.
Meantime, after all the progress that has been made, 16 members of Netanyahu’s ruling coalition proposed a new Kotel law on December 11 that would give the Chief Rabbinate complete authority over The Wall. This would allow them to ban all actions considered religiously offensive, such as women wearing tallitot, and issue a six-month prison sentence to violators.
It is extremely shortsighted by Netanyahu and his government to pander to the Ultra Orthodox on religious bills that create a singular definition of what it means to be Jewish. Furthermore, by regulating religious observance and ritual, liberal Jews all across the world are systematically cast aside and forced to practice in ways unnatural and often offensive to them, diminishing the holy experience of Israel. If liberal Jews cannot connect to Israel, the State of Israel will suffer.
Liberal Jews are a powerful group in the United States and as the largest group, their numbers and resources are vital to Israel’s success. If liberal Jews cannot see their place in the land of the Israel under a controlling system, what will incentivize them to support Israel politically?
Furthermore, Israel will have fundamentally failed their nation's goal. As it is written in the Proclamation of Independence, “Accordingly we, members of the People's Council...hereby declare the establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz-Israel, to be known as the State of Israel.”
The land of Israel was established simply as a Jewish State, not as an Orthodox Jewish State. If the majority of Jews, or even just a large portion of them, feel a certain way about religious practice, Israel should be actively seeking ways to include them in Israeli society. There is no reason why multiple forms of Jewish practice cannot exist side by side.
In fact, liberal Jewish streams and mainstream Israeli policy have stood on the same side through many issues. Chiefly, gay acceptance, women’s rights and humanitarian aid. Israel is the safest nation in the middle east for LGBTQ members, it elected its first female prime minister in 1969 and it provides humanitarian aid to all nations stricken by disaster.
All that separates liberal Jews from Israel is their perception of religious practice. Of course, the Orthodox majority of Israel should be respected, but the Israeli people should realize the potential of including all Jews and absorbing their ideas into mainstream culture.
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