Religious Revolution in Israel
Can an unlikely alliance of renegade rabbis and right-wing politicians strip the ultra-Orthodox of their power?
This past summer, out of view of the press and the spotlight, an unlikely cabal of secular and religious politicians began plotting to shake up the Israeli chief rabbinate. The conspirators: Avigdor Lieberman’s ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party, the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, and a renegade rabbinic organization called Tzohar—three of the strangest bedfellows in Israeli politics. Their plan, if successful, would break the ultra-Orthodox stranglehold on the country’s rabbinate and install a moderate religious Zionist chief rabbi for the first time in decades.
“Avigdor Lieberman was very interested in promoting Tzohar,” said one person with close knowledge of the proposed deal, “to make sure that they had a strong capability of taking the Ashkenazi chief rabbinate” in the June 2013 elections for the position. And the strongman of the Israeli right was willing to bring his considerable influence to bear to ensure they had the votes in the 150-member conclave that will choose the next two chief rabbis of Israel.
Last week, this underground movement broke into the open. Yisrael Beiteinu MK David Rotem, the powerful chairman of the Knesset’s Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee, publicly announced his party’s intentions to push for a non-ultra-Orthodox chief rabbi. “I grew up when the chief rabbinate was a national-religious institution, and I’m not in favor of the fact that Haredi rabbis have taken it over,” he said with typical bluntness. In an interview, he told me that he and his fellow MKs would not only instruct their own supporters to vote for the religious Zionist candidates, but also talk to other parties’ electors and “convince them that it’s an important thing for the state of Israel.”
But why would the leaders of Yisrael Beiteinu—a party known chiefly for its hard-line nationalist stance, rather than for any religious commitment—take an interest in reforming the chief rabbinate? And how did Tzohar, a small liberal Orthodox splinter group dedicated to that cause, find itself with the political clout to go head-to-head with the ultra-Orthodox establishment that has long dominated the institution?
Over the past five months, interviews with prominent Israeli politicians, rabbis, academics, and activists make it clear that there is an emerging alliance of religious and secular ideologues who seek to upend the status quo of religion and state in Israel. Through legislation, backroom deals, and public pressure campaigns, this political coalition hopes to make Israel’s rabbinate more responsive to its citizens, eliminate the bureaucracy and corruption endemic to it, and give Israelis greater control over their own lives.
If the current trends hold, this group has a very good chance of prevailing in both January’s Knesset elections and June’s chief rabbinate contest—to the delight of many in Israel, but the to chagrin of others, including the leadership of the country’s small but growing non-Orthodox movements, and of course the ultra-Orthodox, who won’t surrender their monopoly over religious services willingly.
While this coalition has already notched several smaller victories, their next proposed change is the most radical: the installation of Rabbi David Stav, the head of Tzohar, as one of the next chief rabbis of Israel. “The main problem is that the chief rabbinate stopped behaving as an institute whose constituency is the majority of the citizens of Israel and became a rabbinate that serves the interests of a very small Haredi minority,” Stav told me. “We hope to change the image and the character of the rabbis that will lead Israeli society—we want to have someone that Israeli society likes to be identified with and not someone they love to hate.”
For the last 16 years, Tzohar—which the 52-year-old Stav co-founded in 1996—has been waging an internal war to modernize and moderate the chief rabbinate’s ultra-Orthodox monopoly. It’s a struggle of great consequence for Israeli Jews, whose lives are regularly affected by the religious impositions of the establishment, which is the final arbiter on matters of personal status, like Jewishness.
While a handful of towns, such as Stav’s Shoham in central Israel, have moderate official rabbis, the vast majority of municipal rabbinic positions are controlled by the ultra-Orthodox, who adhere to stringent interpretations of Jewish law and lack any cultural commonality with secular Israelis whose marriages, divorces, and burials they oversee. With little oversight, and no outside competition, the ultra-Orthodox rabbinate has tended toward corruption—former Sephardi Chief Rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi Doron, for example, was just indicted for fraud—and stifling bureaucracy. As one academic put it: “Think about the DMV being in charge of your religious life.”
Stav and Tzohar set out to remedy this state of affairs with alternative programs of their own. Thus, when members of the rabbinate began illegally charging Israelis to perform Jewish weddings—which by law must be officiated by a state rabbi whether the individuals are religious or not, since there is no civil marriage for Jews in Israel—Tzohar rabbis started offering the service for free. As a result, this past year, the relatively small organization performed over 4,000 marriages, constituting more than 20 percent of all secular Israeli marriages in Israel.
When ultra-Orthodox rabbinical courts began questioning the Jewishness of hundreds of thousands of Israeli immigrants—from secular Russians to non-Orthodox Americans—and refusing to allow these individuals to marry other Jews or be buried in a Jewish cemetery, Tzohar launched Shorashim (“Roots”), a program devoted to proving these people’s Jewish ancestry. On occasion, the organization even went so far as to send representatives to Europe to procure the required evidence. The program has garnered widespread support across Israeli society; one of its prominent proponents is former Mossad chief Efraim Halevy.
Tzohar also runs educational services to demystify Jewish holidays like Yom Kippur, Purim, and Shavuot, including for those who have never set foot in synagogue. They provide a “secular-friendly” circumcision service; a free, in-home, pre-marital counseling program as an alternative to the rabbinate’s impersonal one; and even a hotline for guidance in Jewish law. “Wherever we touched, we discovered on the one hand corruption [in the current system] and on the other a deep search for something different that was Jewish,” Stav said. “‘Tzohar’ means window. We wanted to open a window into the magnificent world of Judaism for all of Israeli society.”
For their efforts, Tzohar has become remarkably popular in Israel, particularly among secular Israelis. One expression of this grassroots support came in late 2011, when Yaakov Margi, the ultra-Orthodox Religious Services Minister, attempted to restrict Tzohar’s ability to perform marriages because—though this was never admitted—their free-of-charge service was cutting into the rabbinate’s coffers. Massive popular outcry erupted in the form of thousands of angry emails and text messages, Knesset legislation, a lawsuit in the High Court of Justice, and strong condemnation from Kadima leader Tzipi Livni, among others. Margi soon beat a hasty retreat.
Many in the ultra-Orthodox establishment accuse Tzohar of being heterodox populists who compromise Jewish law. But the organization sees itself as a return to the roots and principles of the Israeli chief rabbinate. They note that when the institution was first founded in Mandatory Palestine, it was occupied by religious Zionist rabbis who found ways to reconcile the needs of nationhood with the requirements of Jewish law. Thus, to preserve the Israeli economy during the sabbatical year (known in the Bible as shmita)—when Jewish law prohibits farmers from working their land—the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi, Abraham Isaac Kook, issued a famous ruling allowing religious farmers to continue their work, as long as they first “sold” their property to non-Jews for the year—not unlike Jews the world over selling their chametz every Passover. (By contrast, the current ultra-Orthodox rabbinate refused to rely on this ruling last sabbatical year or to certify the produce of those who did as kosher.)
But there’s a reason moderate religious Zionists like Tzohar lost control of the rabbinate when the term of their last candidates to hold the office, Rabbi Avraham Shapira and Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu, ended in 1993. The institution became a political bargaining chip that was used by secular politicians to bring ultra-Orthodox parties into their coalitions. In this scheme, Labor or Likud would grant smaller parties like Shas and Degel ha-Torah control over the chief rabbinate and its many offices across Israel, and in exchange the ultra-Orthodox politicians would rubber-stamp the rest of the coalition’s agenda. As one insider characterizes it, “We will give to you a monopoly over religious services, in return for which you’ll let us decide when and how to bomb Iran.”
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