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Religious Revolution in Israel

Can an unlikely alliance of renegade rabbis and right-wing politicians strip the ultra-Orthodox of their power?

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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.

‘Think about the DMV being in charge of your religious life.’

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.

‘We’ll give you a monopoly over religious services, in return for which you’ll let us decide when and how to bomb Iran.’

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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I for one American who is not very religious applaud Tzohar and hope that they can win this political battle. While religious pluralism has been the answer in the United States, it may well be that a moderate orthodox chief rabbinate could move towards more decentralized Judaism (which after all is what we should have until a Sanhedrin is in force). It may be possible to construct a unifying approach where there is a much less heavy hand in dealing with heterodox movements. I am optimistic.

In what way has “religious pluralism been the answer in the United States”? What exactly has it answered? Unless the question is why are over half of American Jews intermarrying…

In a slightly related point, it’s quite ironic for the dean of JTS’s rabbinical school to describe another institution as “doomed to failure”

Right – because Orthodoxy is in such a state of robust health. The vast majority of Orthodox are now Haredi, and that world is dying. The Haredim can no longer provide for their growing numbers, and for the most part they refuse to educate their children in a manner that would enable them to function outside of their cloistered world. Of course, this doesn’t stop them from continuing to reproduce irresponsibly.

The Haredi world has a generation left at most, and when it goes, as the Haredim have spent the past half-century commandeering most of the support infrastructure, it will take nearly all of Orthodoxy with it. The right wing Modern Orthodox are Haredi in all but name, and there aren’t enough left wing Modern Orthodox left to sustain a subculture. Like it or not, whatever future Judaism has lies with the liberal denominations.

But you just keep believing the party line fed to you by your heilige rabbonim – your numbers are growing, ours are shrinking, your children will bury us, blah, blah… . Keep repeating it, like a mantra, as you inbreed yourselves into oblivion.

invisible_hand says:

This alliance is not as surprising as the author posits, since political conservatism does not always equal religious conservatism (and vice versa), save in America, it seems. Yisra’el Beiteinu’s number one constituency is the Russian immigrant population (which, accordingly, has a strong rightist political tendency), and the Hareidi chief Rabbinate has made their lives hell, so it makes perfect sense for Yisra’el Beiteinu to try to oust them. Tzohar’s moderate stance on the politics of religion does not make them anathema to the political right.

Let the holy penguins chuck one burning garbage can, and the movement will be tabled before you can say, “Chos v’sholem!” If they do manage to pull it off, I’ll be pleased to admit I was wrong.

In any case, once a “moderate” is installed as Chief Rabbi, what will he be empowered to do about Haredim beating up women on buses and chasing little girls down the street screaming, “Curveh!”? The answer: “Not much.”

Vladimir Minkov says:

It looks like rabbinic organization called Tzohar are not a renegade one, as you presented it, but rather a mostly needed in our Jewish life: they are trying to connect the traditionally observant Jewish life with being involved in the greater world. That’s precisely what the Torah is all about!

A Tzohar-led Chief Rabbinate will be the same s#$% in a kinder, friendlier bucket.

Cipher, your comment is not accurate. How is the charedi world supposed to disappear, when as you acknowledge they continue having lots of kids no matter what? The only major change that is occurring is that many charedim are moving into the workforce (in Israel — in the US they’re already in the workforce). Modern Orthodoxy is also strong and definitely distinct from charedim — Centrist or Right-Wing Orthodoxy is represented by YU and dozens or hundreds of shuls and many day schools throughout the US, and forms the majority of the religious-zionist population in Israel. Left-wing Orthodoxy is also on the rise, with YCT graduates taking various pulpit and other positions across the country, and the new Beit Hillel movement in Israel is asserting themselves against the right-sliding dati leumi world. Orthodoxy may have some internal problems but it’s only growing in numbers and strength.

cipher says:

Just keep telling yourself that.

Jonathan says:

Just a little mistake in this very interesting article: most of the 300,000 non-Jewish Olim do not claim to be Jewish at all. Some have no Jewish roots – they are the spouses of Jews for example, Some have a Jewish grandfather or father but don’t see themselves as Jews.
The number of people who are halakhically Jews but not recognized because of documents is very very small.
The issue with this people is that they can’t marry because they don’t belong to any religion.

Ben Niderberg says:

Nice piece. Shouldn’t Rav Amselem also be mentioned in this context, particularly in terms of his challenge to the Rabbanut on giyur?

Tzohar is not pluralistic. Tzohar is Orthodox, albeit a form of Orthodox that is more palatable to many Israelis than the current rabbinate. They are working to give the Rabbanut a facelift, when what it needs is a heart transplant.

Tzohar is Orthodox, yes, but it is led by a man who is very much a supporter of Jewish Unity. Indeed, his close ally Yuval Cherlow called for two very important changes to state policy: 1) State recognition of the heterodox movements. 2) A movement away from the exclusive control of the Western Wall by Ultra Orthodox extremists. They are not saying that Orthodoxy should support those movements and validate them. Rather he is saying that Orthodoxy can compete in the marketplace of ideas and win.

This is indeed the heart transplant that you are calling for. Hopefully they will be able to enact it. We need to give them a chance.

Yechiel Levin says:

Love the word games played by the heterodox movements. “Israel’s lack of full religious freedom?” Horsefeathers. Israelis can practice whatever religion they want to! The issue is truth in advertising. Whatever it is the heterodox movements practice, it ain’t Judaism. Doesn’t mean they can’t do it – just call it something else.

R. Cherlow and R. Stav do not see eye-to-eye – not even close – on these issues. The “left wing” of Tzohar – Rs. Cherlow, B. Lau, and Piron – are no longer major players in it, and have been expressing opinions as individuals, not as members of Tzohar. When R. Cherlow advocated recently for state recognition of non-Orthodox movements, Tzohar immediately and publicly distanced itself from him.

Umish Katani says:

Better yet, take religion out of the government and no need for rabbis at all.. Make all the government civil, take the schools out of their control, marriage out of their control, conversion out of their control and mostly put the haradis into the army, Theocracy in any name is still a dictatorship controlled by the prevailing power ensconced in the office. Make freedom of religion just that freedom for all denominations sexes and types. Rabbis are the bane of our existance under the paternilistic attitiude of maintaining our souls. Get rid of all religion in government. Bottom line


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Religious Revolution in Israel

Can an unlikely alliance of renegade rabbis and right-wing politicians strip the ultra-Orthodox of their power?