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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 arrangement has long posed a problem to any group seeking to revamp the rabbinate. To enact political reform, one needs political allies. But thanks to this ongoing deal, Israeli politicians have had little incentive to rock the rabbinate boat. Indeed, they gained more by trading away control of the institution in exchange for ultra-Orthodox support on more popularly pressing concerns, like security and economic policy. While Israeli voters might chafe under the strictures of the ultra-Orthodox religious establishment, they weren’t about to prioritize that nuisance over, say, the peace process.

Yet over the last few years, Tzohar has managed to overcome this perennial obstacle by applying increasing political pressure to the rabbinate—to the point that behind the scenes, some ultra-Orthodox politicians were willing to barter away one of the chief rabbi posts to Tzohar in exchange for a truce. Better the rabbinate be shared on their terms, went their logic, than wrested away from without.

Tzohar’s newfound muscle is a consequence of the organization’s political savvy and, more importantly, the rise of a new group of supportive lawmakers who are politically inclined to take on the chief rabbinate. Foremost among them: the members of the hard-right Yisrael Beiteinu.


On Oct. 22, 2010, Yisrael Beiteinu MK David Rotem threatened to dissolve the Chief Rabbinate Council, one of the institution’s core governing bodies, if it did not relax its stringent standards for conversion to Judaism. Two weeks later, Rotem spearheaded the passage in the Knesset of a civil unions bill, which for the first time created the possibility for a small subset of Israelis to get married outside the rabbinate’s control. At the time, Rotem vowed to fight to extend this law to all Israelis—Jews and non-Jews—who wished to marry without the rabbinate’s involvement.

That a prominent lawmaker for Yisrael Beiteinu, with the backing of his party, would spend much of his time sparring with the Israeli chief rabbinate might come as a surprise to some observers. Yisrael Beiteinu, after all, has tended to receive rather one-note treatment in the international media: as a hard-right nationalist party led by the widely loathed Avigdor Lieberman, and opposed to any sort of settlement with the Palestinian leadership.

The merits of this characterization aside, it is in fact a myopic prism through which to understand Israeli politics. In Israel, as in the United States and other democracies, political parties are not elected merely on their foreign policy, but on their domestic agendas. (For example, recent polling shows that 53 percent of Israelis rank socioeconomic issues as their top priority in the country’s upcoming elections.) And Yisrael Beiteinu has a very particular domestic agenda that is distinct from its position on the peace process—one that goes a long way toward explaining why its politicians have been attacking the chief rabbinate.

The party’s core constituency is Israel’s Russian immigrant population—nearly 1 million strong—and its founder, Lieberman, hails from this community, which is often noted for its tough stance on security issues. But no less notable is the fact that some 300,000 members of this demographic are completely disenfranchised by Israel’s ultra-Orthodox rabbinate, which refuses to recognize them as Jewish.

On the one hand, the rabbinate demands proof of Jewish ancestry, in the form of witnesses and paperwork, which can be very difficult to procure from the former Soviet Union. On the other, for those who cannot produce such evidence, the rabbinate often refuses to convert them, because the immigrants are avowedly secular and unwilling to accept the obligations of religious law. (And when rabbis with more permissive stances, like Tzohar’s Chaim Druckman, converted thousands of these Russian immigrants nonetheless, the ultra-Orthodox Supreme Rabbinical Court in Jerusalem attempted to revoke the conversions.)

Hundreds of thousands of Israeli Russians are in legal limbo, unable to marry other Jews in Israel or be buried in a Jewish cemetery. … Lieberman and Yisrael Beiteinu promised to end this state of affairs.

The result: hundreds of thousands of Israeli Russians left in perpetual legal limbo, unable to marry other Jews in Israel or be buried in a Jewish cemetery, despite the fact that many put their lives on the line for the Jewish state in the IDF. Lieberman and Yisrael Beiteinu promised their voters to end this state of affairs.

One such effort was the infamous 2010 Rotem conversion bill, which sought to empower more moderate local rabbis to convert those whom the chief rabbinate would not. But because the bill contained ambiguous language that could be interpreted as formally disqualifying Conservative, Reform, and even modern Orthodox conversions from outside Israel—though no experts were certain this was the case—it was vilified in the diaspora and ultimately buried by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Lost in the furor, certainly for American Jews (including Tablet’s editor-in-chief) was the fact that Rotem’s bill was not intended to strengthen the chief rabbinate, but to weaken its hardliners in order to ameliorate the plight of a largely secular population within Israel. (Rotem insists to this day that the bill was never properly apprehended by its critics. “If you ask me, they never understood what is written in this law,” he told me.)

MK Faina Kirschenbaum is herself a Russian immigrant, and the secretary general of Yisrael Beiteinu, known for helping Avigdor Lieberman build the party into an electoral juggernaut. She has taken the lead in forcing the ultra-Orthodox rabbinate to either convert disenfranchised immigrants, or cede their authority to those who would. Tzohar has been her party’s natural ally. “Tzohar is a wonderful organization which presents the beautiful face of Judaism to those who are seeking an engagement with Judaism during life-cycle events, primarily marriage,” she told me. It is “a grassroots answer to increasing skepticism of the Haredi establishment’s extremist approach.”

So, when the religious affairs minister attempted to circumscribe Tzohar’s marriage program, it was Kirschenbaum who put forward Knesset legislation to protect it. “I am proud that the Israeli government through my bill will support such an organization,” she said. Notably, like many of Tzohar’s supporters, such as opposition leader Tzipi Livni, Kirschenbaum identifies with the organization even as she herself is not particularly religious. “I am not a particularly observant Jew, but am very proud of our traditions and heritage,” she told me.

And with the help of these secular politicians, alongside others from mainstream parties like Likud coalition chairman MK Ze’ev Elkin, Tzohar has begun to push the chief rabbinate into a corner. “Safe to say, I think they’ve taken the gloves off,” said Daniel Goldman, chairman of Gesher Israel, a nonprofit organization that works closely with the country’s religious and secular groups to promote dialogue and mutual understanding. “Tzohar has stepped up its game from being a sort of nice face of how the rabbinate might look like, to getting into gear politically and talking to senior level politicians on all sides, saying ‘we have some leverage here, what are you going to give us in return for that?’ ”

The next Knesset looks to be even more unfavorable to the entrenched ultra-Orthodox establishment. On Dec. 5, at a forum closed to the press, Likud coalition chairman Elkin said that the next government would likely not contain ultra-Orthodox parties, as their values were “incompatible” with those of Likud-Beiteinu, the joint party formed by Netanyahu and Lieberman for the forthcoming Israeli elections. Days later, Faina Kirschenbaum echoed the sentiment. Meanwhile, polls now put the national religious party Habayit Hayehudi, which supports Tzohar, as the third-largest in the next Knesset, where it is likely to join Netanyahu’s government. Another potential member of that coalition that some close observers predict to replace the ultra-Orthodox parties is Yair Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid party—which happens to have Tzohar co-founder Rabbi Shay Piron as the No. 2 candidate on its list.

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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?