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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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The upshot of these political developments is that the coming years will likely herald serious shifts in Israel’s chief rabbinate, whether through the election of a Tzohar chief rabbi, or through legislation that takes religious authority—for marriage, kashrut certification, and other areas—out of the hands of the ultra-Orthodox monopoly and into those of moderates like Tzohar. Such changes would, needless to say, prove a remarkable victory for David Stav and the religious Zionist rabbis of Tzohar.


Not everyone is celebrating, of course. “The solution in Israel should not be Rotem’s solution or Tzohar’s solution of ‘we will make Orthodoxy more moderate and it will solve everyone’s problems,’ ” said Yizhar Hess, executive director of the Masorti/Conservative Movement in Israel. “This is false! I don’t want to have a moderate Orthodox religious service. Each [movement] has its own identity. That’s how it should be.” In other words, no matter how benign this reformed rabbinate might prove, it would still be an Orthodox rabbinate—one that doesn’t recognize Reform and Conservative rabbis or their marriages and conversions. For Hess, the “smiley face” of the moderate Tzohar rabbi is the façade that masks a more fundamental problem: Israel’s lack of full religious freedom.

‘As well-intentioned as Tzohar’s mission may be … it has no problem with an Orthodox monopoly on Judaism in the State of Israel.’

“As well-intentioned as Tzohar’s mission may be,” argued Rabbi Uri Regev, CEO of Hiddush, an Israeli nonprofit organization promoting religious freedom, “it emerges that to it, American Jewish pluralism is anathema.” In fact, the organization “has no problem with an Orthodox monopoly on Judaism in the State of Israel.”

For these non-Orthodox leaders and their counterparts in America, the rabbinate as currently constituted is an unacceptable entanglement of religion and state. “The institution of the chief rabbinate as a state-funded and empowered agency strikes me as anti-democratic and doomed to failure,” said Rabbi Daniel Nevins, dean of the rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary. “As for Tzohar, I am impressed by their track record, but if they were granted political power, they too would be tempted to enforce their religious views and practices on the public. Political power corrupts religion; every group is vulnerable to this temptation. The only solution is to discontinue the state regulation of religion and to allow for freedom of conscience and equality of religious practice in Israel.”

Stav and Tzohar are indeed unapologetically Orthodox and make no secret of the fact that they would not recognize non-Orthodox forms of Judaism were they to attain the chief rabbinate. Why, then, do many secular Israelis and their politicians support Tzohar over a pluralistic approach? According to many, the answer is simple: American Judaism and its particular flavors have never made much sense to Israelis, or gained much traction on the ground. Brandeis Professor Yehudah Mirsky, who has written at some length on this question, explains that Israelis and Americans are speaking two very different languages when it comes to Jewish life and practice, which stem from two distinct historical experiences.

Most of Israel’s founders, Mirsky notes, came from very dissimilar Jewish backgrounds to the forerunners of America’s Jewish denominations. “The historical roots of these denominations tend to be kind of Western and Western European. In Eastern Europe,” by contrast, “the various solutions on offer to the disabilities of the Jews tended to take very different directions—socialism, Zionism, or ultra-Orthodoxy.” Those three ideologies each found expression in the nascent state of Israel, while Conservative and Reform Judaism made their way to the United States. As a result, “denominational structure is very foreign to Israel,” he said. “Reform and Conservative Judaism just seem very American.” Thus, while it might surprise U.S. Jews, a recent study found that 69 percent of Israeli Jews had never attended a prayer service or religious ceremony in a Reform or Conservative synagogue, with 27 percent doing so “rarely.” Only 4 percent attended “frequently” or “regularly.”

Tellingly, some of the most passionate Israeli voices calling for religious pluralism—Masorti’s Hess, Reform’s Regev, and Mickey Gitzin, head of the activist group Yisrael Hofshit (“Free Israel”)—all discovered non-Orthodox Judaism not in Israel, but while on service missions in America. The movements, in other words, have not produced many of their own advocates and continue to struggle for relevance in a country where Orthodoxy is presumed to be the religious default. Secular Israeli Jews might not believe in Orthodox doctrine, but many respect it as the authentic representative of the tradition. Accordingly, 73 percent of Israeli Jews say that Orthodox conversion is the proper path to recognition of a person’s Jewishness, while only 48 percent accept non-Orthodox conversion.

For these reasons, the Tzohar proposal of a liberal Orthodox rabbinate appeals far more to Israelis than a pluralistic regime in the American mold. As Mirsky—himself a critic of the rabbinate who thinks it needs to be deeply reconstructed if not abolished outright—noted, “American Jews can’t just take their models and press them on Israeli society. They just don’t fit.”


If the gambit of Tzohar and Yisrael Beiteinu proves successful, it will likely mean the beginning of a sea change in how religion is practiced and perceived by Israelis. Hard as it may be, after decades of ultra-Orthodox hegemony, to envision what that kinder, gentler face of the chief rabbinate would look like, it will clearly be an unapologetically liberal Orthodox one, which—if accepted among Israelis—could cement the divide between the American and Israeli Jewish communities.

The question that remains to be answered is: Will the friendlier face of the chief rabbinate and the pluralistic American Jewish establishment find ways to build bridges of understanding or, as Yizhar Hess warns, will “Israel and Diaspora Jewry … go two different paths,” each increasingly unable to comprehend the other? January’s election may give us a first taste.


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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?

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