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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?

Yair Rosenberg
December 26, 2012
(Jonathon Rosen)
(Jonathon Rosen)

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.”

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.

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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Yair Rosenberg is a senior writer at Tablet. Subscribe to his newsletter, and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

Yair Rosenberg is a senior writer at Tablet. Subscribe to his newsletter, listen to his music, and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.