Monday, June 7, 2010

A Watershed Week for Pluralism in Israel

I received this very encouraging update today from the Israel Religious Action Committee

It’s been a tough week. Thanks to all of you who bore with the rather ominous message I sent out last Monday and wrote back with your comments and questions. I was grateful for the chance to talk about the Gaza Flotilla during a special CCAR conference call.

And now, back to business: pluralism.

May 25th was a historic moment for the Knesset: the first ever assembly of a new lobby dedicated to the need for greater religious pluralism in Israel.

The Knesset session, led by MK Nitzan Horowitz of the Meretz Party and MK Shlomo Molla from Kadima, was packed with brainy, passionate people who all had woken up well before the rest of the country with the realization that things need to change here – and fast.

Professor Danny Mendler of the Chemistry Department at Hebrew University stood up at the meeting and asked – “why are we, the majority in Israel [referring to non ultra-Orthodox Jews] trying to figure out how to fight for our rights? Why are we letting ourselves be coerced by a religious minority? As a scientist, it makes no sense to me.”

I spoke about how the Kotel, once a national symbol, now a discotheque-synagogue for the ultra-Orthodox, had to be liberated once more. I was dead serious when I said that the Kotel has become a symbol of the helplessness of the secular – or non-Orthodox – majority in Israel to assert their religious rights.

And perhaps so many Israelis are reluctant to claim these rights because they’ve been turned off from Judaism completely, discouraged by the rampant corruption present in state-sponsored Orthodox Judaism and religious affairs. A young man from a secular yeshiva pointed out, “it’s not just that the ultra-Orthodox are ignorant of the modern world – secular Israelis are ignorant of Judaism.”

But imagine the good that would happen if more Israelis became involved in progressive Jewish communities, and discovered there’s more than one way to be Jewish.

Toward the end of the session, MK Dr. Einat Wilf of Labor said something very perceptive. “The first 100 years of Zionism were about nationalism and the state,” she said. “The next 100 will be about Judaism.” In other words, who is a Jew? Which Jews get to define Judaism for everyone else? And why should some Jews be allowed to determine the fate of the entire Jewish people?
Two days later, Kadima, the opposition party led by Tzipi Livni, held a daylong symposium on Jewish identity and pluralism. This is truly good news – one of the current coalition’s major parties has chosen to focus for the first time ever on issues of religion and state.

With two Knesset sessions in one week devoted to issues of pluralism and Jewish identity, defenders of religious pluralism are tapping into popular support for change.

Anat Hoffman

P.S. Click here for an interview I gave last month about the current religious climate in Israel on Chicago Public Radio.

P.P.S. And click here to read Rabbi Adam Rosenwasser’s note on Noa Raz.


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On May 23, Israel's chief rabbinate issued new regulations requiring prospective couples whose parents had been married by someone other than a rabbinate-approved rabbi to apply, along with their mothers, for a full inquiry into their Jewishness. In the meantime, making deft use of its authority over conversions to Judaism, the rabbinate has acted to delegitimize other rabbis, in particular from the Modern Orthodox and Religious Zionist movements, as a whole. Founded as a body that would help unify the modern Jewish state, the rabbinate (Hebrew: rabbanut) has evolved into something else entirely. Continue reading today's feature, "The Chief Rabbinate."

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