Last Wednesday I decided to take a break from Donald Trump’s outrageous tirade against Hillary Clinton, which I was watching on Fox News, and switched over to the Knesset channel that was broadcasting from the plenum.
The Knesset sitting was drawing to its close, and only a handful of MKs were present in the chamber, including MK Yoav Ben-Tzur and Religious Services Minister David Azulai, both from Shas.
What followed was no less outrageous than the Trump speech, and in both cases there can be no redress for the outrage – in Trump’s case because of the First Amendment, and in the case of what went on in the plenum because MKs have immunity.
Ben-Tzur was on the podium presenting a motion for the agenda on “again a mixed Reform event, deliberately against the Halacha, deliberately at the Western Wall compound, and deliberately to outrage and defy.”
Ben-Tzur is one of Shas’ more open-minded MKs.
He is of Yemenite origin, has both a religious and secular education, served in the IDF, ran the Shas educational network for several years and claims to have an MA in public and business administration from Manchester University.
In a recent interview with Nehama Duek on the Knesset TV channel Ben-Tzur stated that he believes haredi (ultra-Orthodox) men who are not studying in yeshiva should serve in the IDF, and that haredi children should study core secular subjects. He explained that he discovered it was important to study English so that he could speak to Jews in the US.
But in his speech in the plenum last Monday Ben-Tzur referred to Reform Jews as “street clowns,” questioned the connection between Reform Judaism and the Western Wall, mikvehs and Jewish practice in general. “What Reform community abroad has mikvehs?” he asked.
Well, if Ben-Tzur had bothered to use his English to read and listen he would know that in recent years some Reform and Conservative communities in the US have built mikvehs.
He would also know that these two Jewish denominations, both of which have existed since the 19th century, have not detached themselves from the Old Testament, Eretz Yisrael, Jerusalem and Jewish history, even though they do not accept much of the Orthodox Halacha and many of the Orthodox practices.
Ben-Tzur mocked the Reform Movement for holding bar mitzva for dogs. He was referring to the ridiculous fad among some American Jews to hold “bark-mitzvas” for their dogs – usually in jest, sometimes as a fund raiser. Insofar as there are a handful of marginal Reform rabbis who cooperate with this nonsense, it is certainly nothing the Reform Movement should be proud of. It is, however, no more unjewish or shameful than the industry of superstitions and miracle cures offered in Shas circles.
Ben-Tzur ended his speech by stating: “Isn’t it time that we put an end to this clownish circus and sent them to the four winds [lechol haruhot]?” Minister Azulai then mounted the podium to reply. The ignorance and prejudice he demonstrated were even greater than Ben-Tzur’s. He argued that all Reform Jews are interested in is recognition.
“I promise you faithfully: the moment they will gain recognition in Eretz Yisrael, you will no longer see them. They will no longer come to pray....” He then continued to state that no other religion would allow a group to come and try to reform it.
Our religious services minister has apparently never heard of the Protestants, who broke away from the Catholic Church, and is apparently not familiar with the fact that Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem serves many Christian denominations, each of which has its own religious practices. He also apparently never heard of the fact that Mecca is a place of pilgrimage for all Muslim denominations, who might hate each other’s guts, but nevertheless coexist (most of the time).
Azulai also stated that he had been informed by the attorney general that only Rav Hakotel (the Orthodox rabbi in charge of the Western Wall) can set the prayer arrangements at the Wall. He didn’t add that this authority involves only the central Western Wall compound, not the southern section, near Robinson’s Arch, which the government set aside last January as a place of prayer for non-Orthodox Jews – an arrangement which the Orthodox establishment rejects.
To cut a long story short, the plenum decided (four voted) to refer the motion to the Knesset Internal Affairs and Environment Committee for further deliberation.
The chairman of this committee is MK David Amsalem (Likud), who in a recent interview stated that “regarding the issue of the Reform [Movement], in my opinion reforms are introduced in income tax, social security or in a canning factory – not in religion.” Not all motions for the agenda referred to a committee are actually deliberated, but if Amsalem does decide to devote a meeting to the subject, it will undoubtedly be as outrageous as the two plenary speeches.
It is, perhaps, high time that our newlywed Knesset speaker put an end to the farce. Since Yuli Edelstein’s father is a Russian Orthodox priest, he knows a thing or two about religious tolerance.
The writer is a political scientist and retired Knesset employee.