These days most of the commentators seem to agree that the idea of allocating the southern part of the Western Wall for non-Orthodox Jewish prayer, concocted by former government secretary Avichai Mandelblit together with Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky, representatives of the Reform and Conservative movements, Women of the Wall and the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, and approved by the government on January 31 is unlikely to be implemented, despite the initial optimism.
When that new arrangement was first announced it wasn’t clear how Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had managed to get it approved, given that the objection of nearly the whole of the Orthodox establishment – both religious and political – was well known, and without the 21 Knesset seats of the religious parties, Netanyahu’s current coalition cannot survive.
Though like many others I welcomed the move, I had a sneaking feeling that as soon as the Orthodox establishment got over the initial shock and regained its balance it would do everything in its power to thwart the arrangement that at long last appeared to grant to the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel de facto recognition.
All sections of Orthodox Jewry in Israel make no secret of what they think of the Reform and Conservative Jews.
In the Knesset plenum, whose verbatim minutes appear on the Knesset website within an hour of a speech being delivered, MK Bezalel Smotrich (Bayit Yehudi) branded their religious beliefs and practices “a lie.” MK Yisrael Eichler (United Torah Judaism) compared them to the mentally ill.
In the words of explanation to a private member’s bill on the use of mikvehs (ritual baths) in Israel, brought last Wednesday for preliminary reading to the Knesset plenum by 12 MKs from the religious parties and designed to prevent the use of mikvehs by the converts of the Reform and Conservative movements, the following was said about these movements: “bodies whose goal is to destroy the foundations of Judaism as accepted for thousands of years.”
Minister of Religious Services David Azulai (Shas), who back in July declared in an interview to the IDF radio station Galei Zahal that in his eyes Reform Jews are not Jews, had the following to say in the course of a debate on the bill: “The essence of the Jewish religion is the belief in the revelation of Mount Sinai and obedience to the Torah handed down on that occasion... Whoever does not accept the authority of the Torah and crudely tramples on its commands, cannot claim that he represents a Jewish religious denomination... [These movements] have the right to organize as communities, carry out social activities, carry out ceremonies and hold conferences, and practice any folklore they may desire... But these people, these bodies, who seek... to change the Torah and the Halacha, and adapt them to equality, to progress – they are not Jewish denominations. Just as we do not allow a quack to get near a hospital in order to cure a dangerously ill person by means of his sorcery... so we shall fight... to stop anyone who seeks to introduce new rules into Judaism as handed down to us over the ages.”
If words of this nature were hurled by gentiles at Jews in general, they would immediately be accused of anti-Semitism.
But in Israel, neither the prime minister nor anyone else in his government uttered a word of condemnation.
The fact that the venomous words were uttered in the Knesset plenum, and recorded for eternity, didn’t seem to bother our leaders, and if it did, they chose to ignore them – and not for the first time.
It is no secret that the monopoly of the various Orthodox religious streams in Eretz Yisrael was the result of the fact that there were few members of the other streams who settled in Israel over the years.
However, this fact does not justify the formal exclusion of the Reform and Conservative movements and their religious practices from Israel, and certainly does not justify refraining from the application of the Israeli slander laws against those who defame them in the name of “true” Judaism. Furthermore, let us not forget the saying that unjustified hatred (among Jews) is what caused the destruction of the Holy Temple.
It should be recalled that Zionism is not about establishing an Orthodox halachic state, but about establishing a homeland for the Jewish people – the whole of the Jewish people, whether they live in Israel or the Diaspora, and whatever their form of religious practice, or absence thereof. Furthermore, the Proclamation of Independence promises freedom of religion to everyone, and with regard to the Jews, everyone means everyone – not only the various Orthodox denominations that have fought Reform and Conservative Judaism since the 19th century, and the enlightenment and the Haskalah since they first emerged in the 18th century.
While one can appreciate the fact that most religious denominations, by their very nature, believe that they represent an absolute truth, and other denominations represent falsehood, in a state that claims to be democratic and pluralistic there ought to be limits to how this belief is allowed to manifest itself.
But what is most enervating about the Orthodox claim that the Reform and Conservative forms of Judaism are not Judaism is the nagging question of who determined that Orthodox Judaism represents Judaism as handed down on Mount Sinai, and described in the Torah? Isn’t it true that current-day Orthodox Jewish practices evolved over the years, and only barely resemble the Judaism practiced by, say, King Solomon? The command forbidding the eating of “a kid in its mother’s milk” evolved into a contorted set of dietary laws about the mixing of meat and milk, and today into a corrupt system of kashrut that has nothing to do with the truth, or the original intention of God (or whoever lay down the original commands).
Or again, considering a women’s voice to be impure has nothing whatsoever to do with the Torah, in which there is no condemnation of women singing, unless, of course, the prophets Miriam and Dvorah were men in disguise.
And if Orthodox Judaism is all about purity and truth, how come we hear nothing from the Orthodox gatekeepers about self-proclaimed Orthodox “holy men” being quacks who get rich at the expense of their naive followers, and are all too frequently no better than common crooks? Don’t get me wrong; I am not trying to vilify Orthodox Judaism as such. I am just suggesting that before one goes out and calls fellow Jews liars, lunatics and “destroyers of the essence of Judaism” one ought to take an honest look at oneself, and put one’s own house in order.
Now, if Netanyahu weren’t obsessively concerned with his own long-term political survival, he could put an end to this theater of the absurd, condemn the slanderous statements coming from the mouths of Orthodox politicians and rabbis, end the Orthodox monopoly on all Jewish religious affairs in Israel and stop the growing rift between Israel and American Jewry over this issue. He could easily muster a majority to do so if he had the will – Labor alone has three seats more than all three religious parties put together.
Unfortunately experience tells us not to raise our hopes on this count. Netanyahu apparently values his own survival more than saving the essence of Zionism, fulfilling the promises of the Proclamation of Independence or saving Israel’s relations with the liberal Jewish majority in the US.
However, if “it ain’t over ‘til the fat lady sings,” and since the Orthodox establishment forbids any sort of lady to sing in public, perhaps it ain’t over yet.
The writer is a political scientist and retired Knesset employee.