Jerusalem — While no one would call Israel a religiously pluralistic country, with its Orthodox control of the Chief Rabbinate, momentum in that direction seems to be building.
The cabinet’s late January decision to fund an alternative egalitarian prayer space adjoining the Western Wall, as well as two recent High Court rulings — one permitting non-Orthodox conversions at state-funded mikvahs and the second recognizing Orthodox conversions in Israel and the diaspora not performed by the Chief Rabbinate — are challenging the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly over Israel’s religious institutions.
But in recent days the much-heralded compromise on prayer at the Western Wall appears in jeopardy, with charedim pressuring their Knesset representatives to resist the effort.
One victory for those favoring religious pluralism occurred on March 31, when the Jerusalem City Council voted for the first time to directly fund several non-Orthodox and pluralistic Orthodox educational initiatives. Until now all funding went to Orthodox and charedi organizations.
“Although I wouldn’t call these developments a tipping point, they are definitely a significant and important step forward,” said Yohanan Plesner, a former Knesset member who now serves as the president of the Israel Democracy Institute.
Plesner said the High Court’s ruling to recognize alternative Orthodox conversions was “inevitable,” given the “continued failure of the state conversion institutes.”
Since the formation of the state conversion institutes in 1995, Plesner said only 7 percent of non-Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union were converted through these institutes, and only half of the prospective converts who started their conversions through a state-recognized institute completed it.
“The Chief Rabbinate, with its strict approach that sometimes borders on cruelty, brought the Supreme Court’s decision on itself,” said Plesner, who cited the “absurd situation in which a small group of rabbis who define themselves as non-Zionist prevents the opening of the gates to the Zionist project for many who are interested in entering them.”
Rabbi Seth Farber, head of the ITIM organization that established an alternative Orthodox conversion program last August, and which was a co-petitioner in the High Court case, believes “something has changed.” He said “the public has stopped relying on the Knesset” to enact positive change “and has started to use the courts instead.”
Rabbi Farber emphasized that the court’s rulings followed years of government inaction over the Chief Rabbinate’s increasingly strict conversion standards for immigrants with Jewish ancestry.
“The courts recognized that the government didn’t move forward. The mikvah ruling came after six years of hearings.”
In addition to the court’s increasingly activist rulings, Rabbi Farber said Modern Orthodox Jews in Israel have also “become more bold” in their bid to challenge the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly.
“I don’t believe the court would have come out as strongly as it did” against the Chief Rabbinate’s sole authority “were it not for mainstream Orthodox initiatives. This is this first time mainstream Orthodox rabbis have gone into competition with the Chief Rabbinate, and the court is giving that legitimacy. Something dramatic is happening.”
To Rabbi Farber, the fact that the Jewish Agency as well as representatives of the non-Orthodox streams, Women of the Wall and Jewish Federations of North America were all partners in the quest for an egalitarian prayer space, “shows there’s a bigger trend going on.” Diaspora Jews, he said, want to play a role in the “trajectory of Jewish Israeli life. I don’t think this could have happened 10 years ago.”
Susan Weiss, director of the Center for Women’s Justice, which has petitioned the High Court for the right of women to pray at the Western Wall from state-supplied Torah scrolls, said that while much of the pluralism-related activism in the courts has been spearheaded by Israelis who immigrated from English-speaking countries, “it is expanding to include Israeli-born ‘open Orthodox’ women who no longer accept rabbis taking increasingly fundamentalist decisions that are alienating more and more of us. What we are seeing is the slow disintegration of the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly,” Weiss said.
Jeffrey Woolf, an Orthodox Talmud professor at Bar Ilan University, believes government policies that promote greater religious pluralism and inclusion should be voted in by the Knesset, not decided by the High Court.
But he understands why much of the public is disgruntled with the Chief Rabbinate and charedi politicians.
“The charedi political parties and rabbis have essentially taken over the Chief Rabbinate and certainly control the holy places. They have imposed all kinds of strictures, including the separation of sexes in public places where it was never expected before.”
Woolf blamed the Chief Rabbinate for the “conversion log jam.”
“Their standards and bureaucracy are unparalleled in Jewish history. It’s part of a trend within the religious establishment and has nothing to do with halacha,” or Jewish law, Woolf said.
“By taking such a stringent approach,” Woolf said, the Chief Rabbinate “has shot itself in the foot.”
Despite the general public consensus that the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly isn’t good for the Jews, it remains to be seen whether charedi and other Orthodox lawmakers will succeed in their attempts to circumvent the High Court’s decisions by passing new legislation.
Just weeks after the court made its mikvah ruling, a charedi-sponsored bill that would put ritual baths under the sole jurisdiction of the Rabbinate passed its first of three mandatory readings. Currently before a Knesset committee, it will likely undergo revisions.
Seth Farber finds it difficult to imagine the Knesset overturning the court’s recent decision on alternative conversion programs.
“I think the price the Knesset will have to pay to cower to radical religious right would be too great given all the other decisions it has on its plate. I just don’t believe the Knesset has the political will to undermine these achievements.”
Plesner is less confident.
“Today we have a government with a 61-to-59-seat majority that is dependent on the votes of two ultra-Orthodox parties” that are spearheading a bill that would require state-funded mikvahs “to provide services only to people who would use them based on the ultra-Orthodox interpretation of halacha.”
Although Plesner thinks the bill might be watered-down or delayed before its second and third readings, he recalled how, when the new Knesset came into power, it “unwound” the charedi recruitment bill that was the last Knesset’s crowning achievement.
“The ultra-Orthodox parties are very, very powerful in this government,” he said.
To underscore Plesner’s point, Netanyahu is said to be reviewing the plans for a permanent egalitarian prayer area at the Western Wall, based on pressure from coalition members opposed to giving recognition to Conservative and Reform prayer. One reason the compromise was agreed to in the first place was the fear that if it wasn’t approved, the issue would go to the High Court and likely result in women praying in the mainstream area of the plaza.
The prime minister has promised a response within weeks.