Over the past few weeks, I have watched the unfolding drama facing Tzohar, the group of Modern Orthodox rabbis in Israel, and its campaign to reinstate their rabbis as officiants for weddings in Israel. (See “Fighting Back Against The Chief Rabbinate,” Editorial, Nov.11) I believe the issue warrants greater understanding of what truly underlies it.
Israel does not allow civil marriages nor does it permit non-Orthodox rabbis to officiate at legally recognized weddings. But even the Orthodox organization Tzohar has faced considerable controversy around its capacity to perform marriages in Israel. Yaacov Margi, the minister of religious services in Israel, informed Tzohar that the number of marriage licenses issued to it would be restricted since most of its rabbis are not approved by the Chief Rabbinate. It was widely understood that this claim was less about proper administrative conduct and rather about the threat Tzohar poses to the increasingly fundamentalist rabbinic establishment by providing services in its stead.
I have tremendous respect for Tzohar’s work to heal the image of Orthodoxy in the eyes of Israelis, as well as its work to make conversion, marriage and ritual more accessible to the majority of Israelis. Its contribution and initiatives are praiseworthy. The counter campaign it mounted, in Israel and the U.S., was quick and effective, resulting in what it titled “Victory for the Jewish People” when Minister Margi, of the fervently Orthodox Shas Party, relented on allowing the Tzohar rabbis to officiate at weddings. But as I compared the messaging Tzohar used in Israel and abroad, I found disturbing discrepancies in how it defined the campaign’s rationale and the nature of this “victory.”
The Jewish Week reported last week that Rabbi David Stav, the chair of Tzohar, was in the U.S. “to encourage diaspora leaders, not just in the Orthodox community, to speak out against the coercive polices of the Chief Rabbinate.” In a widely distributed message to American Jewish leaders, the Tzohar leaders wrote: “Shutting down Tzohar’s Jewish Marriage project is a tragic event that directly harms every Jew and Jewish community in the world.”
Crafting these messages based on the knowledge that most of the leaders from whom they were requesting support are Reform and Conservative Jews, their language diverged wildly from that used in their parallel Israeli campaign. In Israel, press releases and ads placed by Tzohar condemn the Shas minister because he is causing Israelis, God forbid, to turn to civil marriages and Reform rabbis, which is “against Orthodox Jewish Law” and will cause “destruction.” Rabbi Stav declared that “Minister Margi is virtually pushing them [and all of their descendants] out of the Jewish People,” causing “a split in the nation.” Tzohar attempted to place posters in Jerusalem stating that this would lead to “shmad” [apostasy], but the municipality censored these ads, unwilling to allow such an attack on Margi. The ads were changed to read: “Margi, Be a Jew!”
Tzohar’s strategy in Israel was to declare its work a way to save the Jewish people from Reform, Conservative and civil marriage, implying that those who would marry outside of Orthodox tradition would be lost to the Jewish fold forever. The incredible deviation from its message to North American Jewish leaders that there is a “coercive Chief Rabbinate” and that these marriage restrictions would “harm every Jew and Jewish community in the world” appear increasingly suspect, given Tzohar’s own vocalized disdain for liberal Jewry.
For as well intentioned as Tzohar’s mission may be, it emerges that to it, American Jewish pluralism is anathema, splitting the Jewish people and leading to apostasy. These Modern Orthodox Israeli rabbis aim for an Orthodox rabbinate that is more compassionate than the increasingly extreme establishment we now see. But Tzohar has no problem with an Orthodox monopoly on Judaism in the State of Israel; instead, Tzohar carefully addresses its liberal American audience, neglecting to mention actions such as its opposition to recognition of Reform and Conservative conversions, describing such conversions as “fictitious” and not a “true conversion according to religion.”
Tzohar’s “victory for the Jewish People” is not in keeping with the pluralistic reality of the Jewish community in the United States from whom they have requested support. Its protest does not respond to the rights of hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens from the former Soviet Union who are labeled “without religion,” or the converts of liberal movements, none of whom can legally marry in Israel today, with or without the Tzohar rabbis. The Tzohar message does not respond to the wishes of those Jews who do not want an Orthodox wedding or a religious ceremony altogether.
Without freedom for all, there will ultimately be freedom for none. The interests of the Jewish people and Israel require that religious freedom and pluralism become a reality in Israel as it is in every democracy in the world. Tzohar does not reflect the clear preference of the majority of Israelis for freedom of choice in marriage, including civil and non-Orthodox options, reaffirmed only recently in the “Religion and State Index” conducted by Hiddush – Freedom of Religion for Israel, and other similar studies such as those from the Central Bureau of Statistics.
The Jewish world and the leaders in the diaspora showed how critical their voice can be in protecting the rights of Jews everywhere. However, we must join in the struggle for true religious freedom in Israel, rather than settling for replacing a fundamentalist monopoly with a more benign one.
Rabbi Uri Regev heads Hiddush, Freedom of Religion for Israel.