Reform Jews push for recognition in Israel

February 27, 2009
The new head of the world’s largest group of Jewish clergy, Rabbi Ellen Dreyfus, told me a story that pretty much sums up the situation for Reform rabbis in the Jewish state.
Later this year she will return to Israel to officiate her nephew’s wedding. In the eyes of her nephew, his bride, their families, and everyone in attendance, the ceremony will tie the bonds of matrimony. But Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Rabbinical Court, the country’s highest religious authority which oversees all religious practice from weddings to funerals, will not recognise the nuptials. To make the marriage official in Israel, the couple will also have to have a civil union abroad.
Dreyfus, who leads an Illinois congregation and will now head a group of nearly 2,000 rabbis in the liberal Reform movement, is not recognised as one by the Jewish state. And neither is any wedding she officiates. Hundreds of the organisation’s leaders are meeting this week in Jerusalem to push for recognition from the ultra-Orthodox.

Traditionally, Israelis have only been exposed to Orthodox Judaism and Dreyfus said the lack of options has led so many of them to become secular.
“I always considered it their loss,” said Dreyfus, 57, who on Sunday will become the second woman to head the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR).

“Many Israelis are looking for a deeper way to express their Jewishness other than just being a member of the Jewish state. And they are not going to find it among the black hats,” she said, referring to the traditional ultra-Orthodox Jewish garb.

Growing up, most Israelis learn little about “progressive” Judaism. When travelling around the world, they are often surprised to see men and women sitting side-by-side and praying together in less-conservative Jewish congregations. Most synagogues in Israel have separate-sex seating. But over the past decade, Dreyfus said, awareness has grown.

Some 20 percent of Jews in Israel are Orthodox, about half of whom are ultra-conservative “Haredi”. They follow strict Jewish law, wear traditional clothing and do not consider the more liberal denominations of Judaism to be authentic.
Nor do they let women become rabbis.

They believe such a disciplined lifestyle is necessary for the survival of Judaism, which is estimated to have fewer than 15 million believers worldwide. The Conservative movement and the even more liberal Reform movement in Judaism have shed many of the stricter edicts and adopted more modern traditions. In Reform Judaism, many worshipers work on the Sabbath, eat non-kosher foods and marry non-Jews. The Haredi see this assimilation as a threat to Judaism, and point to the high rate of intermarriage among non-Orthodox Jews. 

The Reform movement was introduced in Israel decades ago as a “transplant” from diaspora communities. Only in recent years have native Israelis become more active. They have even set up a “progressive” religious court to compete with the ultra-Orthdox chief Rabbinate. (It is not recognised by the government.)
The CCAR meets every year to discuss religious pluralism, current events and show support for the burgeoning progressive Jewish movement in Israel, which they hope will help the non-Orthodox in Israel “reclaim the Jewish texts”.
The ultra-Orthodox community are quick to protest events or behavior that conflict with their beliefs. They boycott stores open on the Sabbath. They threatened violence at a gay rights parade in Jerusalem. In the most observant neighborhoods, they even throw stones at cars that drive through on holy days.

I asked Rabbi Peter Knobel, the outgoing head of CCAR, if the ultra-Orthodox community has protested their conference in any way.
“Not at all,” he said. “The Orthodox have chosen not to take note of the fact that we are even here.”


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This article misses a major point.

Yes, religion is *very* political in Israel.

And, yes, Orthodox Judaism is the only accepted form of Judaism in Israel.

But, the article appears to say that the garb, being strict, and not recognizing female “Rabbis” is what separates them from Conservative and Reform Judaism.

The strongest reason that Orthodox Judaism cannot accept Conservative and Reform Judaism is hinted at with:

“In Reform Judaism, many worshipers work on the Sabbath, eat non-kosher foods and marry non-Jews. The Haredi see this assimilation as a threat to Judaism, and point to the high rate of intermarriage among non-Orthodox Jews.”

The real disagreement between traditional Judaism and the newcomers is the definition of who is Jewish. While Conservative and Reform Judaism have varying degrees of acceptance of intermarriage (some requiring conversion and some not even requiring that), traditional Judaism is concerned that the product of intermarriage or of any number of halachicly improper unions can have long-lasting effects on the halachic status of the child.

While someone who eats non-kosher can easily be accepted into the Orthodox community, it is more problematic for someone who violates the Sabbath. That person can be accepted, but may be barred from being a legal witness concerning matters of Jewish law. A child of an adulterous relationship, while they can be a witness, cannot marry someone who is the product of a non-adulterous relationship.

And the child of intermarriage is only Jewish if the mother was Jewish and the conversion of a non-Jew to a Jew is only acceptable if certain conditions are met (like committing themselves to eat kosher and follow the Sabbath laws).

The difficulty with Conservative and Reform Judaism (from the point of view of traditional Judaism) is that you cannot tell if the person meets the requirements according to Jewish law. If their clergy don’t keep the Sabbath, how can they require their converted persons to keep the Sabbath.

Thus the differences between the two “camps” is the question that is still reverberating in Israel of “Who is a Jew?”

Posted by Izzy | Report as abusive

I live in Haifa, and would like to remind everyone that The true basis of Judaism is in my oinion is to be one nation serving both the spirit and the laws of our faith. All Jews are equal.
The next potential wave of immigration should be from North America. Many North American Jews are Reformed, not traditional. I hope that we are building a nation based on the right of all Jews to choose their own ideas. History has shown us that we must be one nation, or we will not exist. Interpreting and maintaining the laws of our faith is very important and our Orthodox brothers deserve great praise in that respect. Let us teach each other and work together as one nation.

Posted by Earl Shugerman | Report as abusive

I am a Reform Jew in America and I would like to move to Israel. Its very sad that there is so much animosity between the different Jewish movements. My Reform congregation is a wonderful place. We keep every Shabbat, we keep Kosher, we believe unquestioningly in the One Eternal God, we follow mitzvot and the commandments.

Posted by BrookeSarah | Report as abusive