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MERCAZ USA Newsletter — Fall-2015

The Darkness Before the Dawn: Israel’s Majority VS Orthodox Minority

There is a popular saying that the darkest hour is always just before the dawn. Looking at recent events concerning religious pluralism in Israel, things certainly appear darker today than before. But a new poll indicates that a majority of Israelis are in favor of a new dawn in the Jewish State.

The darkness began this past May when the Likud Mayor of Rehovot Rachamim Malul, originally of the ultra-Orthodox SHAS Party, cancelled a planned Bar/Bat Mitzvah ceremony for children with special needs because it was to be held at the Masorti synagogue in town. The mayor’s decision took all by surprise as similar services had been taking place in the past in Rehovot at the same Masorti congregation with no protest.

And later, when negotiations followed to move the disputed ceremony from Rehovot to the President of Israel’s official residence in Jerusalem, President Reuven Rivlin – he or his staff – turned around and refused to permit the Masorti rabbi of Rehovot to take part in the service, ostensibly on the grounds that the President’s Residence should not be involved in “controversial” situations.

At the same time, the Chief Rabbinate and its supporters in the new government of Prime Minister Netanyahu have been out to reverse whatever small steps had been taken towards religious pluralism during the two years of the previous coalition. First of all, the new government voted to repeal the regulation which would have allowed municipal rabbis to set up independent conversion courts without the permission and supervision of the Chief Rabbinate. Secondly, the government reversed the decision to move the rabbinical courts to the jurisdiction of the secular Justice Ministry and returned them back to the SHAS-held Religious Affairs Ministry.

Add to these acts the attempt to disqualify American-born modern Orthodox Rabbi Shlomo Riskin from a 5-year extension as Chief Rabbi of Efrat and to prevent a Masorti rabbi from participating in an Orthodox-sponsored community event for Shavuot in Tel Aviv, (both acts were fortunately unsuccessful) and it is indeed a darker hour than before.

It is against this backdrop that the recent survey commissioned by the Hiddush organization is so significant. A non-profit agency that works to promote religious freedom in Israel, Hiddush found that 59% of all Israeli Jews believe that the state should recognize Reform and Conservative rabbis and grant them the same legal status as their Orthodox counterparts, while 71% disagreed with President Rivlin’s decision regarding the terms for holding the bar mitzvah ceremony for disabled children.

In his recent responsum "Is Judaism Really in Favor of Pluralism and Tolerance?" (Responsa in a Moment, Vol. 9, Issue 6, June 2015), Rabbi David Golinkin, President of the Schechter Institutes, noted: "[T]he attempt of certain Orthodox rabbis [and their political allies] in Israel to impose their specific halachic opinion on all the Jews of Israel (and in the Diaspora) contradicts the way that Jewish law has worked since the dissolution of the Sanhedrin. May we aspire, rather to the Jewish ideal of unity without uniformity. In the words of Rabbi [Abraham Isaac Kuk, the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of British Mandatory Palestine] "the multiplicity of opinions . . . that is the very thing which enriches wisdom and causes it to expand."






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