The fight over religious pluralism in Israel

Editor’s Note: Rabbi Marmur wrote the following column just before the Israeli government decided to freeze implementation of egalitarian worship at the Western Wall.

By Rabbi Dow Marmur

Rabbi Dow Marmur

JERUSALEM — I’m a member of the organization of Reform rabbis in Israel, and, together with my wife I belong to two Reform congregations in Jerusalem. I’m, therefore, kept informed of the internal progress that the Reform movement has made over the years. Yet I’ve had doubts about its impact on Israeli society as a whole. I wrote about that not long ago and thus incurred the displeasure of Israeli Reform leaders.

Perhaps I was wrong. Judging by the obsession with Reform Judaism by the Israeli Orthodox establishment and the at times insane attacks on non-Orthodox religious movements in Judaism, one is given the (erroneous?) impression that Reform is about to take over Israel.

[The fact that one of the main attackers is Arieh Deri adds to the bitter irony. He’s a convicted criminal who after his jail sentence returned as the leader of the ultra-Orthodox Sephardi Shas party as minister of the interior. He’s currently again under police investigation for similar offences.]

The reason for present anti-Reform obsession centers on the undertaking by the Government of Israel to provide proper egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall. Pressure to that effect has come from the leaders of American Jewry the overwhelming majority of which isn’t Orthodox.

The present wave of Orthodox pressure on the Prime Minister is for him to renege on his commitment to provide such space. As he’s more interested in staying at the helm than pleasing American Jewry, he’s likely to cave in to his coalition partners in the guise of one excuse or another.

This has left Natan Scharansky, the chair of the Jewish Agency (the Board of Governors of which is currently meeting in Jerusalem) to fend for Diaspora Jewry. He’s not known as a supporter of Reform Judaism but his current position requires gestures of solidarity. He hasn’t got enough power to make a difference and, I surmise, not enough conviction to challenge the prime minister, so he’ll just make pluralistic noises in the hope of placating us.

However, two organizations linked to Reform Judaism in Israel are doing their best to erode the hegemony of the ultra-Orthodox. They deserve our applause and our tangible support.

*The Israel Action Centre of Reform Judaism has just won the case of Mrs. Renee Rabinowitz, who was made to change her seat on an El Al flight to accommodate an ultra-Orthodox man because he refused to sit next to a woman. In a decision earlier this week, the judge ordered El Al to pay compensation and to instruct its staff not to yield to this kind of ultra-Orthodox pressure in the future.

*Thanks to the intervention of Hiddush – though not formally associated with Reform, is chaired by Rabbi Uri Regev, a leading Israeli Reform rabbi with an international reputation – has successfully petitioned the court to allow non-Orthodox funerals in military cemeteries. Hitherto a non-Orthodox fallen soldier had to be buried elsewhere without military honours or have an Orthodox funeral.

In the larger scheme of things the court victories of the two above mentioned organizations seem to be of marginal significance. But the fact that courts heard their cases and decided in favor of religious pluralism in Israel is important. It sets precedents and points to more things to come. It may take time. But we mustn’t lose hope that Israel will be saved from the growing ultra-Orthodox hegemony and its cynical power grabbing fanaticism.

Rabbi Marmur is spiritual leader emeritus of Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto.  Now a resident of Israel, he may be contacted via [email protected]






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One Response to “The fight over religious pluralism in Israel”

  1. admin says:

    New York – AJC is deeply disappointed by today’s decision of the Israeli government to withdraw from the plan to establish an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall (Kotel).

    AJC had hailed the compromise to allow egalitarian prayer at the sacred site in Jerusalem when it was first approved by the Israeli Cabinet in January 2016.

    “The Kotel belongs to all Jews worldwide, not to a self-appointed segment,” said AJC CEO David Harris. “This decision is a setback for Jewish unity and the essential ties that bind Israel and American Jews, the two largest centers of Jewish life in the world.”

    In a September 2015 letter to AJC, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu stated his commitment “to strengthening the unity of the Jewish people,” and pledged “to unequivocally reject any attempt to divide us or to delegitimize any Jewish community – Reform, Conservative or Orthodox.”

    The Conservative and Reform movements, joined by AJC and other Jewish groups, have long pressed for equal rights at the Kotel for non-Orthodox worship and religious ceremonies. The landmark compromise, adopted by the Israeli Cabinet on January 31, 2016, recognized that the religious status quo at the Western Wall would continue under Orthodox authority. For egalitarian and mixed-gender Conservative and Reform prayers, however, a new space would be created at the southern wall, commonly known as Robinson’s Arch. But while all streams of Judaism agreed at the time, the ultra-Orthodox representatives reneged and have steadfastly blocked its implementation.

    AJC has been focusing on issues of Jewish religious pluralism in Israel for decades. At AJC’s initiative, the effort was elevated in 2014 with the establishment of the multi-organizational Jewish Religious Equality Coalition (J-REC) to press for recognized alternatives to the Chief Rabbinate on procedures relating to marriage and conversion to Judaism.


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