Saving Orthodox Judaism in Israel

by Rabbi Eric Yoffie
Originally posted in The Jerusalem Post


When Yaakov Epstein became Chief Rabbi of Haifa in 2052, neither the press nor the public took special notice. True, he was the first Reform rabbi elected to the highest rabbinical position in a major metropolis, but he had already served as Chief Rabbi of Netanya. In fact, six Conservative and four Reform rabbis were then serving as Chief Rabbis of medium-sized Israeli cities.

By then, the “Rebellion of 2022” had been largely forgotten. That was the year when the number of Orthodox men studying rather than working and the number of Yeshiva students exempt from army service had reached record heights, almost bankrupting the economy and causing deep resentment among average Israelis. As a result, legislation was rushed through the Knesset de-establishing synagogue and state; its key provisions called for each municipality to elects its religious leader, and for the establishment of a single school system for the “secular” and “religious” populations.

The legislation’s impact was dramatic. Despite some tensions, Orthodox and non-Orthodox children soon came to understand and respect each other, and hotly contested elections for rabbinical positions pushed all candidates to moderate, centrist positions.

It was Orthodoxy that benefited most from the “free market” in religion. Centrist Orthodoxy in particular, no longer held hostage by a monopolistic religious establishment, emerged as a burgeoning and creative religious community. Its outer forms changed. Soon the Orthodox religious parties declined into insignificance, and full-time Yeshiva students, deprived of army exemptions, were once again a small, exclusive elite. But the modern forms of Orthodoxy quickly became a major religious force. No longer associated with corrupt politics, they contributed spiritual vitality to all aspects of Israel’s social and intellectual life. And the Reform and Conservative movements, while smaller, shared in the general religious renewal, and all Israelis benefited from vigorous debates among the movements on matters of spiritual and ethical import.

Israel in 2052 was not a religious utopia. But it had produced a revived Orthodoxy, a growing and active progressive Judaism, serious Jewish education, and broad pockets of deep religious commitment. It was a country to which Jews of the Diaspora of all religious streams looked for spiritual sustenance. It was a Jewish state which, by divesting itself of authority over Judaism, had revived Judaism, and had transformed Torah from a political slogan into an ets chayyim.

Twitter Digg Delicious Stumbleupon Technorati Facebook Email
Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie

About Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie is president emeritus of the Union for Reform Judaism. He speaks and writes frequently about Israel, religious life, social justice, and other topics of interest to the Jewish community. Read his full bio and writings on the URJ website.

12 Responses to “Saving Orthodox Judaism in Israel”

  1. avatar

    Amen- though you forgot to mention the nourished Palestinian state next door that we get to have intense hummus making competitions with.

    Israel is already a place were Reform Jews can look for spiritual sustenance, and indeed many do. But there are some real tough cookies in Israel, and if you bite in too hard or too fast, you can lose your ability to speak all together.
    I think that Rabbi Yoffie is right to think that it’s gonna take 30 or 40 years before Reforms in Israel really start to kick in. I hope that the Reform movement continues to strengthen it’s voice and influence in relation to Israel.

  2. avatar

    The Charedi full-time learners are already in decline.
    The National Religious population is already strong and continuing to grow.
    Israel already has a “free market” in religion. Israelis are free to observe (or not observe) whatever theology they so choose.
    Basically, everything that Rabbi Yoffie predicts in the future, has already happened.
    Somehow, all of this came about without redefining Jewish law and its role in the Jewish state.
    Some Reform adherents (particularly movement leaders) seem quite obsessed with Orthodox validation. Why should you care what anyone else thinks about your religious choices? Why do you need someone else’s stamp of approval?

  3. avatar

    “Why should you care what anyone else thinks about your religious choices? Why do you need someone else’s stamp of approval?”
    Because as things stand, without that stamp of approval you cannot be married in Israel or buried in a Jewish cemetery.
    This is why Rabbi Yoffie is concerned with changing Israeli law, such that the extant religious streams of Judaism have equal rights to land for synagogues, to schooling that provides a solid grounding in Judaism and basic competencies for life in modernity. Currently they do not.
    I surmise that you, perhaps, believe that they ought not, in which case yours is a minority opinion in this venue.

  4. avatar

    @ Brian
    Implicit in your comments is the recognition that Reform Judaism is continuing to grow its penetration and impact in Israel, despite all the obstacles placed in its path by increasingly strident Orthodox control on matters of personal status and on the funding of synagogues and rabbis. If I’m reading Rabbi Yoffie correctly,however, his focus in this post is not on the impact of Charedi hegemony on the liberal religious movements; rather, he is predicting that the secular population will force change in protest against Charedi free-loading. You and he seem to agree that the basic reform disestablishing a state religion will benefit centrist Orthodoxy alongside the liberal movements, as religion becomes more acceptable through no longer being oppressive.
    @Former Reform Jew
    While all Israelis may already be free to observe whatever theology they choose, they are not free to be married or buried as they choose; which takes the rug out from under your assertion that what Rabbi Yoffie predicts has already happened.
    More to the point, Rabbi Yoffie has not proposed any redefinition of Jewish law nor has he asked for Orthodox validation. He has predicted a fed-up secular uprising demanding a change in Israeli law (as Rich has pointed out) to separate religion and government. Your suggestion that most of what he predicts has already happened is at best disingenuous.
    From his other posts in this venue, my surmise about Former Reform Jew’s comment is not that he thinks the changes you enumerate ought not happen, only that he thinks we are building on quicksand if we are not studying, praying, and living in accordance with his own degree of practice, somewhere to the right of current mainstream Reform practice, yet not so far right as to make him comfortable with identifying with any other stream. Was it the Rambam who told us that we cannot say what God is, only what God is not? Thus the ambiguity in FRJ’s religious self-definition is Maimonidean!
    @Rabbi Yoffie
    The one thing I hope you are wrong about is the time frame for what you are envisioning. May it be bimhera, beyameinu, speedily, during our days. I would like to be here to see it!

  5. avatar

    @Larry Kaufman
    There is an easy way for URJ members to have full autonomy over their weddings, funerals, and all religious decisions, within the existing framework of Israeli society.
    Simply register as a new religion.
    The Eastern Orthodox Christian, Catholic, and Muslim Israelis all have their own religions recognized in Israel. The Israeli Rabbinate has no power over their weddings, funerals, or any other religious activity.
    This is not a new idea, nor was it my own at the outset.
    So, why doesn’t URJ do this? It comes down to ga’ava (pride, arrogance).
    On the one hand, URJ wants to be free from halacha (Jewish law) in all areas of life. On the other hand, it begs to be validated and recognized as “Judaism” (or Yahadut, in Israel).
    URJ will never be recognized as Yahadut in Israel. So, a choice must be made. Call yourselves “Reformim” and have all the licensed weddings and funerals you want, or insist on a label that is shared with halachic Judaism, and forever remain outsiders in the Jewish State.

  6. avatar

    @Former Reform Jew
    Aside from any matters of principle, theology, or anything else, the URJ cannot do what you suggest because it is a North American organization, not an Israeli organization.
    But the Reform movement, including the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism, simply does not accept your contention that we are a new religion. You apparently want us to concede that we are, which would suggest that when you left Reform Judaism, you underwent the full nine yards of conversion with an Orthodox bet din — including tipat dam (symbolic circumcision — I am assuming that you are male) and mikvah (immersion in a ritual bath).
    Since you base your argument on Reform’s freeing itself from Halacha, I wonder what you make of the Conservative movement’s Israeli counterpart, Masorti, which suffers in Israel from the same practical limitations as Reform, although it affirms the binding nature of Halacha. (You skip over Reform’s affirmation of the guiding nature of Halacha.)
    If I remember correctly, you have in the past indicated that your Reform upbringing somehow short-changed you. I too have left the form of Yahadut in which I was brought up, no longer finding Jewish authenticity in its reading of what is important. This is not to suggest it is inauthentic — just wrong for me, as it is for the vast majority of American Jews.
    In my prior comment, I suggested that your position was disingenuous — but I am moving away from that idea, puzzled by your adamant quest to put down the Reform movement and its leadership, whatever it takes. Will you at least concede that the URJ’s willingness to give you a venue in which to do so speaks well for it? Or can we do nothing right?

  7. avatar

    @Larry Kaufman
    I can think of many things that URJ does right.
    Caring for the poor, visiting the sick, giving time, energy, and money to the general community – all are activites in which the URJ and its members do things right.
    (And yes, allowing a “Former” like me to post in your forum is much appreciated as well).
    In fact, I have zero objection to anyone living his or her life according to all of the ideals set forth by the URJ or its Israeli counterpart.
    The only thing that really bothers me is when non-shomrei mitzvot start blurring terms. I used to give the benefit of the doubt, and assume that this was done unintentionally – but maybe the word play is part of the agenda too.
    Which terms are blurred? Jew, Jewish, Judaism.
    You asked (sarcastically perhaps?) if I needed a conversion. I did not, for one simple reason.
    My mother is a Jew. That is not a statement of her theology, but of her ancestry. I am a Jew because she is, because her mother is, etc.
    Being a Jew has nothing to do with ones own theology.
    I would guess that everyone who reads this blog would agree with me that Jews for Jesus or Messianic Judaism ought not be classified as “Judaism”.
    Yet, J for J would claim that since (some of them) were born to mothers who are hereditary Jews, that anything that they do can be called “Judaism”.
    Therefore, we can see that a theology does not become “Judaism”, just because a group of Jews follow it.
    So then what ARE the criteria? For nearly our entire existence as a people, Judaism meant halacha. If one was a shomer/et mitzvot, he/she was following Judaism. If not, not.
    I am perplexed as to why any of this is offensive at all.
    Neither URJ nor its Israeli counterpart claim to follow halacha.
    They don’t want to follow halacha. Why then, would they want to share the same label that is given to groups of Jews who do follow halacha?
    The United States has no official religion. It doesn’t matter, on an official level, if a group of people pray to Jesus or Buddha or the Flying Spaghetti Monster, and call it Judaism.
    The official religion of Israel is Judaism. The people of Israel have defined Judaism as it has always been defined – namely, adherence to halacha.
    Therefore, is it very important to define who gets to make religious decisions on marriage, conversion, etc. – and who does not.
    Israel is a state with an official religion, yet it also allows the free exercise of other religions.
    So, if Reform groups only want religious autonomy in Israel, it is easily achieved by dropping one word from the title.
    I once again point out the incongruity – adamantly declaring freedom from halacha on one hand, and insisting on using the same term as those who follow halacha on the other hand.
    I’m really not “putting down the Reform movement and its leadership”. I want my Reform friends to have religious autonomy in Israel. I am making a suggestion, in good faith, that will achieve this.

  8. avatar

    @Former Reform Jew
    As long as you get to define terms your way, you are bound to win this argument, so after these few comments, I’ll withdraw from it.
    How can you be sure, once you have established Reform Judaism as a different religion, that your mother’s bloodline, which authenticates your Jewishness, will be kosher enough for the dominating religious authorities? (I say dominating, not dominant, because the dominant stream in Israel remains chiloni, secular, and as Rabbi Yoffie has pointed out, that they have so far been willing to tolerate the inconveniences imposed on them by a state religion doesn’t mean they always will.)
    I agree with you that born Jews who affirm the divinity of Jesus should not be classified as Jewish, regardless of their mothers’ Jewish status. To be considered Jewish by Jews, you must not be practicing any other religion, so Jews for Jesus — regardless of their self-definition — have excluded themselves.
    The way I learned it, being Jewish had many more aspects than worshiping halacha, a human construct. Now you have given me reason to start questioning the Jewish authenticity of those who do worship at its feet. As we read in our Holy Scriptures, what doth the LORD require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God. Not what doth the LORD require of thee, but to eat kosher, complicate the Sabbath, and to walk halachically with thy God.

  9. avatar

    The author seriuosly needs to study about jewish history more deeply…. I would recommend Rabbi Berel Wein history of the jewish people…. I cant believe that you as a jew would want to Israel to become a secular democracy! You sound like yhe hellenist greeks. We need haredi frum jews to be the golden standard. I cant believe how foolish I was to think this way years ago…. PS There are tens of thousands of russian and ethiopian jews who could serve in IDF that get out of it! Just like the rich college students who didnt go into ww2 korea and veitnam… Why arent you speaking out on this matter? You did not even recognize zionism or the state of Israel until the 1970s! The cheif Rabbi of Israel will never except your conversions…and I dont blame Him! This is why I am now converting as per halachic law! Stop trying to paint frum jews as lazy freeloaders….did you ever study at a frum yeshiva? Try and you will realize how wrong you are… just stay in america with you PhD (goy) attitude!

  10. Larry Kaufman

    Thanks to James Ainoris for calling our attention once again to Rabbi Yoffie’s prophecy about the Israeli religious future.

    Just in the last few weeks, we have seen two examples of Rabbi Yoffie’s vision moving towards becoming reality: the seating of a Reform rabbi on the Jerusalem Religious Council, and the recognition by the Government of Rabbi Miri Gold’s eligibility to be paid by the State as the rabbi of her community.

    My own prophecy is that, the more the Haredi community in Israel over-reaches, the more the chiloni (secular) majority will demand an end to their special privileges, so their current excesses will be the drivers of accelerated change. Ken yehi ratzon, may this come to pass.

  11. avatar

    I have to make clear that I violated one of the Rebbe s (chassidus) principles….negative talk about another human being ….. lashron hara…. The Chabad Rebbe s idea of bringing in all the jews regardless of their errors and misguided principles…. I greatly admire secular jews who champion social justice and human rights they have done many good righteous things for mankind…I used to one of you.. and thought this was the answer like many maskilim… however as I became older and my university ego faded I came to understand the world in a more realistic way… there is good and evil! You guys have a utopian vision of the world much like frum jews and mosiach…Israel is a TORAH defined land ..its borders and mitzvos There are currently 87 mitzvos that can be observed without HaSHems temple. We have thousands of secular laws here in america and most obey such laws of man.I spoke out of fustration and emotion and I apologize I maintain that any jews that claim HaSHem s TORAH is outdated is very wrong.

  12. avatar

    PLEASE DONT SAY YOU WILL PUT IDOLS AT THE KOTEL….LOL. JEWS WITH THIS TYPE OF VISION (SADUCEES, KAIRITES, SAMARITANS st al) were ultimately proven wrong and are now gone… Maskilim(haskalah) is an ego based deviation due to ones arrogance of intellectual self. When a person begins to think that HaShem makes mistakes or changes his mind using contemporary social conditions or secular logic he or she is no longer following Judaism…eg in the 12th century the goy didnt wash hands or bath… dumped sewage out window and drank same water…. now we “know” thats deadly… but would you have said this is a obsolete halachic law if Reform was around then? I worked in nuclear physics and came to find that for every answer there is a new question …often defying modern logic…. read this book: Mind over matter written by the Lubavitch Rabbi Schneerson. He was an engineer and worked in science for the US Navy. His work is still classified. In this book he has intense discussions with top physicists. Shalom

Leave a Reply