Religious Group Excludes non-Orthodox Rabbis From Shavuot Event

The Tzavta Tel Aviv theater allows the snub for the second straight year.

Moti Milrod

Tzohar, a group of moderate Zionist rabbis, has vetoed the participation of Reform and Conservative rabbis in this year’s all-night Shavuot study session next Saturday at the Tzavta Tel Aviv theater.

A raft of political and religious leaders have thus criticized Tzavta for agreeing to cooperate with what some called the exclusion of non-Orthodox streams of Judaism.

A similar dispute erupted at Shavuot last year, when Tzavta officials accepted the ban on the need “to build cooperation” with Tzohar. They said the policy was likely to change.

Leaders of Israel’s Conservative, or Masorti, movement, say they were told by Tzavta that such a change was a “long process” and that they should settle for the invitation sent to an official of the movement who is not a rabbi.

“The secular community that plans to attend should know that it is not a pluralistic event that genuinely welcomes all streams of Judaism,” MK Tamar Zandberg (Meretz) said.

This year’s Tzohar-organized tikkun leyl will be the fifth all-night Shavuot study session at Tzavta. Tzohar describes itself on its website as “a powerful national movement of 1,000 Zionist rabbis and women volunteers who are leading the revolution for an ethical, inclusive & inspiring Jewish Israel.”

In promotional materials for the event, it says the annual affair “is considered one of the main tikkun leyl Shavuot events” and that is was “born out of curiosity and a desire to touch the various worlds and text comprising the mosaic of Jewish-Israeli identity.”

The event’s leading organizers include MK Aliza Lavie (Yesh Atid), Tzavta’s Gavri Bargil and Tzohar chairman Rabbi David Stav. Last year around 1,500 people of various levels of religious observance attended the event.

“After explicit, unequivocal promises last year that the refusal to have us would not be repeated, this year too it was decided to exclude non-Orthodox streams,” said the head of the Masorti Movement, Izhar Hess, who was invited to take part. “I’m not a rabbi and I don’t teach Judaism. That’s exactly what Tzohar seeks: the delegitimization of rabbis” who are not Orthodox, he said.

“Tzohar is a private organization that has the right to invite whomever it wants to its events,” says Tomer Persico, a fellow at the Elyachar Center for Studies in Sephardi Heritage at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. “The problem is that although the tikkun is defined as studying “the mosaic of identity,” in practice Tzohar is indicating who stays outside — non-Orthodox movements.

According to Tzohar, there is just one way to be Jewish, the Orthodox way. Secular Jews are invited to attend not because the Tzohar rabbis see secularism as a legitimate Jewish option, but because they see secular Jews as ‘babies who were captured,’” a Talmudic term for Jews who sin inadvertently because they were raised without the benefit of a proper Jewish education.

Persico says that by cooperating with Tzohar’s exclusionary tactics, Tzavta helps to perpetuate the Orthodox stranglehold on Judaism in Israel.

Bargil rejects this criticism, saying that Tzavta “created the partnership with Tzohar in order to bring the various denominations closer together. That means all the speakers must be acceptable to all sides. After the participation of the non-Orthodox streams wasn’t supported last year,” Tzohar and Tzavta agreed that Reform and Conservative representatives, but not rabbis, would be invited to take part this year.

Bargil said he hoped that next year rabbis from the non-Orthodox movements would be invited to lead sessions.

“Introducing social change requires great intelligence and patience. There are many tikkun layl Shavuot events for the general public, but the wisdom lies in bringing both religious and nonreligious people to the same place,” said Tzohar’s executive director, Rabbi Moshe Be’eri.

“For that to succeed, there are boundaries that must be respected. That’s why we tried to be creative and invited the head of the Masorti Movement. The message can be the same; why insist that rabbis must be invited? I understand that it bothers them, but you have to take the long view.”