MK Aliza Lavie (Yesh Atid) last week came under fire from Conservative Jewish rabbis at their annual international conference, after she told them she would support legislation allowing non-Orthodox rabbis to administer civil marriages in Israel — leaving the Orthodox Jewish Chief Rabbinate with a monopoly on Jewish marriages.
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“My fear is that world Jewry is becoming deeply alienated from Israel,” said Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, chief executive of the assembly, adding that Israel's attitude toward non-Orthodox branches of Judaism could one day mean, “Israel finds itself alone when facing a nuclear Iran, confronting a world which, taking sides, blames Israel for its very existence.”
Lavie, the chairwoman of the Knesset's Committee on the Status of Women and Gender Equality, was a guest speaker at the annual convention of The Rabbinical Assembly, the international association of Conservative rabbis, which was held this year in Dallas, Texas. Shonfeld introduced Lavie as “an activist and leader in ideas relating to women’s affairs,” and the attendees could be assumed to be sympathetic to the MK. But Lavie's speech sparked sharp criticism of her, the Knesset and the Rabbinate.
In her speech, Lavie said a bill she will present to the Knesset this summer, together with MK Ruth Calderon (Yesh Atid), would allow Conservative and Reform rabbis to conduct civil marriages. But she made it clear that the bill would not reform the Orthodox-controlled Jewish marriage institutions.
““You’ll have to forgive us if we drop some of our American manners today,” Schonfeld told Lavie after the speech. “But the Knesset devotes time to dealing with rabbinical affairs, telling us we’re not Jews, that a Conservative wedding has to be a civil marriage since it’s not Jewish, telling us in many ways that we’re of a different faith. Yesh Atid must intervene and put a stop to this, otherwise there will be no Jewish people to speak of or a world Jewry left to defend Israel. If you delay in addressing this issue, it will be too late, and you will have lost the world’s Jews.”
She continued, "We must proceed much faster and be much more courageous if we want the Jewish people to stay united. I understand if people say it’s a long process that will take time. I’d like you to take this message from the Rabbinical Assembly back to your colleagues: Take your time, but we’re losing people in the meantime. There are 3.5 million Reform and Conservative Jews, not counting the 20 percent of those of who are not completely affiliated. We can’t see the logic of your actions. We’re more understanding than you can imagine, we know Jewish law. We have Jewish fervor and wish to be your partners, but we can’t afford to be silent, we owe this to the Jewish people and to Israel. We’ll debate with love, remembering that the alternative, a schism within the Jewish people, would be intolerable. “
In response, Lavie said she feels isolated in the Knesset in her quest for tolerance for non-Orthodox branches of Judaism. She praised the chairman of Yesh Atid, Finance Minister Yair Lapid, but admitted there are Knesset members “who don’t really care.”
“Even Yesh Atid has 19 MK’s with differing opinions. I want to talk to you frankly, without barriers between us," she said. “Israel lacks figures like you, who are performing sacred work. There aren’t enough rabbis like you. We have so much to learn from your sensitivity. We are not as kind or considerate in Israel.”
Lavie noted that even at events held by Tzohar, a movement of Modern Orthodox rabbis, there is no room for Conservative rabbis. “The reality is a painful one, and things move slowly there. I can’t break relations with Israel’s rabbinate. It’s very complicated,” she said.
Rabbi Menachem Creditor said, “With all due respect, in your book on women’s prayers, you were like a prophet, clearly presenting our faith, but now you sound like a politician. Our rabbis in Israel, whom you didn’t name, are courageous, but the rabbinate is awful, corrupt, and you sound like a politician. My tolerance is limited. I don’t want a parallel marriage system. I want services that our rabbis are qualified to conduct. You can’t expect us to remain silent just to maintain peace between us.”