After Decades-long Rift, Religious Zionism Moves Toward Acceptance of Conservative Jewry

Bennett's visit to a Conservative Jewish school in the U.S. is just one sign of a new phase in the relationship between Israel's religious communities and non-Orthodox movements.

Rabbi David Lau and Education Minister Naftali Bennett.
Olivieh Fitoussi

Israel’s Chief Rabbi sought to chastise, but ended up doing the opposite. A week and a half ago, during an interview with the ultra-Orthodox radio station “Kol Chai,” Rabbi David Lau criticized Education Minister Naftali Bennett’s visit to a Conservative Jewish day school in Manhattan, but ended up making Bennett the hero of the day among many Jews in the United States, who came out in praise of the visit of the Orthodox party leader to a non-Orthodox school.

His visit to the Solomon Schechter school in New York stirred up some interest in real time, as he proudly tweeted “Meeting with students at Conservative Solomon Schechter school in New York. So much love for Israel, so much love for Judaism.” Rabbi Lau’s criticism made the visit significantly more interesting, and highlighted the fact that such a visit from a religious party leader is still a rare thing, almost a pioneering move. Responses from American Jews were quick to follow. Jewish non-ultra-Orthodox media outlets, social media and organizations like the Jewish Federations, for example, were full of statements calling Rabbi Lau’s condemnation a “mistake,” and insisting that “Bennett’s leadership should be praised and not criticized.” The Conservative Rabbinical Assembly stated that “Rabbi Lau should learn from minister Bennett and visit schools like these, instead of criticizing those who do.”

Unnoticed, however, was the silence of the religious Zionist movement in Israel. Unexpectedly, almost no one attacked Bennett and his visit. Contact with non-Orthodox Jews has always been a glaring red line for that community. Condemnation came from a small group of conservative (with a lowercase c) rabbis who joined in on Rabbi Lau’s attacks, many of whom have been vocal critics of Bennett in the past.

The Conservative school visit is part of a political campaign Bennett has been running over the past few weeks, aimed at becoming the voice of Israeli nationhood, while at the same time turning that nationhood into a fruitful asset among the national Zionist community, large swathes of which became fed up with the government during the disengagement from Gaza a decade ago.

His most dramatic statements of late have been aimed at Jewish terror. They’re dramatic because they're dangerous for him (they aren’t popular with some portions of his base) and even more dramatic because of their results: The great majority of the knitted-kippa community, including rabbis and educators, were quick to toe the line. This happened before the video clip of the hateful wedding celebrations was released. Bennett’s statements also caused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to offer his backing to the Shin Bet, so as not to fall behind. In the meantime, as education minister, Bennett has declared plans to build an Arabic college in the north, another sign of nationhood. In this context, Bennett reverted this week back into his old self — and no one knows how for how long — from his first days as head of Habayit Hayehudi, the independent politician that had the rabbis following behind in step, and not the other way around. Because of this, the more conservative elements of his constituency have been slow to criticize, or they’ve done so halfheartedly.

Bennett, also the diaspora affairs minister, set standards with the Reform and Conservative movements three years ago, when he began making public appearances at their conferences to advance various initiatives. But it’s not only Bennett. One must note, very cautiously, that a new phase has begun in the relationship between Israel's various religious communities and the non-Orthodox movements. When Netanyahu declared while in the U.S. last November that he would work to bolster non-Orthodox communities in Israel, only the ultra-Orthodox parties slammed him for it. Habayit Hayehudi and most of its rabbis remained silent. They also kept quiet when President Reuven Rivlin participated in a Hanukkah candle lighting ceremony led by a female Reform rabbi at the White House.

For comparison's sake, it’s important to note the controversy that erupted within the religious Zionist community when Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, who runs a yeshiva as well as Tzohar, an organization dedicated to moderate Orthodox rabbinic leadership, cautiously proposed in a letter to his students upon returning from a troubling visit to Jewish communities in the U.S. that Israel formally recognize the Reform and Conservative movements. (In the same letter, he had another more groundbreaking idea: To declare a "halachic state of emergency," and recognize non-halachic norms belonging to Reform Jews, like conversion and driving to synagogue on Shabbat, if that was the only way to keep them connected to Judaism.) Many rabbis attacked Cherlow, including Tzhoar, which distanced itself from him, stating that “it opposed formal recognition of the Reform movement, its conversions and its practices.”

At the moment, Tzohar is keeping quiet, neither backing Bennett nor attacking him. On the other hand, more conservative figures like Rabbi Haim Drukman and even MK Bezalel Smotrich, who gave an interview on the subject to Army Radio, supported Bennett while noting his “secular” position as diaspora affairs minister. Both remained firm in their dedication to rejecting recognition of Reform and Conservative Jews’ religious practices. MK Moti Yogev, from the more conservative faction of Habayit Hayehudi, openly admitted to meeting dozens of Reform and Conservative students who visited the Knesset last week.

In response to the current controversy, the right-wing religious weekly Makor Rishon published a special feature which included unprecedented praise for Conservative Judaism. It’s been a long time since calls to boycott Conservative and Reform Jews could be found in the paper, but the response to the recent scandal was unusual. The first to write for the project was Bennett himself, who is usually honored by the paper. Bennett called for “opening up the house.” “Those who wish to lead Israel cannot allow themselves a purist approach,” he wrote. Yoav Sorek wrote an article ironically entitled “Conservatives, Heaven forbid!” and delved deep into the history of the Conservative movement in the U.S. and its differences from the Reform movement. The article concludes that the halachic divider between Conservative Jews and some Modern Orthodox Jews is “very blurry.” The article was accompanied by a photograph of Conservative youth in Brazil, boys and girls, wearing tefillin. In another article, Rabbi Yisrael Rozin, not exactly a liberal, said that the struggle against Reform and Conservative Judaism has become “passe.”

Rabbi Gilad Kariv, Executive Director of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism, predicts, based on the current developments, that by Shavuot — within half a year — national Zionist rabbis will no longer be able to boycott their Reform and Conservative counterparts. “Like with other communities and groups, we’re seeing today that the trends of slander and supporting discrimination of the movements is no longer politically correct. It remains okay for the ultra-Orthodox parties, and the attacks on Rabbi Lau are evidence for that," he said.

"So it’s not ideal, and we haven’t finished our journey toward a consensus. The National Religious Party will defend its monopoly on the Rabbinate, but boycotting us is no longer politically correct," he continued. "Of course this happens within the secular-traditional community, with Netanyahu and President Ruvi Rivilin, who boycotted us only six months ago, and now participates in a candle lighting ceremony with a female reform rabbi at the White House. Today, Rabbi Rick Jacobs [head of the Reform movement in the U.S.] meets with Netanyahu during almost every visit to Israel. In the days of Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert, such a meeting would be a big deal.”