Orthodox vs. Orthodox: Inside One of the Fiercest Battles Raging in the Jewish World

From women rabbis to LGBTQ rights, the list of issues dividing Orthodox Jews keeps growing. Will the religious pendulum swing away from the hardliners?

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A member of the American LGBTQ community praying next to an ultra-Orthodox man at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City, May 2016.
A member of the American LGBTQ community praying next to an ultra-Orthodox man at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City, May 2016.Credit: Eyal Warshavsky
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

More than 200 Orthodox rabbis publish a letter describing members of the LGBTQ community as “perverts” engaged in “aggressive terrorism.” Close to 100 Orthodox rabbis respond with a letter calling their “LGBTQ brothers and sisters” a “precious group of people” deserving of love and respect.

This recent exchange, prompted by a new Israeli law that denies surrogacy rights to gay men, serves to illustrate the deepening divides within Orthodoxy. In Israel, where the ultra-Orthodox-dominated Chief Rabbinate controls most aspects of Jewish religious life, these fault lines have become even more glaring.

>> Analysis: The unavoidable obstacle to LGBTQ equality, religious pluralism and a liberal Israel: It’s the occupation, stupid

Adam Scheier, Elazar Stern and Seth Farber , a Modern Orthodox rabbi and director of ITIM: The Jewish-Life Information CenterCredit: Aviad Weizman

“There have always been divisions within Orthodoxy,” says Rabbi Seth Farber, the founder and director of ITIM, an organization that helps people deal with the Rabbinate and its bureaucracy. “But the playing field is changing, so there are many new issues to fight about.”

Farber, for example, has been a driving force behind Giyur K’Halacha, an association of more than 40 Orthodox rabbis who perform conversions in Israel outside the framework of the Rabbinate. In the two years since this private initiative was launched, its rabbis have converted roughly 600 Israelis, the overwhelming majority of them immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

An argument breaks out during a conference on Jewish conversions Credit: Emil Salman

In past decades, the main issue dividing the Orthodox world was the integration of women into Jewish religious life. Should women be allowed to learn Talmud? Should they be allowed to lead prayer services? Should they be allowed to read from the Torah or even to hold a Torah scroll? And, most important, should they be allowed to become clergy?

Smicha - rabbinical ordination - for women is one of the most contentious issues in Orthodox Judaism today Credit: Emil Salman

“These are still big issues in the Orthodox world,” notes Yitzhak Ajzner, an Australian-born Israeli rabbi active in the liberal camp. “But there have definitely been major achievements in this regard over the past 20 or so years. Things that were totally outside the camp have moved into the borders of Orthodoxy, the most glaring example being smicha [rabbinical ordination] for women. You can almost define yourself today on where you are in the Orthodox spectrum by what you hold on that very topic.”

But the movement is now struggling with a host of other issues. As the recent rabbinical exchange of letters attests, attitudes toward the LGBTQ community have become as, if not more, divisive an issue, and in Israel specifically, the Orthodox community has grown increasingly split over whether or not women should be encouraged to serve in the army and how much, if any, control the Rabbinate should maintain over marriage and divorce, conversions and kashrut.

Religious pendulum

A Hanukkah menorah colored in LGBTQ flag colorsCredit: Brian Schaefer

On the conservative side of the Israeli Orthodox spectrum sit the Rabbinate and its loyalists, many of whom signed the letter attacking the LGBTQ community. These rabbis continue to view non-heterosexuals as sinners who should be shunned from their synagogues. If it were up to them, women would never be allowed to receive rabbinical ordination, and only marriages, divorces, conversions and kashrut certificates sanctioned by the Rabbinate would be recognized in the country. Across the Atlantic, these are the views largely endorsed by the two main organizations that represent the mainstream Orthodox movement—the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) and the Orthodox Union (OU).

Tzohar rabbis present their kushrut certificate Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Somewhat to the left of the Rabbinate is Tzohar, an association of Orthodox rabbis in Israel who strive to make religious rituals more palatable to non-observant Jews. Tzohar originally focused its attention on weddings, offering secular Israelis alternative ceremonies conducted by friendlier rabbis. These ceremonies were nonetheless sanctioned by the Rabbinate.

In recent years, however, the organization has spanned out, posing a more direct challenge to the authority of the Rabbinate. Among other initiatives, Tzohar rabbis are active in the Giyur K’Halacha independent conversion courts, as well as a brand-new private kashrut certification service that circumvents the Rabbinate.

A Jewish worshipper uses his mobile phone to record worshippers who are covered in prayer shawls as they recite the priestly blessing at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old CityCredit: \ BAZ RATNER/ REUTERS

More to the left of Tzohar is Beit Hillel, an organization of progressive-minded Israeli rabbis founded six years ago that regularly issues opinions and position papers on topical issues. Two years ago, Beit Hillel broke ground when it published a first-of-its-kind proclamation in support of gays and lesbians, calling on the Orthodox movement to be more accepting and tolerant of them. At the same time, however, it stopped short of accepting the entire LGBTQ community and also noted that the Torah, in no uncertain terms, forbids homosexual relations.

The more recent proclamation of solidarity with the LGBTQ community, signed by 100 Orthodox rabbis, went far beyond that. Not only did it refer to the entire LGBGTQ community, but it also refrained from mentioning that the Torah regards homosexuality as an “abomination.” The driving force behind this initiative was Torat Chayim, an association of American and Israeli rabbis founded two years ago that, in many ways, has come to represent the far-left spectrum of Orthodoxy (although many on the right would consider them beyond the pale). Beit Hillel, it is noteworthy, refused to endorse the letter. And although Beit Hillel includes some female rabbis in its ranks, it does not actively encourage women to pursue rabbinical ordination, as Torat Chayim does. Moreover, although Beit Hillel has expressed its reservations about the way the Rabbinate operates, its official position is that Israelis should wed through the Rabbinate.

Still, there are quite a few Orthodox rabbis in Israel—some out in the open, but most under the radar—who perform weddings outside the auspices of the Rabbinate. Two months ago, in fact, a group of them launched a crowd-funding campaign aimed at promoting such weddings free of charge.

“I think that what we are seeing is a kind of backlash to the stranglehold of the Haredim [ultra-Orthodox Jews], which is expressing itself in a whole range of things,” says Samuel Heilman, a professor of Jewish studies at Queens College who is a leading authority on the Orthodox movement. “And now the progressives are fighting back.”

An Orthodox Jewish man heads for synagogue in JerusalemCredit: © Shai Ginott/CORBIS

Many of those leading the fight in Israel, he said, are American immigrants, and not by coincidence. “Progressive Orthodoxy has its origins in the United States,” says Heilman.

This backlash is also finding expression in the Israeli Army, where growing numbers of Orthodox women are defying their rabbis and signing up for military service. Indeed, recent figures show that since 2010, the number of Orthodox women joining the army has virtually tripled. Most Orthodox rabbis in Israel, including the more liberal among them, oppose military service for women, especially in co-ed units. A small, but growing number, however, are falling in line with the new trend.

If Orthodoxy seems to be increasingly up in arms against itself, says Heilman, it may be because the movement itself is growing. “The larger a group becomes, the less likely that one size will fit all,” he notes.

Back in the 1950s and 1960s, he recalls, Modern Orthodoxy was considered “the wave of the future,” and many observers believed that the ultra-Orthodox world would “atrophy and die.”

“Then the pendulum started swinging in the other direction, toward the right, and people started talking about the death of Modern Orthodoxy,” he notes. “That, too, proved to be premature.”

Which way will things go? It’s hard to tell, says Heilman. “It could even end up in a draw,” he adds. “But in many ways, the most interesting developments in Orthodoxy today are happening on the modernist side—as a reaction to the slide to the right.”

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