Prominent Orthodox Rabbi Calls on Israel to Recognize Reform Judaism

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Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, a prominent Zionist Orthodox rabbi, has said it is necessary to “re-examine” the framework of rabbinical law so that the Jewish communities abroad will be able to absorb more Jews who are not religiously observant. He also called on Israel, for the first time, to recognize non-Orthodox streams of Judaism, including Reform conversions.

In the wake of a visit to the United States, Cherlow has written to his students that the fact that the fate of American Jewry is not on the Israeli agenda “is confronting us with a harsh reality in which we are committing suicide, endangering the existence of the state of Israel and moving away from our fundamental role in the world, ‘And all the families of the earth are blessed with you.’”

Cherlow holds a number of positions – he is head of the hesder yeshiva (an arrangement combining Torah study and military service for Orthodox males of conscription age) in Petah Tikva, one of the heads of the Tzohar organization of rabbis, a member of the Takana forum board and more. He is considered a leader of the liberal line in the religious public and as someone who often deals publicly with personal and social issues such as the distress of religious gays.

In response to the reports, Tzohar distanced itself from Cherlow's remarks, saying that it "opposes any official recognition of Reform Judaism by the State of Israel, in terms of conversions or its general way." It added that, "it should be noted that the topic was addressed in an internal discussion in the Yeshiva, and does not necessarily reflect Cherlow's views or interpretation of halacha."  

The conservative wing tends to attack him. In 2009 the Internet site Ynet reported a strong statement by another prominent rabbi, Ramat Gan hesder yeshiva head Rabbi Yehoshua Shapira, who bemoaned neo-Reform rabbis in the Orthodox sector, inter alia referring by implication to Cherlow’s ruling that allowed a single religious woman of 36 to become pregnant without getting married in certain conditions. “For this it is necessary to rend – both our garment and the public (as a sign of mourning). We cannot come to terms with Reform!” Shapira said at the time.

Cherlow still keeps his distance from the non-Orthodox streams of Judaism and for years now, for example, he has tried to avoid events at which he would have to sit beside Reform and Conservative speakers, but now he is taking one more step toward dialogue with them.

Upon his return from the United States, he wrote to his students at the hesder yeshiva a letter about his impressions from the trip and especially his impressions of the high rates of assimilation among Jews overseas. He complained that the Torah and the state of Israel are losing their historical roles in shaping the identities of Jews in the diaspora.

The state, wrote the Orthodox rabbi to his students, comes across among non-Orthodox Jews in the United States as “something they don’t want to identify with, because of the occupation, the racism, the control of another people by force … A second reason is the fact that they are not wanted here: The religious movements to which they belong are not recognized and also those who are not affiliated with any stream of Judaism do not want to identify with a state where the Orthodox have a monopoly; their conversions are not recognized, nor are their prayers (Women of the Wall) and so on.”

It should be noted that last month, Union for Reform Judaism president Rabbi Rick Jacobs warned of “the worst kind of disengagement” on the part of American Jewry. Jacobs told Haaretz that the friction in matters of religion and state in Israel, such as the harassment of the Women of the Wall, is leading to a situation in which “North American Jews don’t see an Israel that reflects their core values.”

Cherlow wrote to his students that now it is necessary to have a “definition for the time in rabbinical law,” as for a time of emergency, in which the end justifies the means even if this entails bending or even breaking certain rabbinical rulings. He says this is the first time in his rabbinical legal writing that he has used the principle of “It is time for thee, Lord, to work; for they have made void thy law” (Psalms 119:126), which he proposes to apply as a consideration in rabbinical law on a number of issues.

He notes for example, “driving to a Conservative synagogue on the Sabbath; considerations in conversion; things done by Reb Shlomo Carlebach of blessed memory; bringing Reform Jews into a prayer quorum and in general cooperation with various streams and so on.”

At the same time, Cherlow proposes creating separation between the position of rabbinical law and the policy of the state of Israel. On the part of the state, he talks about “a willingness to recognize” the non-Orthodox streams including their conversions and including funding for them in accordance with their size and more. He brings up a proposal – which has also been raised during the past two years both by the movement in Israel and by the Orthodox Ne'emanei Torah Va'Avodah movement – to fund the provision of religious services by the method of the free market and competition among the steams for the hearts of believers in Israel. 

According to Cherlow, by such a method “the truth,” by which he means Orthodox Judaism, would retain its primacy: Cherlow calls for “conducting the struggle against them in a free market atmosphere; and increasing separation between religion and politics from within our inner belief that the truth will prevail and does not need the power of the state in order to determine individuals’ status and the like.” According to him, this separation already exists in that the religious public is prepared to embrace any right-wing politician, even if he is far from observing rabbinical law. “Why is this separation,” wrote Cherlow, “not valid with respect to the struggle for the Jewish people?”

Rabbi Gilad Kariv, executive director of the Movement for Progressive Judaism, has told Haaretz in response: “Rabbi Chelow’s remarks give an opening for hope because despite the great disagreements it will be possible in the future to arrive at mutual understandings among all the streams of Judaism on a basis of mutual respect.” Kariv added: “It is to be hoped that this statement will not remain in the theoretical realm only but will lead to support from significant figures in Orthodox Zionism for a change in the relations between religions and state and to the advancement of the state's recognition of all the streams and colorations of Judaism.”

Yizhar Hess, Executive Director and CEO of the Masorti Movement in Israel, responded: "We congratulate Rabbi Cherlow and hope that this will not be his undoing. Undoubtedly, this is a welcome, important, even historic, change of position. Rabbi Cherlow might not represent the mainstream of Zionist Orthodoxy in Israel, which is becoming more extreme, but he is a clever student and reflects a clear and brave voice, deep and attentive, and there are many who listen to him. Jewish pluralism is not a necessary evil – it is a life-drug. Seventy faces to the Torah –seventy faces of Jewish existence today, and we can only benefit from these many faces. The state of Israel will be a more democratic Jewish state when it treats all streams of Judaism with equality, respect and love." 

Reform Jewish women doing a practice run for a bat mitzvah.Credit: Lior Mizrahi/Baubau
Rabbi Yuval Cherlow. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

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