Moderate Rabbis Are All Around Us, Even in Israel

Aluf Benn exposed a fundamental blind spot in his view of Israeli rabbis by failing to acknowledge the hundreds of non-Orthodox Jewish leaders in Israel, and their followers, who oppose the Chief Rabbinate’s archaic definition of Judaism.

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In his recent article "There Are No Moderate Rabbis", Haaretz Editor-in-Chief Aluf Benn makes an important contribution to the public's understanding of what motivates and guides Rabbi David Stav and the Tzohar organization of rabbis he represents.

Based on a previous interview with Stav, Benn concludes that Tzohar rabbis seek to maintain the Chief Rabbinate’s existing balance of power, limiting Israelis' freedom of choice and freedom of expression, especially regarding issues of marriage. Regrettably, however, in arguing that there are no moderate rabbis in Israel, Benn ignores the hundreds of rabbis - be they Reform, Conservative, or even Orthodox - that do not affiliate with Israel’s Chief Rabbinate, and work to behave purely as spiritual figures, rather than guards of the Rabbinate's abusive political power.

Benn's insights into Tzohar and the dynamics of the Chief Rabbinate are important, but he accepts and uses the definition of “rabbi” that was determined by the very rabbis he condemns. Their narrow-minded definition is not accepted by the hundreds of thousands of Israelis that define themselves as Conservative or Reform Jews, and even less so by the millions of Jews abroad who identify with these movements. Non-Orthodox Israelis who are searching for Jewish meaning in their lives find it outside the definitions of Judaism that the Chief Rabbinate would prefer to force upon society. According to a survey by the Avichai Foundation and the Guttman Institute, about 500,000 Israelis self-identify as Conservative or Reform Jews, and 61 percent of the Jewish-Israeli public believes that the state should recognize these movements.

The rabbis Benn refers to in his article - whom he says will never be moderate - all belong to the government-endorsed Chief Rabbinate.

Benn should not view Judaism in the black and white way that archaic establishment does. Instead, he should consider the diversity in the way the majority of Israelis view Judaism; they understand that the Torah is complex, as are those who teach it, and they recognize the hundreds of rabbis who lead innovative synagogues and study groups, and inspire public discourse.

These leaders - many of whom studied at the Schechter Institute affiliated with Conservative Judaism or the Reform Movement's Hebrew Union College - do not try to force a certain brand of Judaism upon their congregations, nor do they dictate one way of life. Rather, they aim to help Jewish Israelis connect with their Jewish identities, practices and beliefs, as each individual sees fit. In doing so, these leaders create open and accepting communities where individuals gather to practice Judaism together.

The Israel of 2013 - in which a female member of Knesset dedicates her opening speech to teaching Talmud, thousands of young people study Jewish texts just for the sake of learning, and many more regularly attend synagogues across the Jewish spectrum to celebrate religious holidays and lifecycle events - evidences that modern Israeli Jews are rejecting the old dichotomy of religious versus secular. The Israelis of today are open-minded, newly defining their Jewish identities and searching for it in the spectrum of Jewish streams, including cultural Judaism, Reform Judaism, Conservative Judaism, and yes, Moderate Orthodox Judaism.

At first glance, Benn's article seems to attack all rabbis and the rabbinate as a profession, but a close reading makes clear that he intended to say that there are no moderate Chief Rabbinate rabbis, and there will be no such moderate rabbis so long as the Chief Rabbinate is part of a political system with coercive power. At the end of his editorial, Benn writes that "those who wish to observe halakha can choose their rabbis and go on their way". The Israeli public has already internalized this instruction and is choosing its rabbis, many of whom are not affiliated with the Chief Rabbinate. The change that Benn wants to see in the future - in which the Israeli majority votes with its feet and causes a change in the government policy - has already started. Now, Benn has an important role as a public figure to spread the word of positive change and not only attack the problematic institution. Only that change in discourse will succeed in bringing about true political and social change.

We in the Masorti movement believe that our path is right for us and for many others, as the current reality and research show. Yet, we also believe that our path is not the only right path to Judaism, and that every person should choose the path that is right for him or her. As such, we have no interest in replacing the current Chief Rabbinate leaders. Instead, we prefer to focus our efforts on creating a vibrant form of Judaism that allows complete freedom of expression, choice, and religion for all Israelis, so that every Jew can follow the path that is most appropriate for him or her without government interference.

Every Israeli should have the legal right to marry with whatever rabbi he or she chooses, as well as the right to marry without a rabbi at all. The source of Benn’s outrage, as we understand it, is the control that is being held over all Jews, the lack of free religious choice, the political games that demean religion and hurt our society, the anachronism of an all-powerful governmental Chief Rabbinate. However, we recognize that Israel is witnessing strong waves of pluralistic Judaism led by moderate rabbis. We call on you to recognize those rabbis and the work that they do, so that we may all be partners in promoting moderate Judaism in Israel.

Arie Hasit, a student at the rabbinical seminary of Machon Schechter, serves as the spiritual leader for NOAM- the youth wing of the Masorti Movement in Israel.

Emily Levy-Shochat serves as the Chairperson of the Masorti Movement in Israel. For over 25 years, Emily has been involved with numerous activities and programs related to religious freedom and democracy in Israel.

Members of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate.Credit: Nir Kafri

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