Opinion |

The ultra-Orthodox Clown Show Dictating Israel's Jewish Character

The latest Haredi pseudo-crisis about Shabbat observance shows how much Israel needs its growing non-Orthodox religious movements to offer a different way to express Jewish values for the Jewish state

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie
Eric H. Yoffie
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Haredim protesting against drafting yeshiva students at a demonstration in Jerusalem, March 28, 2017.
Haredim protesting against drafting yeshiva students at a demonstration in Jerusalem, March 28, 2017.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie
Eric H. Yoffie

The religious reality in Israel is not what most people think. Reform Judaism there is growing, thriving, and winning greater acceptance every day. And ultra-Orthodox (Haredi ) Judaism is in crisis, beset by the cowardice and insecurities of its corrupt political leaders.

In recent weeks, the Jewish world has been inundated with stories about Jewish religion in the Jewish state. Making sense of these stories is not easy, especially since non-Orthodox Jews are mostly described as desperate and despairing and Haredi Jews as smugly triumphalist. But this is a deeply distorted picture.

Let’s begin with Reform Jews. Reform Judaism is a small movement in Israel. But driven by Zionist vision and careful planning, it has slowly built an infrastructure consisting of settlements, synagogues, schools, a lobbying center, and a youth movement.

The movement’s most important decision was to expand its rabbinical seminary in Jerusalem and to step up its recruitment of native Israelis to be trained as Reform rabbis. Its calculation was simple: Reform Judaism will not be vibrant in Israel without Israeli-born rabbis to lead, direct, and inspire it.

Ultra-Orthodox men argue with Reform worshipers during a mixed prayer service at the Western Wall, in Jerusalem, June 2016.Credit: Emil Salman

Two weeks ago, the Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem reached a critical milestone: It ordained its 100th Israeli Reform rabbi. These young sabra rabbis bring impatience and new ideas to the Reform establishment, unsettling and disrupting settled ways of thinking. (A good thing, of course.)

And reared and rooted in Israeli culture, they also bring optimism, energy, and a sure sense of Israel’s spiritual needs. With numbers sufficient to make a difference, they are carrying progressive Judaism to those corners of the Jewish state where its presence has not yet been felt.

Will Israelis be open to what they hear? Many will. Those who think that there are virtually no Reform and Conservative Jews in Israel should look at a study reported last week in Israel’s Yediot Ahronot. Conducted by the Reform movement, it showed that more Israelis define themselves as Reform (7%) and Conservative (4%), when the two are combined, than as ultra-Orthodox (10%). The number of self-defined Reform Jews has doubled since a similar poll was taken in 2010.

Also encouraging is that a majority of secular Jews said that, in the past year, they have attended a wedding or bar mitzvah ceremony conducted by a Reform or Conservative rabbi. And on a range of other issues – supporting Women of the Wall, preferring egalitarian prayer, and expressing criticism of the Chief Rabbinate - a majority of the Jewish population supports the Reform position.

And how is the haredi world doing? To judge from its leadership, it is a divided, bickering, hysterical mess. Its two major parties, supposedly committed to enhancing Torah, spend their time arm-wrestling with each other and fighting off internal dissension.

Members of the Israeli security forces spray water as they try to remove ultra-Orthodox Jews from blocking the road in a demonstration against Israeli army conscription in Jerusalem, October 23, 2017.Credit: Emil Salman

There are approximately 800,000 haredim in Israel, and the haredi masses yearn for an authentic Judaism that will address the real problems of their world. But what their leaders offer is something else: An ongoing clown show, intended to serve narrow interests and bolster this or that political faction at the expense of its rivals.

If this sounds harsh, consider the recent outbreak of the "Shabbat wars". It was a ludicrous farce, from beginning to end.

Rabbi Yaakov Alter is the leader of the Gur Hasidic sect, the largest Hasidic group in Israel. The Rebbe professes to be devoted to the cause of Shabbat observance in and by the Jewish state. When the Hasidic press discovered that Israel Railways was doing maintenance work on Shabbat, Rabbi Alter ordered Health Minister Yaakov Litzman to resign from the cabinet.

Litzman and other disciples of the Rebbe proceeded to issue a stream of statements about the value of the holy Sabbath and their outrage at its desecration. A red line has been crossed, they proclaimed, and they could no longer sit in a government that undermined the eternal values of the Jewish people. There would be no compromise, they said. And they demanded that the work stop.

Reform Jewish women from U.S. ordered to lift shirts, skirts before entering Western Wall. File Picture: Tisha B'Av prayer at the KotelCredit: REUTERS

But everyone in Israel knew that the work would not stop.

Israel is not 18th century Poland. It is a modern, industrialized democracy. If Israel Railways could not repair its tracks on Shabbat, when traffic is light, it would have to do so during the week. And this would lead to chaos and long delays for commuters, massive traffic jams on the highways, and disaster for Israel’s economy. No Israeli government, of the right or the left, could permit such a scenario.

And so guess what? The oh-so-religious and oh-so-observant religious politicians—the ones who could not possibly compromise—compromised anyway, and went back to working with the Shabbat-desecrating government.

In theory, Israel Railways officials made some concessions on minimizing repair work on Shabbat. Concerns of Jewish tradition would be “taken into account” (whatever that means) and, when possible, more non-Jewish workers would be hired for the repairs. (Nothing enhances the dignity of the Jewish state like hiring more “Shabbes goys” to do government work.) But none of this seemed to amount to much.

So why in heaven’s name did the Gur Hasidim initiate this fiasco? It is not clear. It appears that adjustments will be made in other legislation relating to Shabbat. And who knows? Perhaps the 75,000 yeshiva students who study Torah instead of serving in the Israel Defense Forces have been promised larger subsidies at some future date.

File photo: American Reform Jews pray at the Western Wall, Feb 25, 2016.Credit: AP

Or perhaps the whole exercise was simply for show, so that Rabbi Alter and his minions could pretend that they were engaging in a holy war on behalf of the sacred Sabbath when in fact they were cranking up their PR machine and stroking their own egos.

What we do know is this: That the cause and the values of Torah were not advanced a jot by this absurd pseudo-crisis, and that the average Israeli responded to the whole affair with dismay and disgust.

And we know something else: That the character of the Sabbath in the Jewish state is a real issue, requiring thoughtful, principled, in-depth discussion. Yet, tragically, the game-playing of Litzman and Rabbi Alter contributed nothing whatever to this discussion.

I would like to believe that the Reform movement in Israel, small but dynamic, young but growing, can add something to this discussion. And I would like to believe that Israeli Jews of all persuasions, religious and non-religious, Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform, also have important things to say about what Shabbat should mean in Israel.

The key is to take these matters out of the hands of the religious politicians, and the sooner the better.

Eric H. Yoffie, a rabbi, writer and teacher in Westfield, New Jersey, is a former president of the Union for Reform Judaism. Twitter: @EricYoffie

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