The religious revolution is coming to Israel
The revolution is coming—the religious revolution, that is.
At some point in the relatively near future, sweeping changes will be made in the laws that govern religion in the Jewish state. I say that because the debate about such matters, both in Israel and among American Jews, is more heated now than it has been in decades.
Usually, religious concerns recede at a time of political crisis. But today, we see that despite multiple crises—the war in Gaza, the UN resolution on a Palestinian state, and the tensions over settlements—religious issues and religious freedom are at the top of the agenda in the Jewish world.
Let’s look at some indications of turmoil on religious matters:
1. American Jews have become passionately concerned about the right of women to pray at the Western Wall. An important factor here is the political sophistication of Women of the Wall, who have not permitted the story to die. Even more important is that Americans Jews, deeply committed to equality for women, are simply shocked by the absurd spectacle regularly described in the press: Israeli police, at the behest of religious authorities, are spending countless hours preventing any woman from putting on a tallit at the Wall—as if the halakhically-permitted act of a woman wearing a tallit while praying were somehow Israel’s biggest problem right now.
2. The largest American Jewish communal organizations, which once shunned like the plague religious matters in Israel other than the “Who is a Jew” question, have now turned their attention to these issues in a major way. For example, the American Jewish Committee recently convened a colloquium focused on the deficiencies of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate, following up on a statement the Committee made in June suggesting that the Chief Rabbinate be transformed into “a largely ceremonial and ritualistic office.” And at the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America held in Baltimore last month, URJ President Rabbi Rick Jacobs’ stirring speech calling for religious freedom in Israel was greeted with tumultuous applause.
3. Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, Rosh Yeshiva of the Hesder Yeshiva of Petach Tikva, after a visit to the United States, called for the government of Israel to recognize Reform Judaism, noting that government recognition is not the same as halakhic approval and that current government policy is alienating Diaspora Jews. Shortly after his return, subjected once again to the narrow prejudices of the religious establishment, Cherlow began to backtrack, but his points, of course, are sensible, compelling, and absolutely correct.
4. Most important of all, Israelis have stubbornly refused to forget about the most sensitive religious issue on Israel’s agenda: The urgent need to bring Haredi men into the workforce and into the army. In a sad display of political cowardice, Israel’s political leadership refused the opportunity for major reform earlier this year, even though it had the votes to do so. Nonetheless, with the number of Haredi army exemptions reaching almost 60,000, awareness of the issue is high, demonstrations continue, and Israelis are demanding solutions and fairness.
I am realistic. Change will not come overnight. Yair Lapid, who has strong views on these matters, has downplayed religious issues in his campaign. And Avigdor Liberman, in theory a champion of religious freedom, has betrayed his party’s principles again and again, producing virtually nothing in the religious realm.
But American Jews are aroused on these issues as never before, and Israelis are as well. As Hiddush has demonstrated in its yearly Religion and State Index, the most acute conflict within Israeli society is the one between secular Jews and ultra-Orthodox Jews. These tensions can be addressed with constructive change that can narrow the gap and bring the Jewish world together, while strengthening Judaism in the process. Like it or not, Israeli politicians will need to respond.