Posts Tagged With: Pluralism

Taiku! Israeli Masorti Movement Opens Door to Gay Rabbis

Taiku! This is the word the Talmud uses when a debate simply can’t be resolved. Rather than pick one solution the Talmud cries Taiku! Tie! Let it stand! and the parties go onto other issues. We like to think that there is one right way and if people work hard enough they will find it. In reality there were many many times when the Talmud could find no way to resolve a dispute. Forcing a solution only divides a community. Calling “Taiku!” allows the community to stay together even without exact agreement on every issue.

Two Contradictory Opinions

The Conservative movement’s handling of gay unions and ordinations is a modern day example of “Taiku!”. In 2006 the Conservative Movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) took up the issue of the status of homosexuality within Conservative Jewish Halachah. Given the strong feelings on all sides, there was no way to come to a single answer, so the committee accepted two contradictory rulings.

The first of these opinions ( EH 24.2006a ) , by Joel Roth, argued against gay unions and ordinations. Roth was concerned that wholesale rejection of rabbinic bans against homosexual relatinships would put the Conservative movement too far outside the bounds of the halachic community which includes orthodox Jews and not just conservative Jews. Continue reading

Categories: Building a Better Judaism, Building a Just Israel | Tags: , , , | 8 Comments

Non-orthodox religious leaders: Israeli Hotels Refusing Torahs to Egalitarian Minyanim

Torah service at Moreshet Israel, a Masorti congregation in Jerusalem

The directors of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism and The Masorti Movement  have sent a letter to the government complaining that hotels are refusing to allow egalitarian minyanim to use hotel rooms and Torahs for fear of losing their kashrut certificate.

The Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism and the Masorti Movement represent the interests and religious needs of non-orthodox religious Israeli Jews and Diaspora Jews visiting Israel. The letter was sent to both the ministry of Tourism and the ministry of Diaspora Affairs. According to Ynet, the letter concluded:

We ask that you find the proper public manner in which to make it clear that this is an invalid policy that is not compatible with the law, a policy that damages relations with Jews in the Diaspora and the image of the State of Israel as a Jewish democratic state.

The complaint follows an incident last month when a group of American high school students were refused a Torah for their Shabbat minyan. The hotel belonged to a non-religious kibbutz and advertized itself as a place that would meet all the needs of bar and bat mitzvahs. However, when the group asked for a Torah for their morning Shabbat service, the hotel religious supervisor informed them that they couldn’t have the Torah unless they agreed to a service with a mehitza where only boys read from the Torah.

The rabbinut denied that this was an official policy but did concede that local rabbinut may have different rules and that these may be responsible for the difficulties.

Loss of a kashrut certificate has severe economic implications for hotels. Hotels have little recourse when a local kashrut supervisor threatens to withdraw their kashrut certification.

At least two cases complaining against the policy of bundling non-food related behaviorial requirements with kashrut certification have gone before the Israeli Supreme Court.  The Kashrut (Prohibition of Deciet) law prohibits a food-service establishment from claiming it is kosher unless it receives a certificate from the state run rabbinut.

In the 1980’s the rabbinut tried to withhold kashrut certificates from establishments that allowed belly dancers on the premises.  In 1989 the Supreme Court ruled that it was not the intent of the Kashrut Law to empower a rabbi to force a business or its customers to act in compliance with religious law on non food related matters.    They could not use kashrut to prohibit belly dancers, New Year’s parties, or even Christmas parties.

In 2009, the Supreme Court found that a kashrut certificate could not be withheld from an Ashdod baker even though she believed Jesus was the Messiah.  The court ruled that “The Kashrut Law states clearly that only legal deliberations directly related to what makes the food kosher are relevant, not wider concerns unrelated to food preparation,” .

The bundling of rules about how a Torah may be used with kashrut certification is clearly against the Supreme Court ruling.   However fighting a loss of kashrut certification in the Supreme Court is a potentially lengthy process.   In the meantime the restaurant risks loss of revenue from kashrut observant clients.

Even with a successful suit, it may be difficult to get the relevant ministries to comply with the Supreme Court decision.   It is not uncommon for civil rights organizations to have to file additional Supreme Court suits when a ministry fails to follow through on an earlier Supreme Court decision.  Thus many establishments prefer to play by the local rabbinut’s rules regardless of their legal rights or the rights of their customers.

Related articles in Jacob’s Bones:

Categories: Building a Just Israel, Exclusion of Jews | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Dumbing Down Judaism: Mibereshit’s Weekly “Values” Parsha Sheet

Weekly "Religious" Parshah Sheet

Weekly "Values" Parsha Sheet

Mibereshit is a Jewish education organization that aims to “strengthen the bonds between the Jewish people and their land, between Diaspora Jews and Israel, and between all Jews and their shared tradition by revealing our common foundation.” The group reaches out to secular Israelis and hopes to give them knowledge and connection to their tradition. One of their projects is a weekly Torah portion study sheet that parents and children can discuss together.

The sheets are colorful, well laid out, and packed with entertaining stories and games. They share a great deal of information about Judaism that might not otherwise get to secular families There is a lot to praise. None the less the weekly sheet raises concerning questions about how this organization is teaching Judaism and encouraging Jewish connection.

The weekly parsha sheet aimed at 6-12 year olds comes in two versions: a “religious” version and a “values” version.  Their website offers a sample of each.  The rest of this essay is a  reflection on the samples and what they tell us of Mibereshit’s approach to Jewish education.

In the secular world “values education” is an approach to learning that gives students thought provoking material and then asks students to use this material to bring unstated values to the surface and to reflect on how they prioritize values when conflicts occur. Although the “values” version is aimed at so-called secular Jews, it is not in any way “values” education In fact it would be best described as dumbed down Judaism.

In place of a direct encounter with the Torah and its interpretive tradition, the “values” version substitutes stories and sermonettes. Whereas the “religious” version introduces the reader to Ibn Ezra, Rambam and Rashi’s interpretation of God saying “Let us make Adam (humanity) in our image” , the “values” version tells a story about a boy going back in time with the help of his grandfather’s diary. The religious version encourages children to get down and dirty with the text by matching visual riddles with verses from the parsha. The values version has a cartoon strip explaining that the moon is smaller than the sun because she got jealous of having another light (the sun) the same size as her.

Jews are people of the book. No serious engagement with Judaism, whether purely cultural or religious can happen without an engagement with the core texts of our tradition. If Mibereshit’s goal is to create an engagement with the tradition that pulls together all Jews it fails miserably. This kind of education essentially makes secular Jews into second class citizens. It implies that you have to be religious (whatever that means) to wrestle with the text directly. If you chose values over “religion” then all you are given is the interpretation of those core texts by someone religious.

A second problem with the values version is the way it conceives the link between the secular and the profane. In the story of the boy who goes back in time, he sees two scenes (a) the Beit HaMikdash with its musical instruments and copper vessels (b) a conversation between two of Cain’s descendents. Yuval, the music maker, and Yaval the metal worker are talking. They decide their work has nothing to do with Hanoch who talks to God. However, our little boy remembers seeing the Beit HaMikdash. He realizes that music, technology and prayer all came together in the Temple.

Recognizing that even seemingly secular things are needed in the Temple drives home the necessity of secular activities. If it weren’t for technology and music the worship in the Temple would be incomplete. However, it is also indicative of a religious outlook where God is only recognizable in formal religious institutions. It takes a Temple to make music and metalworking into something that is part of prayer. In reality though, God is everywhere. Music is a form of prayer. So is admiring the beauty of something. We don’t need a Temple to make the connection. We simply need an act of thanksgiving.

The formal institutions of religion more often divide than unite. Institutions need a human management. A human management must be chosen and recognized by humans. There is no conceivable way that a humanly managed organization can ever be anything except political. Human institutions are also bound in time and space. They cannot do all things for all people. At the end of the day one group will impose their will on another. The other group can chose to accept it or walk away. Even if they accept it they will be united in name only but separated at heart.

The capacity for prayer and awe, on the other hand unites us. Shared moments of beauty and wonder break down barriers. They help us recognize both the humanity and the divinity in each other.

The third problem is that neither the religious nor the values version encourages actual dialog with the text. The value version simply tells the child and parent what values Judaism teaches and hopes they will agree those values are wise.

The religious version encourages some discussion but then immediately constrains it. Parents and children are exposed to classic commentary by Ibn Ezra, Rambam and Rashi, but they are never asked if they have their own additional interpretations.   They aren’t even asked what they think of Ibn Ezra, Rambam, or Rashi.

Dialog with text cannot happen unless people are free to question the text in their own way from their own perspective. Yet even the process of questioning the text is constrained. The reader is told “There are two important questions regarding the creation of man” rather than “these are two of many important questions we could ask, what are some other questions?” or “these are the questions that inspired Rambam, Rashi, or Ibn Ezra, what are your questions?” The bottom line message of this section is that “70 voices of Torah” refers to the fact that there are many historic commentators.

There is no hint of an alternate reading of “70 voices”, i.e. the idea that Torah is so rich that it can be defined and redefined by generation after generation. Each generation engages with the text in its own way and from its own reference point and still the text does not exhaust itself.

Any true engagement of Jews in Diaspora and Israel has to account for the fact that some forms of religious Judaism encourage personal engagement of the text.  Additionally, texts like the Torah belong to all Jews.  All Jews have a right and even responsibility to read them and personally engage with it on their own terms.  True shared engagement  requires a willingness to accept that we share a text but do not necessarily read it the same.   If we wish to bring everyone together around tradition we need to allow everyone to deal with the text directly and respect the diversity.

When all three issues are taken together, the underlying goal of the weekly parsha sheet is clear. Although it purports to build bridges and unite people in the name of a shared tradition, in reality, it is a subtle method of retaining controlling ownership of that tradition. Viewing the 70 voices of Torah as something solely in the past constrains the tradition and closes it to new interpretation. Teaching people to see God in institutions rather than through awe and wonder coupled with thanksgiving allows a political in-group to control how God is experienced and perceived. Handing warmed over interpretation to Jews and calling it “values”, ensures that no one who has rejected the authority of traditional religion even has a chance to directly encounter the text and form their own values based interpretations.

True bridges respect the integrity and equality of all parties. True Judaism seeks to help all Jews find a personal connection to their tradition and cultural heritage. There can be no true respect of a Jew’s personal and religious integrity without granting them equal access to core texts and an equal right to interpret them.

Categories: Exclusion of Jews | Tags: , , | 1 Comment

Herzliya Joins the List of Israeli Cities Wanting Shabbat Buses

Last week on Tuesday night (March 20, 2012), the Herzliya city council voted 12-5 in favor of public bus transportation on Shabbat. Last month Tel Aviv was the first city to decide to request buses. The city does not expect that the ministry of Transportation will agree to its request, but it plans to push the issue to the Israeli supreme court if it has to.

Both in Tel Aviv and Herzliya the mayor is supportive of the demand for Shabbat transporation. This is not true in all cities. Petach Tikva and Hadera community members are also advocating for their own city councils to join other cities in making formal requests to the Ministry of Transportation for Shabbat bus transportation. The Petach Tikva mayor says that such a proposal violates the consensus of the city coalition. The Hareda mayor says that this is not a city issue, but rather a matter for the Ministry of Transportation. Continue reading

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Israeli Hotel Refuses Torah to Egalitarian Minyan

A boy and two girls relaxing at Kibbutz Shefayim's Water Park

This year seniors from the Solomon Schechter School in Westchester county New York had first hand experience of how the Israeli religious establishment treats women when they were unable to have a Torah service at Shabbat morning Shachrit.

The students were in Israel as part of their two month senior trip to Poland and Israel. When the school made reservations at the hotel on Kibbutz Shefayim near Hertzliya, the leaders had requested a room for their prayer services and the hotel offered use of the hotel synagogue after the hotel sponsored Orthodox minyan had completed their prayers. The hotel did not inform them that Torah scrolls were only available for services with mechitzas where only men read. They arrived at the hotel and found out on Shabbat morning that they could not use the hotel’s Torah. The group was forced to pray Shabbat Schachrit without a Torah service.

The Solomon Schechter schools are run by the US Conservative (Masorti) movement. Conservative Jews, count women in their minyans and allow women to be called up to the Torah. The school staff and rabbi considered the inclusion of women a matter of obligation and could not accept use of the Torah under the hotel’s conditions that women not read from the Torah.

When the Jerusalem Post contacted the hotel, they insisted that their policy is that groups provide their own Torah if they want to conduct their own services apart from the hotel’s standard morning minyan. The hotel refused to comment on the specific incident except to say that no formal complaint had been made.

The school group leaders contradict this explaination. They say they asked for the hotel Torah prior to their morning service. The hotel’s religious supervisor said that he would be willing for them to use the hotel Torah but only if they agreed to a mechitza and only if males alone read from the Torah.

It should be noted that the kibbutz hotel advertises itself as “especially suited to celebrate different occasions also for the religious sector: Bar/Bat Mitzvah, and Groom Saturdays are a true experience, will make available everything required.”

If the hotel follows orthodox standards then the Bat Mitzvah must take place in a private woman only minyan. This would imply that they do indeed allow private services using the hotel Torah. Surely they don’t expect families to arrive with their own Torah for Bar and Bat Mitzvahs?

It should also be pointed out that the kibbutz runs a water park that does not in any way adhere to Orthodox standards of modesty. Thus it cannot be said that the kibbutz is merely enforcing its own adherence to an Orthodox interpretation of Judaism. Orthodox Judaism believes Torah should affect all of life and cannot be limited to the synagogue only.

The Talmud specifically allows women to be called to the Torah and to read it and specifies that the only impediment is the “honor of the congregation”:

The Rabbis taught (teno) that anyone can be numbered among the seven [called to the Torah on Shabbat], even a minor, even a woman. But the Sages said that we do not call a woman to the Torah because of Kevod HaTzibur (the dignity of the congregation). (Megillah 23a).

Non-orthodox Jews believe that the context of the phrase and also interpreters such as Rashi require us to read “kevod haTzibur” as an insult or annoyance to the congregation, rather than a violation of the fundamental nature of the congregation. Thus many non-orthodox Jews believe that saying women insult the dignity of the congregation is an insult to the dignity of women and has no place in modern Judaism.

Orthodox partnership minyanim also agree that today one can no longer say that women reading from the Torah imperils the dignity of the congregation. Today women study Torah on level of equal sophistication to men. Orthodox minyanim that disallow women reading from the Torah argue that “k’vod ha tzibbur” reflects a timeless category that has nothing to do society’s view of women or women’s scholarship.

The school chose to use the incident as a teaching moment about conflicts in Israeli society. The group’s leader told the Jeruslaem Post:

We wanted to stick to our values of having an egalitarian service…we also saw it as an educational moment and explained to the group participants that this is one of the biggest conflicts within Israeli society – the meaning of what a Jewish state should be. The goal of Zionism today should be to try and perfect the country we have, not to get frustrated and work against it, even when the government or the mainstream religious establishment rejects us.

Rabbi Andrew Sacks, head of the Rabbinical Assembly of Masorti Rabbis in Israel stressed the importance of respecting Diaspora religious traditions:

In light of all of the difficulties we face at the moment, it is particularly problematic that we would make it more difficult for the Diaspora community to practice their Judaism when visiting the Jewish state.

Non-orthodox Judaism is not strictly a Diaspora phenomenon. Collectively non-orthodox religious Jews make up about the same percentage of Israeli society as do Haredim (Ultra-orthodox). According to the Avi Chai/IDI study 8% of Israeli adults identify as either Reform/Progressive or Conservative/Masorti. Haredi Judaism also represents 8% of Israeli adult society.

Despite this Haredim control official religious life in Israel. Reform and Conservative rabbis cannot hold government jobs as rabbis no matter how well they know Jewish tradition. Nor can they serve as judges in religious courts. Women are also excluded from all these roles.

The state will not recognize marriages performed by non-orthodox rabbis. Religious non-Orthodox couples must leave the country and have a second marriage in a foreign country in order for their marriage to be recognized in Israel.

Even though Reform and Conservative conversions are recognized as Jews for citizenship under the law of resturn, they do not have the right to be married or buried as Jews in Israel. Nor are the children of women converts recognized as Jewish. They are not allowed to marry Jews or be buried as Jews.

Women in Israel are also constrained in their ability to worship as they wish. Women, for instance, may not pray at the Western Wall with a Tallit, nor may they have a Torah service if they pray as a group at the Western wall even if the minyan is composed exclusively of women.

Categories: Extremism, Gender Segregation | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Creating Am Shalem — A Complete Nation

Editor’s Note: the following article was written in early February during MK Haim Amsalem’s visit to the USA.

by Leslie Dannin Rosenthal, cross-posted with permission  from Leslie’s Laptop, United Jewish Communities of Metro-West New Jersey.

Did you ever see something and say to yourself, “I can’t believe I just saw that — and when can I see some more?” No, I don’t mean Mario Manningham’s sideline catch on Sunday, although I hope we do see many more of those next season. What I’m referring to is a visit to the MetroWest and Central NJ federations by Rabbi Haim Amsalem, MK (member of Knesset).

Rabbi Amsalem is an ultra-Orthodox, haredi Sephardic rabbi who entered the Knesset as a member of the right-wing Shas party. Concerned about the growing social problems in Israel, and most concerned about the issues that divide the ultra-Orthodox and the rest of Israel, he left Shas and founded the Am Shalem political party. He came to speak to our two communities about his vision of what needs to take place in Israel if it is to be both Jewish and democratic; about what it will take for Israel to be am shalem — a complete nation.

Rabbi Amsalem spoke in Hebrew. His translator was Dov Lipman, a charming young Orthodox rabbi who shared his own experience with intolerance in Beit Shemesh, where he lives, and which galvanized him into joining Am Shalem. There were about 100 people in attendance, including the folks from Central who attended via live video feed. There were clearly Hebrew speakers in the audience, because Rabbi Amsalem quickly got two sets of applause — first when he spoke in Hebrew and then again after Rabbi Lipman translated. I experienced my usual frustration of understanding only small amounts of the Hebrew, but what I heard in translation was very exciting. Continue reading

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The Jewish Agency’s Strategy for Religious Tensions in Israel

Last December’s uproar about Beit Shemesh brought extremism to the spotlight. Jewish organizations have begun to wrestle seriously with what this means for Zionism, Israel and the Diaspora. The Jewish Agency has undertaken a two prong approach. One prong focuses on the educating the Diaspora donor community about the Israeli context. The other prong encourages local projects that address that problem and connects them to diaspora donors.

On the ground locally Continue reading

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Postal Workers Refuse to Deliver Mail Citing Religious Reasons

Israeli Post Office LogoAt the beginning of last week one organization tried to send Hebrew translations of the New Testament and other Christian propaganda through the mail.

As objectionable as this material is to many Jewish Israelis, Israeli law allows its distribution. As a consequence of freedom of religion, people have the right chose their religion and to live according to their religious life style. They also have the right to disseminate literature about their beliefs. There are anti-missionary laws on the books but they only apply when actions interfere with freedom of choice. Offering financial incentives for conversion is subject to fines and/or up to five years imprisonment. Encouraging conversion of a minor is punishable for up to six months in jail.

None-the-less postal workers in Ramat Gan decided to take matters in their own hands. Believing that the material was against Halacha, Continue reading

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Fathers in Rananna Excluded Without Warning from Daughters’ Dance Recital

City of Rananna, Israel

Fathers in Rananna were excluded from attending their nine year old daughters’ dance recital on grounds of modesty. The fathers had left work early to see their daughters. One daughter was so upset that her father couldn’t see her in her recital that she cried.

The dance class included a mix of secular and religious girls. The fathers said that nothing in the invitation indicated that fathers were excluded, nor were the children informed in class that that only mothers could attend.

The dance school management explained that some of the students were “religious”. Therefore they decided to prohibit fathers from attending.   They were surprised that the fathers didn’t presume they were unwelcome,  noting  that the class only for girls, and the recital was in honor of mothers’ day. They also expected the fathers who did show up to accept the exclusion gracefully and complained that one father “caused a riot”.

Rannana is a town in the geographic middle of Israel near Tel Aviv.  The town is predominantly secular and most of the religous Jews who live in town are modern orthodox, not Haredi.  Most modern orthodox reject the strict division of genders favored by Haredi Jews.   Mother’s day in Israel is celebrated on the second of Adar (February 25, 2012), the date of Henrietta Szold’s yahrzeit.  Although the day originally only honored mothers, over the years it has lost its gender exclusivity and become “Family Day”.

Most of the comments on the article shared the anger of the excluded fathers. One wrote in regard to the organizer’s suprise that the fathers would show up, “Perhaps it is because we are in Israel and not in Iran?”.


Source: צניעות? האבות הורחקו ממופע ריקוד של בנותיהם, MyNet, 2012-03-08.

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The Technion Megilla Controversy

Float from the 2011 Technion Purim Parade

Students at the Technion* requested that the school reschedule a Wednesday evening class last week so that they could attend the night-time Purim megilla reading. The technion administration refused explaining that it was a secular institution and it would have to reschedule classes and exams for students of all religions if it rescheduled for Jewish students.

The students then turned to MK Michael Ben-Ari (Ichud Leumi). Ben-Ari wrote to the education minister and deputy speaker of the Knesset, MK Gideon Saar (Likud): “It cannot be that a Jewish country would prevent the reading of the megilla on Purim. If this were to happen outside of Israel there would be an uproar. I am appalled to hear of the lack of consideration shown by an institution like the Technion.”

The technion agreed to reschedule the class.

On the surface this seems to be a simple story. A Jewish state takes time off on Jewish holidays. The university perversely refused to recognize this, therefore they were in the wrong and MK Ben-Ari saved the day. This is certainly how the Haredi papers were portraying the story and also how it was portrayed two days later when the Jerusalem Post decided to bring it into the mainstream press. But there is more to this story than meets the eye.

It is simply not true that the Technion ignores Purim. The Technion academic calendar says that there are no classes or exams on the day before Purim, the exact day when this class was being held. The class on lil Purim in fact contradicted their own schedule. The real question that needs to be asked is why there even was a class scheduled on lil Purim.

One possibility is that the university didn’t see their schedule as interfering with Purim. It was a secular institution and so secular understandings of Purim should govern its actions.

Secular and religious Jews both celebrate Purim in Israel, but in different ways. The scheduled class ran from 7:00-9:00pm. This is the time when congregations usually do their evening megilla reading. However, it is well before the time most secular Purim parties start. Purim is one of the preeminent party nights in Israel.

It may also be a response to increasing religious rigidity. The mitzvah of hearing the megilla reading at night can be performed anytime from nightfall to dawn. This rule goes back to the mishnah (Brachot 1:1) that ruled that any mitzvot that is normally performed after nightfall can be performed up until the next dawn if necessity demands it. Even chabad accepts this. Given the scheduling conflict there was no reason the students couldn’t have scheduled a megilla reading after class.

There has been an increasing trend in Israel for certain Haredi Jewish communities to demand accommodation even outside of private Haredi spaces in the name of “freedom of religion”. They usually insist that there is one and only one way to be Jewish and that secular institutions are preventing this.

The increasing rigidity is making secular Israelis wary of religious claim Continue reading

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