JFNA Should Not Advocate For Civil Marriage in Israel
There are better ways for the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) to express unity with Jews in Israel than to join them in short-sighted and counterproductive actions. That, apparently, is exactly what they are about to do if they accept the iREP proposal to limit the Rabbanut’s historic oversight of halachic matters of personal status. By applying a band-aid to a wounded patient in Israel, JFNA may leave Jewish intergroup cooperation here in the US in a comatose state.
JFNA’s board of trustees is slated to vote on June 9th on a proposal by a coalition of non-Orthodox groups to address their dissatisfaction with the Rabbanut’s use of halachic standards in areas of conversion, marriage, and divorce. The iREP proposal (Israel Religious Expressions Platform) reportedly will not call for the undoing of the Rabbanut, but will advocate affirmative steps. It will embrace personal liberties and choice , and as a first step, get behind calling for civil marriage.
There is no question that many Israelis are unhappy with either the Rabbanut’s halachic guidelines or its style of doing business. They bypass the system by a quick trip to Cyprus for a civil ceremony. They will greatly welcome the institution of civil marriage within Israel. So will those who are forbidden halachically to marry, like kohanim wishing to marry divorcees.
Reasonable people can and do debate – from a completely non-halachic vantage point – where to place the line that divides the right of every individual to choose for him or herself, and the place where the good of the collective must prevail. The founders of the State recognized the need for Israel to be both Jewish and democratic. Part of the balance they wisely struck was to leave matters of personal status in the hands of a halachic system that was strictly observed by a large number of Israelis, and at least respected by an even larger number. There is wide-spread recognition that the implementation of this personal-status policy through the Rabbanut sports a checkered performance record – like virtually every other part of Israeli polity. Rabbi Dovid Lau, the new Ashkenazi Rav ha-Roshi, is reportedly intent on making internal changes that will ease some of the complaints – but not at the expense of halachic principles, which are not negotiable to halachically traditional Jews.
What is odious about iREP is not the assault on halacha that the traditional community understands to lie at the core of our national identity and survival. What is objectionable is that it should not be JFNA’s battle to wage. Not if it wishes to remain viable in the next decades.
Partners in the iREP coalition like Hiddush ,Yisrael Hofshit the Masorti (Conservative) movement, the Reform movement, and The New Israel Fund are free to ply their wares on Israelis, in Israel. It is their right to do so as individual organizations. It is not the place of Federation. An umbrella organization of diaspora Jews – the umbrella group of greatest note in the United States – cannot afford to take sides on such a divisive measure. Passing iREP will be a message to the Orthodox that screams, “You are not needed here.”
Debating iREP will allow the minions of Federation a respite from considering the implications of the Pew Report, which shows both a non-Orthodox population on the skids of indifference and assimilation, and a vital and burgeoning Orthodox one. That diversion of focus is short-sighted. So is employing the argument that present Orthodox monetary donations to Federation are less than stellar, so it doesn’t matter if they are dissed. If JFNA is to survive, the Orthodox must be brought in, not shown the back door.
There are good reasons and bad reasons for the historic coolness of the Orthodox community to Federation involvement. The exceptions to the rule, e.g. Baltimore, where Rabbi Neuberger zt”l encouraged much involvement, have proved that the Orthodox can become partners, if the working atmosphere can be tweaked. Here in Los Angeles, it seems to me that someone is thinking strategically. They’ve found ways to break the cycle of Orthodox non-involvement, by creating professional interest groups that are so redolent with networking possibilities, that young Orthodox professionals join, and get drawn into broader communal involvement.
That is the way to go for the future. This route will suffer immensely if Federation supports IREP, which will be seen and denounced by the Orthodox community as not only a body-blow to its principles, but a slap in the face of its importance. It will likely cool any ardor within Orthodoxy to promote future involvement.
We have seen in recent months a pattern of myopic Jewish decisions in the worst tradition of what Abba Eban said of the Arabs: “They never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” Yair Lapid muscled his way to some measures attending to the problem of haredi employment. Hugely unpopular, they were nonetheless privately acknowledged by many to be part of a necessary corrective to a system that was broken. They might have worked, until his insistence on including criminal sanctions to the draft provisions, however justifiable to a majority of Israelis, produced the perfectly predicted reaction that supported the more extreme parts of the haredi community, galvanized resistance, and wiped out many of the quiet gains in haredi IDF enlistment and general employment of the last few years. It was not merely myopic, but closer to the donning of blinders.
Not to be outdone in missing an opportunity, the Israeli haredi community produced the huge and peaceful showing of its opposition to the new draft law. The organizers were careful to call it a prayer gathering, and not a demonstration. The participation of hundreds of thousands (far more than turned out even for the Rolling Stones!) dramatized the haredi community’s resolve to adhere to principle. It also antagonized too many reasonable Israeli who could not possibly understand those principles. This pushback could have been blunted by one capable speaker leading the assembled in the recitation of one chapter of Tehillim offered in gratitude to the rest of Israel for its decades of physical and monetary support.
JFNA is now poised to make a comparable blunder. The effects are likely to be felt in the American community longer than those on the Israeli side, where the shivyon ha-netel / “bearing the burden equally” train has left the station, and will not run in reverse. One way or another, there will be a new draft law, and once the dust settles, people will find a modus vivendi. By JFNA replacing the welcome mat with one that says “Orthodox not wanted here,” however, the consequences just might be permanent.
Already in the 1980’s Federation sent delegations from all across the US to Israel to lobby the Israeli government to recognize Conservative and Reform conversions. They wanted Israel to change the “Who is a Jew?” law, for the purposes of the Law of Return that grants Israeli citizenship to any Jew who wants it. In other words, they were lobbying hard for a system in which, basically, anyone could say “I want to be a Jew” — and any C or R rabbi could wave a magic wand — and anyone in the world could get automatic Israeli citizenship. You can imagine what kind of country it would be with 20 or 30 million “Jews” from Asia, eastern Europe, sub-Saharan Africa — everywhere in the world that boasts huddled masses yearning to breathe free. Just as anyone could be a Jew, anyone could be a rabbi! Oh brave new world.
Anyway, my father, R’ Nachman Bulman zt’l, always held that Federation was chazir treif. All of it, everywhere, including their two Catskill Orthodox summer camps, Potemkin camps, one each for girls and for boys. My father considered those camps “chazir feesel” — the split hooves a pig displays to make itself look kosher — the outward signs Federation used to exploit naive little old ladies and make them think Federation was concerned with preserving Judaism. Gullible people would make small and large donations to Federation, thinking they were supporting the Jewish future — where in reality, by far the lion’s share of Federation money has always gone to secular, if not downright anti-religious, causes. My father thought that we Orthodox Jews should not give any money to Federation nor take any money from them. Of course no one agrees with him, everyone lines up in the mendicant line trying to get money from them and hoping to get more from Fed than they give. But oh how right he was.
Rabbi you wrote:
Not to be outdone in missing an opportunity, the Israeli haredi community produced the huge and peaceful showing of its opposition to the new draft law. The organizers were careful to call it a prayer gathering, and not a demonstration.
Not only were Tehillim of Hakares HaTov not said, but what was recited was שפוך חמתך על הגויים Do we wonder who the goyim are who this was directed at? I appreciate your desire for balance, but those who believe that they have a kesher to a higher authority have additional responsibility to avoid Chilul HaShem and Gaivah. Gut Shabbos, Rafi
In the early 1980s I had to attend a number of federation dinners where Kosher food simply was not available. I was told, “Have a salad” or “Have some tuna. What’s the bid deal?”
Why would you expect any better from the JFNA? There opposition to religious Orthodoxy is as old as they are.
To Toby Katz and Rafael Gruber:
Federations today have loads of problems. But the world that you describe is a world of the past, and has not existed for several decades at minimum.
Kashrut is the norm today, period, in most Federations–certainly with any that have a vibrant Orthodox community. Federation board meetings begin with Divrei Torah.
Orthodox Jews in New York have been the exception, historically, in keeping their distance from Federation, partly because of the erstwhile trends that you have noted. That is beginning to change–UJC Federation has made major kiruv efforts in attracting both Orthodox and Russian Jews over the past decade. In terms of Jewish education–there are simply too many schools to fund for the NY Federation to make a difference.
But go to just about any other community in the country–Cleveland, Chicago, etc. Ask the Modern Orthodox, Centrist, Bais Yaakov schools in these and other communities about Federation. You will be surprised to learn that there is much greater cooperation and that Federation support of day schools and yeshivot has grown substantially over the past few decades.
I haven’t weighed in on an issue for awhile, but this one is of particular concern, and not because the issue is one of marriage, but because the question goes deeper than that: “Who is a Jew?”. This is an “in-house” problem? No, it’s never just that. Whatever Jews say goes beyond the internal debate to influence, however subtly, a world that knows nothing about Judaism, couldn’t care less, and makes its own decisions on what and who a Jew is regardless of who Jews say they are. The results, generated by some Christians either conservative or liberal, are less than delicious, rather acrid, actually. When a Christian says, “I am a Jew,” (the true Jew, the real Jew), it might be a good idea to still the internal debate (often yelling, no doubt) and pay attention to what the Christian is saying and doing. Firstly, that Christian is defining Judaism for Christians and Jews alike and anybody else who happens to be passing by. If a Jew replies, “Nonsense, there are as many different types of Jews as there are Christians,” that is no answer but an affirmation that a Christian may refer to himself as a sect of Judaism that went to the top of the class while other forms were left back at least one grade. Secondly, with impunity the Christian can identify Jews with various rituals (not the cannibalistic ones, that’s for Holy Communion – so Calvin), depending upon what rite or practice such a Christian affirms or denies as legitimate, more recently, for instance, circumcision. Thirdly, “replacement theology” is not so much taught as felt and expressed. It makes no sense; in fact, for me, is a form of insanity – but we won’t go into that here – practiced without pause or censure. So, forgive the PR push, but what message does Judaism send out to the world that is consistent with its past and anticipates an unknown future through its present practice? Just what are you going to tell the goyim as well as to yourselves? And who or what is going to do the telling if not a public and clear exposition of Jewish value and its accompanying laws obedient to a higher and transcendent entity? At the PC(USA)’s General Assembly next week, there will be an attempt to strike the word “Israel” from one of the hymns. I could be darn tootin’ wrong, but I don’t think it will pass. Yet not necessarily for good reasons, nasty ones. If Christians are the new Israel, they would have had to have replaced the old Israel with the new. If the word “Israel” is stricken, than the Christian who believes s/he is the New Israel will have emerged from the Old X, a place name to be filled in as you please, chipped out on a stele of unknown origins. Replacement buffs and supersession whiz kids will have nowhere to turn and nowhere to go. They want Israel for themselves, as they do Pentecost, Passover, et. al. In short, however your debate goes, what is at stake is a sense of Jewish identity that cannot be co-opted or compromised from within or from without. Some readers here may take issue with a criteria proposed by Hannah Arendt laying the ground for Anti-Semitism. She calls it, “Inhuman Innocence”: No value to history (biography), the story, memory; no value to Truth – only the immanental or perspectival counts; and no value to action – on Monday you are stoned for killing someone; on Tuesday you are given a cookie and a gold watch. On Wednesday….Thursday….etc. who knows? Kafka. Being single, I can’t speak to the marriage issue at all, but to the identity issue? Yes, that one I can do in a small way. I’d like to share a closing feeling: On Friday nights, when the ark is opened, and I see the scroll of the Law, I am always seeing it for the very first time. And when I say the Shema, it, too, is said for the very first time. There is something there, no?
Thank you, Rabbi
The simple fact of the matter is that the large majority of world Jewry is not Orthodox, nor is the Jewish population of Israel. The fact that the secular majority tolerates Orthodox Rabbinic control of personal status and allows a certain degree of religious coercion, such as prohibiting the sale of hametz on Pesach or by law insisting on Kosher food in state institutions such as the IDF, is a miracle in today’s world which is extremely hostile to any sort of religious coercion (except by Muslims, of course).
Because of this, there are those who are suggesting a package deal……the Haredim would be granted a permanent exemption from military service in the IDF and would be allowed to work without having to do any sort of national service which other Israeli Jews are required to perform. In return, the Haredim would give up control of the state Chief Rabbinate and would not intervene in attempts to end Rabbinical control of personal status, thus enabling the implementation of civil marriage (the Religious Zionists would oppose this but they would be the ones to be involved in the national debate over the issue, not the Haredim).
I wonder how the Haredi leadership would react to this offer?
I agree with R Adlerstein. We can exppect no deviation from such programs until and unless we as a community and indiduals follow the model of R Neuberger ZL, whose presence was very beneficial for the Baltimore community. I know that R Shafran appeared and spoke at the 92nd Street Y, a bastion of secular liberalism and heterodox ideas, but we would have a larger voice in discussing appearances by anti Israel speakers, etc, and getting in on the ground floor for purposes of kiruv if we were more actively involved in such venues.
Some months ago, I heard a very thought-provoking speech by an extremely prominent Rabbi, who spoke about how there are, in a sense, two kinds of legitimately religious Jews. The first kind is the standard kind, that is, one who follows the traditional, Jewish laws (Code of Jewish Law) as much as possible. But then there is the other kind, who may not be religious in any kind of formal way, but nevertheless has immense pride in being Jewish and is respectful of its traditions. The Rabbi who made this speech, was paying tribute to the late, great Menachem Begin, who was apparently that second type of religious Jew. Begin may have not followed Jewish law the way that Rabbi does, but Begin, for example, refused to travel by car on Shabbat, or publicly eat non-kosher food, at least as long as he was Prime Minister, and it is my understanding that the religious Jewish community never had a greater friend to them among all of Israel’s Prime Ministers.
I bring this up, because that, perhaps, should be the stance taken by the secular Jewish Federations of this country. I understand them not wanting to be religious in the halachic sense. However, since they are very prominent representatives of our Jewish people, they should at least have decency to be the Menachem Begin type of Jew. If they are not even willing to be that, then I frankly do not understand in what sense they can even identify their various groups as being Jewish in the first place. Just because some Jews form some kind of group, does not in itself make it Jewish, unless they actually abide by Jewish principles at least to some significant extent. This strikes me as being a matter of pure logic to me.
Do we ultimately want to dominate Federation, or instead to develop our own better alternative, operating according to true Jewish principles and tapping our own resources?
Should the heterodox movements (Reform, Conservative, etc.) care about Israel? Their young people no longer do (http://www.cross-currents.com/archives/2008/10/30/who-says-jews-are-smart/). The government of Israel sees them primarily as a source of donations and (rapidly dwindling) political support.
At the tme of the Mihu Yehudi crisis,Carmi Schwartz, the first and so far only orthodox head of the Council of Jewish Fedderations was forced out by those who said that an orthodox Jew cannot represent American Jewry because he wasn’t really on their side, no matter what he said or did. This crisis was forced on us by those who wouldn’t let well enough alone . Civil Marriage has been proposed by the former Sephadi Chief Rabbi as a way to deal with those who can’t be married by the Rabbinate.
Ruby Rivlin was recently castigated by the Reform Movement because in 1989 he visited a Reform Temple for services and said “this is not Judaism,it is a different religion”. His view is typical of secular Israelis . The deeper reason is that the grandchildren of the Federation donors are not all Jewish by orthodox standards and that hurts them. Civil marriage is a way to avoid the rabbinate. I don’t know what the alternatives are , just to hold fast .
Reb Yid wrote:
“Federations today have loads of problems. But the world that you describe is a world of the past, and has not existed for several decades at minimum.”
Possibly he did not read what R’ Adlerstein wrote:
“JFNA’s board of trustees is slated to vote on June 9th on a proposal by a coalition of non-Orthodox groups to address their dissatisfaction with the Rabbanut’s use of halachic standards in areas of conversion, marriage, and divorce. The iREP proposal (Israel Religious Expressions Platform) reportedly will not call for the undoing of the Rabbanut, but will advocate affirmative steps. It will embrace personal liberties and choice , and as a first step, get behind calling for civil marriage….
What is odious about iREP [Israel Religious Expressions Platform] is not the assault on halacha that the traditional community understands to lie at the core of our national identity and survival. What is objectionable is that it should not be JFNA’s battle to wage. Not if it wishes to remain viable in the next decades.
Partners in the iREP coalition like Hiddush ,Yisrael Hofshit the Masorti (Conservative) movement, the Reform movement, and The New Israel Fund are free to ply their wares on Israelis, in Israel. It is their right to do so as individual organizations. It is not the place of Federation. Passing iREP will be a message to the Orthodox that screams, ‘You are not needed here.’ “
Bob Miller wrote:
“Do we ultimately want to dominate Federation, or instead to develop our own better alternative, operating according to true Jewish principles and tapping our own resources?”
The latter is exactly what the Satmar Rebbe did, with astonishing success. I don’t agree with all his views e.g., re the State of Israel or re secular studies, but in this he was a visionary, a man of principle and integrity. He trained and educated his chassidim, even the poorest of the poor, to give generously and to support their own mosdos.
Colette Avital ,among many others, admonished the american jewish religious right ,that it was forbidden for them as outsiders to take public stands on israeli internal affairs…
I don’t know about other cities, but, here in Baltimore, numerous members of the orthodox ommunity hold high offices in the Federation,which is called the Associated here. howard Tzvi Friedman is Chairman of the Board and Yehudah Neuberger,grandson of Rabbi Naftali Neuberger is the head of the campaign. Orthodox men and women are very active in all levels of the Assiciated and its agencies. This relationship was built up over decades by Rabbi Neuberger and was never limitd to asking for money for our parochial causes. We are team players and involved in the full range of issues. This has led to more understanding and the realization that we are a vital and growing part of the community. No one would ignore our concerns ,but we don’t always win. The JCC in its suburban branch opened on Shabbos, something that didn’t happen when Rabbi neuberger was alive, and that battle was won because of his friends in the non orthodox community who fought to keep it closed for many years. Those relationships were in the past and the present relationships are being cultivated by our active involvement on every committee and agency.