Do We Care About a Jewish Israel?
by Rabbi Pesach Lerner
Opponents of traditional Torah values are trying to change the face of Judaism in Israel, and have laid out their plans in full detail. Are we listening? Are we going to respond? Are we going to protect the Mesorah and Kedusha of Eretz Yisrael and Am Yisrael?
Discussions in Israel today – in the media, in the halls of Knesset, and at the highest levels of government – threaten the religious status quo in Israel as never before. If passed into law, bills currently being forwarded will expand the divide between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox communities in Israel and worldwide.
These changes are frequently not the result of internal pressure for change; rather, American groups are demanding change, and the Israeli government is responding to that pressure. And Orthodox American Jews, those who would protect tradition and oppose deviations from eternal Jewish values, are largely absent from the dialogue.
Proposed legislation will permit public transportation, and allow malls, movie theaters, and restaurants to open on the Shabbos. Another change (which recently passed through Knesset committees and the Cabinet, and does not require a full Knesset vote) removes the Chief Rabbinate’s authority over conversions to Judaism, allowing the rabbi of any Israeli community, big or small, to perform conversions that will be recognized by the State of Israel. (To be fair, there are guidelines and procedures, but they are basically formalities.) Anyone interested in living in Israel or marrying a Jew will be able to shop for the most lenient rabbi available – today an Orthodox rabbi willing to overlook basic halachic requirements of geirus, tomorrow a non-Orthodox clergyperson – and one can only imagine the potential consequences.
If the liberal movements congratulated the Prime Minister on this decision, what message does that send us?
Some groups are not satisfied with this level of lowering the standards, or with the Knesset vote to do away with separate Ashkenazic and Sephardic Chief Rabbis. They propose to do away with the Chief Rabbinate entirely, which would have tremendous ramifications both in Israel and around the globe. The Israeli Chief Rabbinate is currently a worldwide voice representing Torah and Torah standards for Jewish identity, marriage and divorce, kashruth, mitzvos hatluyos ba’Aretz, and a host of other issues. These activists aim to silence that voice.
On another front, American liberals, in conjunction with Israeli feminists, are bent upon turning the Kosel into an outlet for “pluralism.” Though the new section developed and designated for them by the Israeli government is hardly used, they demand that it be expanded to equal the traditional Kotel plaza in both size and prominence, and have a shared entrance. They further insist that even the traditional section be changed – and these demands are being given serious consideration.
Much of the pressure on the Israeli government results from an unholy alliance between dedicated secularists in Israel and liberal synagogue movements in the United States. They are often aided by secular American Jewish organizations like the American Jewish Committee and the New Israel Fund, and even groups representing the new “Open Orthodoxy.”
The Global Planning Table of the Jewish Federations of North America recently announced a new “Israel Religious Expression Platform… [to] support issues of Jewish diversity and freedom of religious expression in Israel.” The immediate goal of this project focuses on “the issue of marriage freedom.” In less obfuscated language, this project intends to void halachic marriage standards for Jewish Israelis, and they have earmarked an initial $2 million for this effort.
Reform and Conservative leaders in America are trying to change Israel in order to prop up their imploding movements in America. The recent Pew Survey indicates that the once-dominant Conservative movement has lost over 50% of its members in just the past decade. While Reform leaders claim to represent the largest movement today, merely 10% of American Jews are actually members of their synagogues. And at this moment, with the reality of their own failure contrasted with the abundant growth of American Orthodoxy, they are desperate to rally their marginally-affiliated members. Rather than try to appeal to the local population that has grown disillusioned with their movements, they choose to fight to distort Jewish standards in Israel.
Why are they successful? It’s simple: Their leaders and representatives constantly visit the halls of Knesset, meeting with Israeli government officials, cultivating relationships, raising money for MKs, and hosting them in their American communities. They talk to the secular media, write op-eds for the Israeli and American press, claiming that their views represent those of the greater American Jewish community. And they will often resort to threatening Israel that they will lose American support unless their demands are met.
Unfortunately, the American Torah community often observes passively from the sidelines, doing little until laws are enacted. Then we awaken and protest – but all too often, it is too late for our efforts to have an impact.
I believe that the Torah community must become far more proactive in promoting our views, taking control of the situation rather than letting those with a hostile agenda control our response. To be sure, we must represent the views and guidance of our Gedolim in America and Israel, but we cannot wait idly until adverse changes have already been made before running to them for advice. We need to get ahead of the curve, outlining the issues, proposing possible strategies, and requesting guidance from the Gedolim on how to change the dialogue and present Torah perspectives on these issues to the public and elected officials.
To provide one recent example: when the so-called “Women Of the Wall” presented a serious monthly problem during their Rosh Chodesh events, provoking inappropriate responses from bochurim so they could grab headlines and promote a false narrative of Orthodox men oppressing women, a small group of askanim helped women in Israel to create “Women For the Wall” to promote Jewish traditions. We analyzed the issue, identified possible courses of action, and went to Gedolim for direction. Not only did they guide our activities, but they publicly called upon thousands of women to participate – creating a powerful response which greatly blunted the impact of the Women Of the Wall. Today, Women For the Wall continues to promote the Torah perspective of the Kosel.
We must learn from the playbook successfully exploited by the pluralist movements. Our American national Torah organizations must open their own offices in Israel to communicate Torah views to the government, media, and leading opinion-makers. Better yet, they should jointly sponsor an organization which has the support of the greater American Orthodox community, and which can ally with like-minded organizations in Israel and worldwide.
We, too, must visit the Knesset, both to lobby and to cultivate relationships with MKs – especially outside the Charedi and Orthodox parties. We must identify those who might be willing to ally with our interests, and help them to raise money as they campaign for their party lists. Once elected to the Knesset, their doors will be open to us.
We must send missions of rabbis and lay leaders to Israel to voice our opinions, and invite and sponsor non-religious MKs to visit our home communities to see our growth and vitality. We must educate Israeli officials about the realities of American intermarriage and assimilation, and show them just how little authority Reform and Conservative leaders possess even among their own members. By contrast, we must show them who is truly investing in Israel, sending their children to study there, and making aliyah: the Orthodox. They must learn that we are the American Jews with the most concern for Eretz Yisrael and Am Yisrael, and that we will represent the dominant American Jewish community just a decade from now.
We must be as vocal and proactive in support of Shabbos, halachic marriage and divorce, conversion and kashruth standards, the Chief Rabbis, traditional prayer at the Kosel, and so many other issues, as the others are active against them. And with the guidance of our Gedolim, a concerted effort, and, of course, siyata diShmaya, we can and will be successful.
Rabbi Pesach Lerner is a musmach of Yeshivas Ner Yisrael of Baltimore and executive vice president emeritus of the National Council of Young Israel, where he served for over 20 years. He has been involved in tzorchei tzibbur and inyanei haklal [communal needs and matters] for over 35 years.
First published in Mishpacha.