There is a country where a woman can be arrested for holding a Torah scroll. Where the government limits, and sometimes outright prohibits, Jews’ ability to engage in basic religious rituals like conversion and marriage. That country – believe it or not – is Israel. And today was not a good day for the battle for religious pluralism in the Jewish state.
This morning, Anat Hoffman, Director of the Israel Religious Action Center (a wing of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism) and a leader of Women of the Wall, was arrested for carrying a Torah scroll on the women’s side of the Western Wall. According to Haaretz:
Anat Hoffman, the women’s prayer group leader, was arrested and taken in for questioning after she was caught holding a Torah scroll in violation of a High Court ruling prohibiting women from reading the Torah at the Western Wall.
This comes only 8 months after a member of the group was arrested for wearing a tallit at Kotel, and only 2 months after a woman was assaulted for wearing tefillin in Beer Sheva. In a show of solidarity, our congregation’s young adults group, NextDor, will be hosting a women’s tallit-making program tomorrow evening. The program was planned months ago, but it now takes on an increased sense of importance and urgency.
Clearly, it is ludicrous for the Jewish state to have laws that prohibit women from engaging in Jewish ritual. And as much as this is about gender equality, it is really about who controls the definition of Judaism in the Jewish state. Israel has created a status quo in which Haredi rabbis get to determine what “Jewish” means for all the rest of the Jews, and it is a status quo to which the rabbinate is clinging, and which it is trying to cement.
In fact, at the same time that Anat Hoffman was being arrested, the Knesset approved the first reading of a conversion bill that will go a long way toward cementing that control. The Rotem bill, as it is called, gives the Israeli Chief Rabbinate (which is invariably Orthodox, and growing more “Ultra” with each passing year) control over all conversion in Israel. This would invalidate years of work and hard-fought victories by the liberal movements, which are trying to increase their legitimacy in the courts and in society.
Simply put, it is unacceptable for the Jewish state to give Orthodoxy total control over conversion. It is a move that would drive a wedge between the Israeli and Diaspora Jewish communities, which would further alienate Reform and Conservative Jews (whose connection to Israel is already suffering, especially among younger people), and – most importantly – which would do irreparable damage to K’lal Yisrael, the unity of the Jewish people.
Judaism is, and has always been, built on pluralism – on dialectic and machloket (disagreement). There have always been multiple ways to be Jewish, and Judaism has been stronger and more vibrant in periods when those multiple expressions were allowed to flourish. The Israeli Knesset should withdraw or defeat this bill – not only because it is the politically expedient thing to do (i.e. because they don’t want to alienate half of the Jewish world), but because it is the Jewish thing to do.
Click Here to write an email to Prime Minister Netanyahu about the Rotem Bill. You might utilize the following text, which was composed by the Israel Religious Action Center, a wing of the Israel Reform Movement:
The Honorable Benjamin Netanyahu
Prime Minister of Israel
Office of the Prime Minister
Dear Prime Minister Netanyahu,
We write to request your immediate intervention to prevent passage of the legislation being brought forward by MK David Rotem.
We are deeply concerned about the intention to grant the Chief Rabbinate sole control over conversion in Israel. Such legislation would be an open attack on the legitimacy of non-Orthodox Jewry, which composes the majority of world Jewry.
While we are supportive of efforts to create greater accessibility to conversion courts in Israel, the overall impact of the Rotem Bill will set back these efforts. Should this bill be enacted, it will exacerbate a widening gap between Diaspora and Israel communities, which we are working very hard to avoid.
Therefore, we believe it is imperative that you, as leader of Israel, and as one who cares deeply about the well-being of Klal Yisrael, intervene and urge immediate withdrawal of this bill.