The Knesset hosted its second annual forum on ties between Israel and the United States Jewish community, with a focus on the status of the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel.
Orthodox Judaism views the Torah as divine, and the mitzvoth (commandments) as obligatory. The Reform movement views the mitzvoth as non-obligatory, while the Conservative movement has moved away from the traditional observance of certain mitzvoth; for example, by allowing driving on the Sabbath and same-sex marriage.
While Reform and Conservative congregations are permitted in Israel, the state’s definition of Jewish status, and of Jewish marriage and divorce, goes according to the traditional orthodox position.
Reform rabbi Rick Jacobs argued during Tuesday’s meeting that Israel’s preference for orthodox tradition drives would-be Jewish supporters away and has a negative impact on Israel’s reputation in the international community.
Rabbi David Stav responded to his speech. Rabbi Stav heads the Tzohar organization, which assists secular Israelis in navigating Jewish life cycle events.
“The problem of assimilation among American Jews isn’t just an American problem… Chelsea Clinton married a Jewish man. I don’t dispute your right to think what you want, [but] do you want me to recognize Chelsea Clinton’s child as a Jew? You want me to recognize the rabbi who married them as a rabbi??” he asked.
Rabbi Stav openly agreed that Israel’s adherence to orthodox standards turns away non-orthodox Jews, but argued that the alternative would be worse.
“The reason that the Torah and rabbis are hated is because of this [religious] coercion. People are not familiar with the loving world of Torah, because most of the public meets the Torah through the [marriage] registrar. The registrar might be very friendly, but by definition, his position is ‘coercive,’” Rabbi Stav stated.
However, he continued, “We are willing to pay this heavy price because of our responsibility to the people of Israel, and our desire to keep the people of Israel united – even though in the short term, it leads to enmity toward the Torah and its sages.”
Orthodox Jewish tradition recognizes Jews based on matrilineal descent or orthodox conversion, while non-orthodox movements have more lenient definitions, in disagreement with halakhah.. Reform Jewry recognizes patrilineal descent. Israeli rabbis have expressed fear that the difference between the definitions could create groups of Jews who are no longer able to marry each other or recognize each others’ Jewishness.
MK Nachman Shai, head of the Knesset Lobby for Israel-United States Ties, expressed satisfaction following Tuesday’s debate. “The new lobby presented an interesting, challenging public debate between two rabbis who represent the two main streams of Judaism today: Orthodox and Reform,” he said.
“Even when they disagree, there is a common denominator… This is how the whole Jewish world must act in the face of growing challenges,” he said.