Religious Pluralism in Israel
The issue of civil and religious rights for non-Orthodox Jews in Israel is one of the most important issues facing Progressive Judaism worldwide.
Although there has always been tension in Israel between the religious establishment and progressive or secular Jews, it has never been as heated or intense as the current crisis between the Orthodox authorities and the progressive Jewish movements. Beginning with the "Who is a Jew?" debates in the 1980s, the issue has increasingly become more complex and emotional.
In North America, 86 percent of affiliated Jews belong to Conservative, Reform or Reconstructionist synagogues. In Israel, although non-Orthodox movements are quickly becoming a viable alternative for Israelis, fewer than 4 percent of Israeli Jews claim to belong to these movements. Although the numbers vary significantly depending on polling reports, it is commonly accepted that the religious population represents somewhere between 25 to 33 percent, with the remainder identifying as secular. This is not a totally complete picture as a large percentage, often as high as 55 percent, of Israeli secular Jews consider themselves "traditional but not religious."1 This statistic manifests itself in polls such as one taken by the Orthodox Union in January 1998, which indicated that one-third of the Israeli public would prefer non-Orthodox officiation of its religious rites.
Governance of holy sites and religious rituals is under the purview of religious councils. Both at a national and city level, the councils have traditionally been composed entirely of Orthodox rabbis, resulting in skewed decisions that have significantly limited the movement and freedom of egalitarian Judaism.
The Right to Marry
The complete control of the religious councils extends the power of the Orthodox to marriage and divorce, conversion, burial, and many other elements of society. Orthodox control over marriage and divorce is one of the most obvious and intrusive issues. Since the State of Israel does not recognize marriages performed outside of the sanctioned religious authorities – Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Druze, there is no civil authority which performs these processes. As a result, even non-Orthodox must marry in accordance with Orthodox law.
The Reform Movement supports Israel and the equal rights for all to love and marry in Israel. As it stands currently, the Orthodox rabbinate’s monopoly over marriage and divorce makes them the gatekeepers for the institution; they decide who can and cannot marry in the State of Israel. Because of this, many couples facing difficulties when trying to exercise their right to marry, such as interfaith, same-sex, and Reform or Masorti couples seeking a non-Orthodox service.
Given the barriers to marriage for some couples, this forces a vast number of Israeli citizens to leave their own country to make these life decisions and undermines the ability of non-Orthodox rabbis to perform their duties in Israel. The Reform Movement was proud to help host Three Weddings and a Statement at Washington Hebrew Congregation in Washington, D.C., to allow three couples a space to marry freely, while they were not able to do so in their home country of Israel.
Women of the Wall
Following the First International Jewish Feminist Conference in Jerusalem in December 1988, a group of women began gathering at the Kotel to pray together on Rosh Hodesh. The ultra-Orthodox responded by physically and verbally attacking the women, forcing the women to ask the courts for protection. Sixteen years later, Women of the Wall is still fighting the same battle, slowly gaining ground in the fight to pray with Torah and tallitot (prayer shawls), to sing, and to pray together at the Kotel.
In a landmark decision on May 22, 2002, the court ruled in Women of the Wall’s favor, and women were granted the right to read Torah and wear ritual garb at the wall. However, just four days later, Shas submitted several bills to override the Supreme Court decision. This included one that would make the actions of communal prayer by women punishable by a fine and seven years in prison.
In April 2013, the Supreme Court acquitted five women who were arrested for praying at the Western Wall and ruled that women are not prohibited from praying in the women's section. However, women have still faced problems exercising their right to pray.
In January 2016, the Israeli Government approved a historic agreement to construct an enhanced egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall. This came as a result of years of activism and negotiations between Women of the Wall, the Reform Movement, the Conservative Movement, the Jewish Federations of North America, the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Government of Israel. For more in depth analysis of this case, please consult the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC).