Rising Streams: Reform and Conservative Judaism in Israel

Israeli Jewish attitudes are generally positive regarding the Reform and Conservative denominations, and toward expressions of religious pluralism in general. While there is sympathy among secular Israelis on the political center and left, these tend to turn to mixed feelings or neutrality among many traditional Israelis on the center-right, and to outright hostility and rejection between Orthodox and especially Haredi Jews on the political right. Following are findings from various surveys regarding Israeli attitudes toward the Reform and Conservative denominations specifically, and religious pluralism and issues of religion and state more generally.

OVERALL PERCEPTION

The 2017 JPPI Pluralism in Israel Survey asked a representative sample of Israeli Jews to rank various groups within Israel as “most contributing” or “least contributing” to society on a scale from 0-5. “Reform Jews” ranked generally positively among all Jewish groups from secular to traditional and liberal religious, except with those identified as Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox, who ranked them among the lowest (together with Muslim Arabs and Bedouins – with the Ultra-Orthodox saying that Reform Jews contribute least to Israel’s success).65 (See figure 12.)

JPPI’s 2016 Pluralism in Israel Survey study found that 72 percent of Israeli Jews did not agree with the statement: “Reform Jews are not really Jews.” 66 (See figure 13.)

The Reform Movement study (Dialogue Institute 2017) asked a similar question with respect to the relative contribution to Israeli society of “Reform Jews”.67 Thirty-nine percent of Israeli Jews responded either “positive” or “very positive” when asked about the contribution of Reform Jews to society, while 14 percent were “neutral” and 29 percent “negative” or “very negative”. As expected, 60 percent of Hiloni Israelis said that the contribution of Reform Jews was positive or very positive, 12 percent were neutral and 5 percent negative or very much so. Among Masorti Jews, 39 percent said Reform Jews had a positive or very positive contribution, 21 percent were neutral and 16 percent said they had negative or very negative contribution. Similarly, only 3 percent of Dati Israelis viewed the Reform contribution as positive, 13 percent were neutral and 80 percent negative or very negative. Among Haredi Jews, no respondents had positive views of “Reform Jews”, while 11 percent were neutral and 83 percent had very negative views. (See figure 14.)

The 2017 Reform Movement study also asked Israeli Jews if they were sympathetic or not sympathetic to Reform Judaism. Similar to other studies, 23 percent of Israeli Jews are either highly sympathetic or sympathetic, while 19 percent were “so-so,” (kakha-kakha) sympathetic and 21 percent were either not sympathetic or highly unsympathetic. Fifty-six percent of Hiloni Jews were sympathetic or highly so, while 19 percent were “so-so” and 8 percent either unsympathetic or highly unsympathetic. The trend clearly reverses as one goes up the religiosity scale. Masorti Jews were 29 percent sympathetic or highly so, 31 percent “so-so” and 23 percent unsympathetic or highly so. Among Dati and Haredi Jews, only 2 percent were sympathetic in each group, 5 and 7 percent “so-so” respectively, and 87 percent and 90 percent unsympathetic or highly so respectively – mostly “highly unsympathetic.” (See figure 15.)

When broken down by political party affiliation, Likud, Yisrael Beitenu and Kulanu voters were spread fairly evenly on the spectrum between being sympathetic and being unsympathetic, Yesh Atid, Mahaneh Tzioni and Meretz were overwhelmingly sympathetic, and the Orthodox parties were overwhelmingly unsympathetic, according to the same Reform Movement study.
The same study asked whether respondents agreed or disagreed that “Orthodox is the authentic Judaism while Reform is a deviation from this”. Overall, 45 percent agreed or strongly agreed with this statement, while 45 percent disagreed or strongly disagreed with it. As might be expected, 72 percent of Hiloni and 41 percent of Masorti Jews disagreed or strongly disagreed, while 90 percent of Dati and 93 percent of Haredi Jews agreed or strongly agreed.

One point worth noting is the disparity in sentiment toward the liberal movements. Thus, antipathy for Reform Judaism is far more intense among Datiim and Haredim than is the support and sympathy of Hiloni and Masorti Israelis toward them. That is, since Dati and Haredi Jews view the Reform and Conservative denominations as “heretical” movements that demand their active objection.

LEGAL STATUS


A Jerusalem Post Magazine survey (2016) showed that 62 percent of Israeli Jews favored official recognition of the Reform and Conservative Movements; including 87 percent of Hiloni Jews, and 62 percent of Masorti Jews.68
A 2017 Dialogue Institute study found that 61 percent of Israeli Jews thought the Reform and Conservative movements should share equal status with Orthodoxy, including 81 percent of Hilonim and 49 percent of Masortiim. Eighty-nine percent of Datiim and 97 percent of Haredi respondents disagreed.

Similarly, the survey found that 48 percent of all Israeli Jews would accept non-Orthodox conversions, including 78 percent of Hilonim and 46 percent of Masortiim. Forty-three percent of Masortiim, 97 percent of Datiim and 99 percent of Haredim objected or strongly objected.

CRITICISM OF THE RABBINATE AND RELIGIOUS LEGISLATION


A 2016 survey conducted by the Smith Institute for Ne’emanei Torah Va’avodah, a moderate Religious-Zionist organization, showed that 80 percent of Israeli Jews believe that the Rabbinate’s control over marriage and divorce “increases the number of Israelis who choose to wed … abroad,” including 73 percent of traditional Jews and 56 percent of religious Jews. The survey also showed that 56 percent of Israeli Jews agreed that the “amount and content of religious legislation… is distancing Israelis from Judaism,” and 61 percent supported changing this status quo.69

Relatedly, the 2017 Dialogue Institute survey asked if respondents agreed that the Chief Rabbinate contributes to the Jewish identity of Israel and brings the public closer to Jewish tradition in a positive manner. Here, 35 percent of Israeli Jews who participated in the survey agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, while 61 percent disagreed or strongly disagreed. Among them: 13 percent of Hilonim; 30 percent of Masortiim; 65 percent of Datiim and 84 percent of Haredim agreed or strongly agreed with the statement. Conversely, 78 percent of Hilonim, 64 percent of Masortiim, 28 percent of Datim and 12 percent of Haredi Jews disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement. (See figure 16.)

MARRIAGE


Overall, a majority of Israelis, and a clear majority of secular Israelis support the option of non-Orthodox marriage in Israel. JPPI found that 60 percent of all Israeli Jews support civil marriage.70

A 2017 Hiddush survey conducted by the Smith Institute found that 67 percent of Israeli Jews (including 90 percent of Hilonim and 68 percent of Masortiim) support recognition all forms of marriage – including civil, Conservative and Reform. Hiddush points out that in 2009, this number was at 53 percent and has risen gradually since. Hiddush further presents statistics regarding this question according to political party affiliation. They found that the majority of Likud (65 percent) and Kulanu voters (73 percent), and an overwhelming majority of Yisrael Beitenu voters (88 Percent), Zionist Union (91 percent), Yesh Atid (92 percent) and Meretz (100 percent) voters supported such marriage freedom. Forty-two percent of HaBayit HaYehudi voters supported such freedoms as well. Only 13 percent of Shas voters and no UTJ voters at all supported the availability of non-Orthodox officiated weddings.71

When respondents were asked which they would choose for themselves or their children, assuming all options were recognized by the state equally, half noted a preference for a non-Orthodox marriage ceremony (of these, 11 percent said they prefer Conservative or Reform, 30 percent civil marriage, and 9 percent said they would cohabitate without any official marriage). According to the survey, 84 percent of Hiloni Jews preferred a marriage outside the Rabbinate and only 16 percent of Hiloni Jews still said they would prefer to be married through the Orthodox Rabbinate. While general interest in Orthodox weddings has decreased over the last few years among Hilonim, interest in Conservative or Reform weddings has remained steady (at about 17-20 percent of Hilonim), but interest in civil marriage has increased significantly – from 38 percent of Israeli Jews in 2015 to 53 percent in 2017.72

Given the current reality whereby Rabbinate-led weddings are the only legal option for Israeli Jews (inside Israel), 56 percent of Hiloni and 22 percent of Masorti Israeli Jews still said they would prefer a wedding independent of the Chief Rabbinate.73 In all, 23 percent of all Israelis agreed with this sentiment (among these, 59 percent favored a civil wedding, 25 percent a Reform one, 7 percent a Conservative ceremony, and 9 percent an Orthodox wedding but outside the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate).

Similarly, a recent study by conducted by the Smith Institute for the conservative-Orthodox LIBA Center found that 71 percent of Israeli Jews preferred a wedding under the auspices of the Rabbinate, so long as no other official choice is available.74

The Ne’emanei Torah va’Avodah survey showed that 90 percent of Hiloni Jews and 50 percent of Masorti Jews support instituting civil marriage, while a quarter of Dati Jews also supported such a move. Overall, 68 percent of Israelis support recognizing non-religious weddings and 61 percent support changing the legal status quo.75

Similarly, the 2017 Reform Movement study asked if Israel should recognize weddings conducted by Reform rabbis as it does those by Orthodox rabbis. Fifty-four percent agreed, including 86 percent of Hiloni and 47 percent of Masorti Jews. Forty-two percent disagreed, including 44 percent of Masorti, 91 percent of Dati and 97 percent of Haredi Jews. (See figure 17.)

MIXED GENDER SYNAGOGUES


Most Hiloni and Masorti (as well as some Dati) Jews hold non-Orthodox views regarding the role of women in religious life. Thus, JPPI’s 2017 Pluralism Survey showed that over half of Israeli Jews would prefer attending a synagogue with mixed seating (men and women together – including over 60 percent of Secular and 52 percent of “liberal Dati” Jews).76

Similarly, the 2017 Reform Movement study found that 35 percent of Israeli Jews would prefer a “synagogue without a mehitza” (a barrier separating genders) while 19 percent said that the lack of a mehitza would not bother them. Only 46 percent preferred gender separation. It is notable that nearly half (49 percent) of those who self-identified as Masorti said they would not be bothered by the absence of a mehitza, some even answered that they would prefer it that way.77 (See figure 18.)

THE KOTEL


According to Hiddush,78 60 percent of Israeli Jews, including 88 percent of Hilonim said they support the Western Wall (Kotel) compromise reached in early 2016 (and then shelved in mid-2017) and the establishment of an egalitarian section.79 Seventy-eight percent of Datiim and 96 percent of Haredim opposed it.80

The 2017 Reform Movement study showed that 58 percent of Jewish Israelis support allowing egalitarian Reform and Conservative prayer services at the Kotel, while 33 percent said they do not. The same study asked which section of the Kotel respondents would prefer to visit. Overall, 49 percent of Israeli Jews preferred the traditional (Orthodox) section, including 14 percent of Hiloni, 58 percent of Masorti and almost all Dati and Haredi Jews. Conversely, 37 percent preferred the egalitarian section, including 66 percent of Hiloni and 27 percent of Masorti Jews. Seven percent of all respondents, including 12 percent of Hiloni Jews, reported no desire to visit the Kotel at all.

However, when shown a picture of women wearing tallitot (prayer shawls) and reading from a Torah scroll, 46 percent supported allowing the practice versus 44 percent who opposed. Among Masorti Israelis, only 37 percent supported such a practice while half were opposed.81 Similarly, JPPI’s 2016 Pluralism survey found that most Israeli Jews do not agree that women should be permitted to wear tefillin (phylacteries) at the Kotel.82

RELIGION AND STATE


According to a 2016 study conducted by the Smith Institute for the Jerusalem Post Magazine, most (54 percent) Israelis disagreed with the extent of Orthodox influence on state laws (82 percent of Hiloni, 39 percent of Masorti, and 10 percent of Dati).83

Most (59 percent) Israelis prefer that public life in Israel be conducted in accordance with Jewish tradition, albeit of a national and not religious nature.84

HOSTILITY TO REFORM AND CONSERVATIVE JUDAISM


Despite widespread sympathy, it would be a mistake to overlook the deep hostility from the Haredi and conservative reaches of the Dati camps toward Reform and Conservative Jews.85

For example, speaking at a Haaretz conference in June of 2017, Haredi political leader Moshe Gafni publicly commented that the “Reform Movement delegitimizes Judaism” and that he would rather “sit with an Arab than a Reform Jew.”86 He has also stated that, “Reform Jews are stabbing the holy Torah in the back.87 At a recent conference, Gafni said: “We don’t recognize them (Reform Jews) at all, they hurt the Jewish people. The Reform Jews for me are the most serious problem. It’s the worst blow to the Jewish people.”88

Israel Eichler, another Haredi politician, said this about Reform Jews: “They’re not Jews because 80 percent of their kids are assimilators,” and that “whoever wants to uproot Jewish law to lead to heresy, to make the God of Israel something amorphous, to make the Torah of Israel into legends, that’s not Judaism. That’s the destruction of Judaism.” Eichler even accused American Reform-led institutions of corruption, claiming “they take money for Israel from innocent Jews and leave 95 percent of the money in the United States. Where does the money go? To the anti-Israel organizations.”89

Shas leader Aryeh Deri, while calling Reform and Conservative Jews “our brothers,” went on to note that their religious practice is “not the Jewish religion,” that it caused “incredible damage to Judaism,” and that it was an “imitation.”90

Shas MK and Religious Services Minister David Azoulay went so far as to say Reform Jews are not Jewish, but rather “something much further from Judaism than Christianity.”91 He also said, “I cannot allow myself to call such a person a Jew.” Moreover, he stated that, “these are Jews who erred along the way.”92 Azoulay’s son, Yinon Azoulay, who took over his father’s Knesset seat for Shas, blamed Reform and Conservative Jews for the series of earthquakes in northern Israel in July 2018.93

Former Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar, who was behind the public pressure to cancel the Kotel arrangement, compared Reform Jews to Holocaust deniers in their rejection of Jewish law and their damage to the Jewish people. He called the Reform leaders “cursed evil people… (who) even marry Jews and non-Jews…. (who) don’t have Yom Kippur or Shabbat…. (who) want to desecrate the holy.”94
While markedly less hostile, a number of senior Religious-Zionist politicians have espoused dismissive and negative attitudes toward the non-Orthodox movements. Thus, Tzipi Hotovely, a Likud MK and deputy foreign minister recently asserted that Reform and Conservative Jews “emptied Judaism of substance.”95 HaBayit HaYehudi (The Jewish Home party) firebrand MK Betzalel Smotrich called Reform Judaism a “fake religion.”96

In meetings conducted by the author with ultra-Orthodox and Dati individuals and groups, a number of things stood out. First, they do not view Reform (and Conservative)97Judaism as legitimate as it does not emphasize understanding or following Jewish law. Second, since intermarriage is so common, and even conducted (abroad) by Reform rabbis, they suspect a majority of Reform Jews (in America) are not really Jewish, and together with low birthrates, assess that Reform Judaism will disappear in a matter of a few generations. They further view Reform Judaism as “something other than Judaism” and some even said that were the Reform Jews to fight for equal rights as an entirely separate religious group (like Christians or Muslims), they would not meet with the Haredi community’s objection. Rabbi Yeshayahu Horowitz of Arachim,98 a Haredi advocacy group that seeks to reach out to secular Jews, explained that the Haredi community would take less issue with the Reform and Conservative Movements were they to define their version of Jewish practice and thought as cultural and not as a reinvention of Judaism, something to which he feels they do not have the learning or authority to do.

This is partly why he and others tend to have less of an issue with the various expressions of Jewish renewal throughout Israel, many of which are substantively similar if not identical to the Reform and Conservative denominations.

Furthermore, Horowitz noted, on this and other issues, his organization takes issue with the battle for religious pluralism in Israel as it seeks to change the status quo defined during the establishment of the state with non-democratic methods (through the courts) and not through the Knesset.

A 1998 booklet published by the ultra-Orthodox Manof – Jewish Information Center (that Horowitz helped write), used to educate the Haredi public in Israel on “American Reform Judaism” describes Reform (and Conservative) Judaism as failed attempts at managing the emancipation period by transforming Judaism into a Protestant-like religion with a “Jewish shell”; as a social movement and not a religious one; as a gateway to Christianity and a corridor toward assimilation. The book is replete with demographic and other statistics showing the high intermarriage rates as well as the low levels of commitment to Judaism and to Israel, and that due to lax conversion standards and even the welcoming of non-Jews into communities, Reform Judaism cannot be accepted as Jewish.99Anecdotally, a number of those hostile or dismissive of liberal Judaism interviewed (as well as heard on talk-radio, or from conversations with Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews) mentioned Reform Jews conducting “bark mitzvah” ceremonies for their dogs, (which is not a very common or serious practice) as evidence, in their minds, that Reform and Conservative Judaism are ludicrous, shallow and not really Jewish.100

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