Democratic Values and the Jewish State: A Work in Progress

Learning ways to manage controversies between state and religion can also teach individuals and institutions ways of dealing with conflict in other areas of life. These include interpersonal relationships in matters as simple as how to listen to the other, how to find growth in controversy, how not to abdicate responsibility prematurely, and how to figure out when to choose tenacity and when to compromise.

The challenge of living in a country that is both Jewish and democratic is something every Israeli encounters on a daily basis. For me – as a religious woman, a feminist, committed to human rights and unreservedly loyal to the Israeli tradition and Halacha – the challenge is a continuous internal experience that brings both the relations between Jews and Arabs and the relations between Jews themselves into sharp relief. However, in this framework, due to the brevity of the paper, I will focus only on the latter.

Public Space Rights

Our Minyan Mirpassot, (Minyan of the Balconies), was formed in April 2020, at the height of Covid crisis; we were not permitted to gather in groups. Every Shabbat morning I would stand on my Jerusalem balcony and listen to the chazzan’s Shacharit from one street over, the Torah reading from downhill, and the Levite’s faint aliyah from somewhere distant. We kept our “Balconies” title even as we moved to the street for many months; such “street shuls” existed all over Jerusalem during the pandemic.

One Shabbat morning, August 2022, five women sit at the curb, eyes in their siddurim. Suddenly a resident in full running gear zips past us saying loudly, angrily, “You don’t own the street.”

What? We were not blocking the street! A driver’s ed car had driven by moments earlier. On and off during the past year, I had wondered what were the sentiments of the few runners and drivers who barreled down the street during our prayer. But now I knew. My immediate reaction to the runner’s anger was to arch my spine. My neighbor murmured, “What’s his problem?”

Yet, slowly I began to put myself into his citizens’ shoes: Had I usurped his public, secular space? Did our presence imply a holier-than-thou superiority? Had we overstepped or overstayed our coronavirus welcome?

Until that moment, I had not perceived the street minyanim as a clash between the Jewish character and the democratic character of our state. The Jewishness of the state entitled me to aggrandize public space. My perception was that all who saw their fellow Jews praying together should be proud that we are adding kedusha – holiness – to the tar and concrete of the neighborhood. Indeed, oftentimes it tickled me to observe random, non-religious passersby stop briefly and lower their heads to receive the birkat kohanim (priestly blessing), should they happen to catch the right moment.

Suddenly I am filled with gratitude to all of our non-religious neighbors who graciously tolerated our group as we read the Torah aloud and softly sang our prayers together. I felt an impulse to throw a lavish kiddush for neighbors who didn’t interpret our minyan as a discriminatory claim on public space – and for neighbors who did.

The Personal Status of Women

Divorce: Because this is a Jewish state, the rabbinic courts and traditional Halacha were given jurisdiction over personal status and marriage and divorce. But under Jewish law, women are unequal in marriage and are deprived of their human rights in violation of democratic norms.

Like other aguna activists who have worked on this issue for five decades, I still find each case mind-numbing. Potential for abuse and injustice exists in a divorce law that gives the husband control over the gett, the official writ of divorce. He can give or not give the gett; it must be given of his own free will, not extracted under coercion. A woman can bring testimony that she has been beaten, eyes blackened, threatened with death, cheated on, cursed in front of her children and parents. She can testify that she abhors the husband who left her eight years ago. But without a gett, she remains an aguna, unable to move forward with her life. The judges offer little help, claiming their hands are tied by Jewish law. They have been installed by government, democratically elected, but they have been given license to deprive women of their rights via their interpretation of Jewish law.

Rabbinical court judges are not inherently cruel, but they are more faithful to the strict interpretation of the law than to ethics, justice, and the human rights of the women standing before them.

In some cases, women suffer from violent husbands. But in the majority of cases, savvy husbands are satisfied with wielding their “gett power” over their wives to extort money, gain property, and increase custody rights, i.e., the fearful price tag on freedom. A study done by Bar Ilan University’s Rackman Center found that 30% of divorce cases in the rabbinic courts involved gett extortion. Yet, the actual number is probably higher because many women prefer to pay up front rather than be dragged through the courts as an aguna. Finally, some of the hardest cases to resolve are those where the husband is neither violent nor extortionist, but simply withholds the gett to spite the wife he now hates.

Violence, extortion, spite. What could be worse than all of this? – the fact that solutions to the problem of husband-recalcitrance do exist but the Chief Rabbinate and its courts choose to ignore them. Over the centuries, beginning with the Talmud, Halacha mercifully developed laws and precedents to free a gett-refused wife. One such tool was the court’s coerced gett, the brilliant “kofin oto” – we force him – until he says, “I want to give her the gett.” non-gett solutions were also developed and intermittently called into use by compassionate rabbis. These procedures remained on the books as alternatives to the injustice of iggun (marital captivity). In other words, the Chief Rabbinate has chosen to not acknowledge benign halachic solutions of earlier Torah scholars, thereby keeping thousands of women in dire straits.

Interdenominational Strife

I am at an inaugural prayer service at Ezrat Yisrael, the compromise platform built for liberal Jews at Robinson’s Arch. Men and women are seated together as is their custom. Several prayer books have been defaced by vandals. A few hecklers lean over the walkway above. Orthodox Jews like myself stand around the perimeter, as if to protect this group. The Kotel guards are alert but quiet.

The Rabbi of the Western Wall, chosen by the Chief Rabbinate, has organized matters so that even a small minyan outside of the Kotel area remains unprotected, vulnerable. Bystanders, including Orthodox American rabbis who serve as directors of the Western Wall Foundation, don’t want to get involved.

Hateful curses of “Nazi” and “goyim” can be heard at other organized attempts of liberal Jews to pray together at the Kotel, such as Women of the Wall. Their objects: those who do not fit the Keepers of the Wall image of who is a Jew as well as those who show support for them.

Thus, many secular Jews have become anti-clerical if not anti-religious in their attitudes toward Judaism and religious Jews. Similarly, many American Jews are offended by statements such as those denying that Reform Judaism is Judaism and calling Reform rabbis clowns.

All of this has resulted in a pushback of anger, ill-advised threats to withhold financial support for Israel and, at the very least, emotional withdrawal of love for the Jewish state that was once a feature of all Diaspora denominations.

In short, the Jewishness which the Chief Rabbinate advocates is in constant conflict with the democratic character of Israel.

Women’s Prayer

For the past 30 years, I have intermittently joined the Orthodox Rosh Hodesh services of the      Women of the Wall (recently renamed OWOW – Original Women of the Wall). Per Kotel Rabbi edict, women are not permitted to use the Kotel Torah scrolls available to men’s minyanim, nor may women bring their own Torah scrolls to the sacred Wall. So each month they “smuggle in” a small Torah scroll in a backpack, and each month, the Kotel plaza guard repeats the admonition, same lecture: “You know this is not permitted. Don’t do it again.” Thus has the group prayed together for three decades.

Yet the matter is more complex: some female regulars in the Kotel women’s section – mostly Haredi – feel that the very presence of our group violates their sensibilities, if not their very rights: the Jewish state’s entitlement of women to pray in a kosher sacred space, not violated by non-halachic norms such as women’s prayer groups.

Still, I like the fact that the OWOW tefilla with its Torah reading is modest, non-confrontational, 20 or 30 chairs set up at the back of the plaza where it doesn’t bother anyone other than those who come to curse. I like the sensitivity of this group of middle-aged women who do their religious thing with quiet determination not bent on disturbing the peace or upending the equilibrium of others. At the last tefilla, a busload of Ethiopian women, dressed in ethnic finery, visited the Kotel. Some of them spotted our group, slowed down on their way towards the sacred Wall, showed surprise, thought for a moment, and then smiled at this odd community. This is also the way change is made.

Women’s Rights

These are but a few examples of the clash between women’s rights and the dictates of a religious state. Yet one cannot offer a critique without telling the whole story of women in Israel. In the last 60 years, they have made great strides, similar to women in other progressive democracies. This includes minority women and Haredi women as well. No profession, discipline, educational goals, leadership roles, or dreams are off limits to women. Women’s voices count in politics, economics, social services, medicine, academia, and industry; in all these areas, they are present in good numbers.

In the modern religious community, women have made strides in areas formerly closed to them:       heads of learning institutions, ordained rabbis, recognized scholars, synagogue leadership, and more.

And regarding a major privacy issue, while women in America recently battled a pullback of Roe vs. Wade, the Israeli medical system was modifying its control over women’s right to make private decisions. Until recently, a Jewish woman seeking abortion had to appear before a medical/social service panel that would decide whether she was entitled to proceed. Now, she simply gives her reasons for choosing to abort, an information gathering process at most.

These are the images of a Jewish state that I carry with me, counter to the sexist and apartheid epithets with which Israel is often tarred. Women are not fully equal in some areas of life but given the religious sectarian nature of the state, given that gender equality is a fledgling human right, Israeli women are well on their way. These significant changes are all the more remarkable, considering that it has all happened within a short 75 years, the blink of an eye as Jews count time.

What can be done?

No magic bullet exists to resolve the inevitable conflicts. Yet, I believe there is value in that struggle – between those who want the state to preserve its religious nature and those who see the established religious practices as a constriction of their democratic rights. There is value in the process of sorting it out and value for both sides in believing that some things in life are simply non-negotiable.

For example, in the matter of who owns the public space, a metaphor for the legitimacy of the other, a healthy, ongoing conversation might well open the lines. Anyone can take the lead in facilitating such openings.

In matters of the civil rights of women, the larger silent majority must be conscripted to this cause of recognition, conciliation, and elimination of abuse. Any well-intentioned citizen can catalyze the process. I have always wondered why the non-Orthodox community, whose majority still places itself under rabbinical authority in marriage and divorce, has not risen to protest inequitable Jewish divorce law. And why the Modern Orthodox community has not turned out en masse to protect the welfare of liberal Jews.

Many of the areas of conflict and many of the human rights violations lie at the feet of the Chief Rabbinate, the very institution that embodies the Jewishness of a democratic state and that creates policy and directs action. This includes not only issues raised above – broader conflict over public space, unrelenting opposition to non-Orthodox prayer and ritual in any setting, treatment of women in divorce – but also other issues as well: restrictions on non-Orthodox rabbis to perform rituals and ceremonies, de-legitimation of the Modern (non-Haredi) Orthodox, censure of gays, control over defining who is a Jew, and conversion policies. New issues, such as the IDF advancing the role of women in its ranks are open season for the Chief Rabbinate.

The Chief Rabbinate must be reined in. That, or be disestablished. Disestablishment of the rabbinate is an outcome I would not like to see but I would understand as in the best interest       of the state, the religious community and the rabbinate’s own legitimacy which is currently challenged by the majority. Absent reining in and as an alternative to the “nuclear” option of disestablishment, a religious multi-establishment might be the answer, i.e., pluralizing the Jewishness of the state and democratizing it by legally recognizing multiple religious streams and their rabbis.

In the end, I acknowledge that resolving the tensions between the Jewish and democratic natures of Israel must be done at the political level. But I have chosen to focus on the day-to-day interactions and the human experience of living inside those tensions. Learning ways to manage controversies between state and religion can also teach individuals and institutions ways of dealing with conflict in other areas of life. These include interpersonal relationships in matters as simple as how to listen to the other, how to find growth in controversy, how not to abdicate responsibility prematurely, and how to figure out when to choose tenacity and when to compromise. Valuable life skills.


Blu Greenberg is an American writer specializing in modern Judaism and women’s issues. Her most noted books are On Women and Judaism: A View from Tradition, and Black Bread: Poems, After the Holocaust.