It would be quite a game-changer if the Orthodox rabbinate in Israel were to recognize Reform Judaism.
But, says one Orthodox Israeli rabbi, when he suggested last week that the topic be discussed, he did not – despite newspaper reports to the contrary – decide in advance what the result should be.
“I did not call for a complete recognition of Reform by the State of Israel,” Rabbi Yuval Cherlow wrote in an email to The Jewish Standard. “I oppose that. I called for us to reflect anew on how to enable someone who does not agree with what I think – about the fullness of halachah – to identify with the State of Israel.”
Taking issue with a headline in Haaretz – the issue of Dec. 16 read “Prominent Orthodox rabbi calls on Israel to recognize Reform Judaism” – Cherlow, a leading Zionist Orthodox rabbi and head of the Petach Tikva hesder yeshiva, brushed off the firestorm that later erupted among fellow members of the rabbinic organization Tzohar.
According to Haaretz, the organization “reportedly distanced itself from Cherlow’s remarks, saying that it ‘opposes any official recognition of Reform Judaism by the State of Israel, in terms of conversions or its general way.'”
“I expect that they will read my words in the original and not in the headlines of the Haaretz newspaper,” Cherlow wrote. “Everybody who reads my words in the original will relate to the seriousness of the words.”
The flap began when Cherlow sent a letter to his students following a visit to the United States. The Haaretz piece was based on that document.
In his letter, Cherlow decried the rate of assimilation in the United States and the increasing alienation many young people feel toward Israel. He wrote that non-Orthodox diaspora Jews do not want to identify with Israel both “because of the occupation, the racism, the control of another people by force” and because the religious movements to which they belong are not recognized.
“For decades I’ve written that halachah doesn’t recognize Reform marriages or conversions … but that does not cut off the Reform from being Jewish,” he wrote. “As such, they’re very important for us, and we must remain connected to them and ask ourselves whether we’re doing enough so that diaspora Reform Jews … will remain connected to the Jewish people – or else be lost.”
The rabbi’s letter said it is important that Israel take some action, whether by declaring that the issue is not on its agenda, raising the wall of separation, or fostering a dialogue in two areas. One, centering on halachic investigations, would yield “a rejection of those [Reform practices] we cannot accept accompanied by acceptance of those with which we can connect.” The other area of discussion would be on “distinguishing between halachic rejection and political inclusion.”
In his email to The Jewish Standard, Cherlow stressed the importance of considering these issues.
“It has to be on our agenda, both because of [Israel’s] responsibility for the entire Jewish people and also because this whole process can chip away at the State of Israel if we don’t know how to go down this path,” he wrote. “It’s not fear that should motivate us but responsibility.”
Cherlow said his call for discussion of these issues is built on two premises: first, that he has properly defined the problem – though he admits that others may frame it differently – and second, “that there is a way to transform the State of Israel into a place that calls also to the Reform and, furthermore, to those who are not identified, so they will tie themselves anew to the Jewish people.”
His goal, he said, is to get beyond “name-calling and a war of slogans [and] put the topic on the agenda.”
The rabbi also called for the problems to be solved “in a free market atmosphere,” saying “the truth will prevail and does not need the power of the state in order to determine individuals’ status and the like.”
Cherlow said he meets occasionally, though not often, with Reform rabbis, and that those meetings take place only outside of Israel “because in Israel the matter is completely different.”
“It’s impossible to generalize,” he said. “There are some from whom I’m very, very distant. There are some who in their soul follow halachah, and they serve in Conservative and Reform congregations as part of the appropriate battle against assimilation. My conversation is mainly with them.”
However, he stressed, “What disturbs me more than those are the unaffiliated and those unconnected to any stream [of Judaism].”
The rabbi said he doesn’t think it is necessary to make changes in halachah to solve this problem.
“There’s a wide enough space within halachah to work,” he said.
Cherlow was among the founders of the Tzohar Foundation, which seeks to revitalize the role of the rabbinate in Israeli society by engaging in a meaningful dialogue with the secular world.
Dr. Alan Brill, who is the Cooperman/Ross Endowed Professor in the Graduate Department of Jewish-Christian Studies at Seton Hall University, noted that while Tzohar is “strict by religious Zionist standards, they’re liberal compared to charedi standards. They’re a group looking to preserve the authority of religious Zionist rabbis.”
Brill, who lives in Teaneck and specializes, among other things, in modern Jewish thought and contemporary Orthodoxy, said that Cherlow is “in the forefront of this new world of more outwardly directed religious Zionist thinkers.”
Noting that the rabbi has called for “embracing issues of our age,” Brill said that much of what Cherlow said in his letter to students is not new. Israel already grants autonomy to the Reform movement in many cases, but some local communities do not enforce these rulings.
Cherlow’s statement, Brill said, “is not novel in itself. His ideas will gain traction if someone picks them up and makes them into a social or political agenda.” Still, “His heart is always in the right place, even if he fails to spell things out.”
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, recently installed president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said he applauds Cherlow’s efforts “to engage all of K’lal Yisrael in Israel, so that all Jews feel welcome in their homeland. We wholeheartedly agree that many non-Orthodox Jews feel alienated by the Israeli government and that the state should recognize non-Orthodox denominations by differentiating between Jewish law and the policies of the State of Israel.”
“We witnessed a vivid example of non-Orthodox discrimination when Anat Hoffman, head of the Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center, was arrested for the praying at the Western Wall, a holy Jewish site that should allow both egalitarian prayer and traditional prayer,” Jacobs said. “There are many other examples of this intolerance: Weddings officiated by non-Orthodox rabbis are not recognized in Israel, and 4,000 Orthodox rabbis receive wages from the state, while only one non-Orthodox rabbi does. The list goes on and on.”
Rabbi Eric Yoffie, past president of the URJ, said that while Cherlow’s original statement neither endorsed nor embraced the Reform movement, “He is saying that the religious situation in Israel is a problem for American Jews; and while this is self-evident, Israelis don’t appreciate and recognize it.”
Calling Cherlow’s observation “a very important message,” he added that the situation creates “an obstacle to the close relations we want and need.”
Yoffie said that a second point Cherlow made is that Orthodox Jews needn’t make halachic compromises in order to deal with the issue.
“We’re not looking for halachic recognition from the Orthodox establishment,” he said. “We want equal treatment by the government of Israel.” Cherlow wants the State of Israel “to make a more inclusive arrangement, not a compromise in halachah,” he pointed out.
“It’s not what we’re asking for,” Yoffie said. “They can do things to move toward inclusiveness and recognition by the government without halachic compromises. This is an important point, for him to say that this is good for the Jewish people. We welcome it.”
Yoffie said that while “calling for discussion is not the same as saying that something needs to be done … let’s acknowledge the wisdom in his original statement, which reflects a reality we hope the State of Israel will recognize.”
The former URJ president said that more attention must be paid to this issue now, as such incidents as the harassment of Women of the Wall continue to escalate.
“They’re not going away,” he said. “American Jews feel more strongly than ever.”
The issue is a hard one, according to Shmuel Goldin, who is Orthodox, head rabbi of Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood, and president of the Rabbinical Council of America. “My feeling is that the whole thing is very complex,” Goldin said. “There are the relationships between the denominations here in the United States, the relationships between American Jewry and Israeli Jewry – all of those are very complex. To make a sweeping statement that suddenly the Orthodox movement is going to accept x, y, or z, and the state of Israel is going to accept x, y, or z – these statements usually are not productive.
“I think that it’s important for all of us to be in conversation and try to understand each other – each other’s parameters, differences, and similarities. There are philosophical differences that do divide us. Wherever we can cooperate and work together we should, but we should recognize those boundaries that we each have.”
Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot, religious leader of Netivot Shalom in Teaneck, shared Cherlow’s consternation over the Haaretz headline.
“Haaretz likes to sensationalize,” he said. Rabbi Cherlow “thinks it is important for the discussion to occur rather than saying this is what should happen. He feels the community should discuss the issues.”
Helfgot said his own view is very similar.
“There has to be a very important distinction made between halachah and the laws of the State of Israel,” he said. “They sometimes get confused.”
For example, he said, “I don’t think halachah, as I understand it, can accept the validity of Reform conversions, since they don’t meet the standards of normative halachic practice, and I don’t see that changing. On the other hand, the State of Israel is not a halachic state but rather is a nation-state of all the Jewish people. Many Jews are becoming alienated because they feel that the State of Israel does not respect the way they practice Judaism.”
“I disagree with that,” he said. “It’s a dangerous thing for Israel, and for support for – and connection between – Israel and the diaspora.”
The issue, he said, is the distinction between the secular state of Israel and its public policy, and what halachah will accept – which, he said, is “a totally different question.”
“Rabbi Cherlow was right and courageous in raising this issue for public discussion,” Helfgot said, adding that as time goes on, “it’s pretty clear that this will become a more contentious issue and ultimately will be decided in the Israel Supreme Court.”
“The writing’s on the wall,” he said. “The issue is going to be discussed very vigorously. God forbid it will cause a schism.”