The Institute for Living Judaism in Brooklyn

ILJB is a non-denominational center for learning that aims to promote tolerance, moderation, and pluralism in furthering the study and practice of our tradition

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"Your vision in putting these programs together is altogether admirable" Rabbi Gordon Tucker
Temple Israel of White Plains

The State of Jews in the Jewish State: Religious Pluralism in Israel

ILJB Conference, co-sponsored with Hadassah Brooklyn Region, Sunday, April 25, 2010, at the East Midwood Jewish Center in Brooklyn.

At 4 in the afternoon, an overflow crowd gathered at the East Midwood Jewish Center in Brooklyn to hear four experts in the field discuss the past, current, and future of religious pluralism in the Jewish State.

After introductory remarks by Dr. Howard Honigman, ILJB’s founder, the topic was framed as “;How does the current relationship between the various denominations and the government serve the best interest of the State and Jewry?”

Rabbi Avi Shafran, Director of Public Relations for Agudath Israel spoke first. He said that while the mixture of religion and government is NOT beneficial per se, it is necessary in his view in order to maintain the defining nature of The Jewish State. The question, according to Shafran is how to resolve the tension between maintaining Israel’s Jewish nature (which requires the establishment of Standards to which all in the Jewish Community can adhere and feel comfortable) and allowing religious pluralism to exist. In his view, the maintenance of Orthodox rules is an attempt by this faction to assure cohesiveness, not to dominate religious or political life. Further, he made an impassioned plea to “tamp down the vilification of Orthodox Jews rampant in Non-Orthodox circles”.

Next to address the crowd was Gershom Gorenberg, Israeli author, journalist and blogger. An Orthodox Jew himself, Gorenberg stressed the essential elements of diversity, debate, and open controversy in Jewish tradition. He feels that the Israeli government should be promoting these values, rather than, as they do now, endorsing one group at the expense of others, leading to an insularity and close-mindedness which is anathema to what he considers the spirit of Judaism. Instead of the current system of religious establishment, there should be maximum separation of religion and the state, (e.g. civil marriages, no bureaucratic Rabbinate, pluralistic education, an end to Haredi military deferments, etc.)

Professor Susan Aranoff, founding Director of Women At the Wall, spoke next; she stated that there is NO religious pluralism (at least for other than ORTHODOX JEWS) in Israel. She questioned the democratic basis for such a situation, labeling it as Majoritarian, not Liberal Democracy, as we understand it in this country. She cited as examples of this condition the painful plight of Agunot as well as Women At the Wall, both having to suffer at the hands of the religious establishment. Aranoff sees this as “a race against time”, in which the future profile of Israel’s policies hang in the balance.

The final speaker was Rabbi Uri Regev, CEO of Hiddush and a longtime spokesman for religious diversity. Regev said that under the current arrangement, the State has chosen one religious position and imposes it on the entire society. He gave disturbing examples of intolerant religious attitudes that were recently revealed in a poll among Yeshiva students, and made the point that in his view democracy requires equal treatment for all factions. He emphasized that this is the founding vision of Israel, stated clearly in its Declaration of Independence, and supported by two thirds of Israelis today, but it is yet to be fully realized.

A roundtable discussion among the participants ensued, followed by a question and answer period for the audience. Dr. Honigman thanked the speakers and audience for the success of the conference.

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