The surprise in the Israeli election was the success of the Yesh Atid (“There is a Future”) party, founded by former journalist Yair Lapid to build a “hevra mofat,” an inspiring society. No longer focusing primarily on an elusive peace process, many Israeli voters voiced a desire for domestic changes. To that end, Yesh Atid responded to the social protests of the summer of 2011, promising to address escalating housing prices, burdensome middle-class taxation, and reduced food subsidies. Yesh Atid acknowledged the need to bring haredi, fervently Orthodox, young men into the military or national service, and then ultimately into the workplace rather than on welfare.
Also momentous was Yesh Atid’s commitment to “religious pluralism.” Lapid has favored permitting women to pray with tallitot at the Western Wall. He has committed to “do everything in my power” to bring about civil marriage. As for the autocratic Chief Rabbinate bureaucracy, Lapid said that “the total dominance of the Israeli rabbanut over marriage and divorce in Israel is an insult to every free man. This is just wrong and therefore it has to disappear.”
Most dramatically, Lapid promised, “I’m going to do everything in my power to ensure equality of all movements of Judaism in Israel — Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform — in conversion, in budgets, in the eyes of the law. No one can claim ownership over the Jewish God.”
Small, petty politics, he said, cannot determine something that is as eternal as the Jewish identity.
What is the urgency for implementing “religious pluralism”? It is not merely that secular Israelis should reclaim the “Jewish bookshelf.” It is not only that Orthodox and secular people should engage with one another. What it most requires is the equalizing of Israel’s treatment of world Jewry’s religious movements. Why?
First and foremost, there is a need to mend a growing breach between Israel and Diaspora Jewry. On a recent U.S. visit, Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, dean of the prestigious Hesder Yeshiva in Petach Tikva, expressed his anguish at the escalating pace of assimilation in the Diaspora, in part due to a “distancing” from the Jewish state.
“One reason for the growing alienation of world Jewry from Israel,” said Cherlow, “is that the state does not recognize non-Orthodox streams.” As a result, non-Orthodox Jews face the fact “that they are not wanted here.”
Saying young liberal American Jews “don’t want to identify with a state that has a religious monopoly,” Cherlow called for state recognition of the non-Orthodox Jewish denominations, not on the basis of Halacha, or Jewish law, but of civics.
Second, Israelis no longer regard the Reform and Masorti (Conservative) streams as “Anglos,” or foreign imports. An Avi Chai Foundation/Guttman Center survey indicates that more than 8 percent of Israelis personally identify themselves with either of these two movements. Thirty percent have attended services at a Masorti or Reform Israeli congregation. More than 60 percent favor equal treatment of these movements by the government. So mainstream has religious pluralism become that Masorti’s prayer book, Va’ani Tefilati, was published by the popular publishing house of Yediot Ahronot. It became a best-seller in its category — a huge change from just a few years ago.
Third, the rapid growth of these two Israeli movements no longer can be denied. Last Rosh Hashana, Masorti or Reform prayer services were conducted at 125 locations, a record. Israelis are turning more and more to the “streams” for bar and bat mitzva ceremonies, for personalized wedding ceremonies, and for burial in a manner that does not exclude female mourners. Youth movements such as Masorti’s NOAM provide a unique synthesis of Zionism, traditional Judaism, and egalitarianism. Israelis are embracing movement-based social justice efforts, early childhood centers, Torah study for adults, integration of new immigrants, and much more.
In sum, a growing number of Israelis indicate they are open to encountering aspects of the Jewish tradition for themselves and their households in a non-coercive manner. This is code word for Masorti, Reform, and the most liberal elements in Israeli modern Orthodoxy, such as Tzohar, an association of liberal Orthodox. The success of Yesh Atid augurs well for the Knesset in addressing social protest issues, integration of the haredim, and the promotion of a long overdue religious pluralism for Israel, a state essential to a healthy Jewish identity for Jews of all streams of Judaism.