‘We need re­li­gious free­dom’

The Jewish Chronicle - - WORLD NEWS - BY NATHAN JEFFAY IN­TER­VIEW YIZHAR HESS BY LIANNE KOLORIN

A VET­ERAN Ortho­dox or­gan­i­sa­tion has called for an end to the re­li­gious mo­nop­oly over mar­riage in Is­rael, and the in­tro­duc­tion of civil mar­riage.

The mod­ern-Ortho­dox group, Ne’emanei To­rah Va’Avo­dah (NTA), launched a cam­paign for change on Sun­day. It is thought to be the first Ortho­dox group to is­sue such a call.

While the Ortho­dox com­mu­nity in Is­rael usu­ally ar­gues that keep­ing mar­riage re­li­gious is es­sen­tial to the coun­try’s Jewish iden­tity, NTA’s spokesman, Tani Frank, claimed civil mar­riage “will re­duce an­tag­o­nism to­wards Ju­daism”.

The cam­paign will in­volve sem­i­nars and lec­tures, and be­gan with an 80-sec­ond video that poked fun at the re­li­gious au­thor­i­ties. View­ers were told that in an age of choice, the rab­binate “comes to the res­cue” by “free­ing you from one sig­nif­i­cant de­ci­sion”, namely who should per­form their mar­riage. “We’ve de­cided for you, be­cause we all know co­er­cion greatly in­creases iden­ti­fi­ca­tion,” it said sar­cas­ti­cally, adding that with think­ing like this, “it’s no won­der ev­ery­one in Is­rael loves Ju­daism”.

Mr Frank said the rab­binate alien­ated many cou­ples through its hard­line stance on Jewish law, for ex­am­ple when rab­bis only let men give women rings at wed­dings and not vice-versa.

NTA does not have a de­tailed pro­posal for chang­ing mar­riage in Is­rael. Rather, said Mr Frank, it wants to trig­ger a con­ver­sa­tion in the re­li­gious com­mu­nity. NTA claimed there was open­ness to the idea af­ter a poll it com­mis­sioned con­cluded 49 per cent of the re­li­giousZion­ist com­mu­nity sup­ported some form of civil mar­riage.

But Yu­val Cher­low, a prom­i­nent rabbi in an­other lib­eral Ortho­dox or­gan­i­sa­tion, Tzo­har, dis­missed the poll as “non­sense”. Tzo­har is a strong critic of the rab­binate, like NTA, but wants it to re­form to be­come more user-friendly.

Rabbi Cher­low said that the rab­binate needed to keep con­trol of mar­riage be­cause it rep­re­sented the “core” of Jewish iden­tity. He also ar­gued civil mar­riage would be used to wed Jews and non-Jews, thus send­ing out the mes­sage that Is­rael approves of in­ter­mar­riage.

IS­RAEL IS the only Western coun­try where Jewish peo­ple do not ex­pe­ri­ence re­li­gious free­dom.

So says Yizhar Hess, chief ex­ec­u­tive of Is­rael’s Ma­sorti move­ment, who is on a mis­sion to end the “mo­nop­oly” Ortho­dox rab­bis have over life in Is­rael.

Mr Hess has been in Lon­don to raise aware­ness of the con­tentious is­sue. In an in­ter­view with the JC, he said: “When the coun­try was es­tab­lished, David Ben Gu­rion needed the sup­port of the ul­tra­Ortho­dox move­ment and for that he was will­ing to make con­ces­sions and give them the keys to Jewish iden­tity.

“He later ac­knowl­edged that that was a mis­take.”

Ac­cord­ing to Mr Hess, 7.1 per cent of Is­raeli Jews de­fine them­selves as Ma­sorti or Re­form. The two strands have long worked to­gether with sec­u­lar ac­tivists to af­fect change.

Mar­riage is key to their ef­forts. He said: “You can be a rabbi of a con­gre­ga­tion of 3,000 peo­ple in Lon­don, but if you’re not Ortho­dox your mar­riage can­not be per­formed in Is­rael.

“This is chal­leng­ing from

“Is­rael should be home of all Jews”: Hess a demo­cratic point of view and harms the Zion­ist na­ture of Is­rael. Is­rael should be, and is, the home of all Jewish peo­ple.”

Many travel over­seas to tie the knot, in par­tic­u­lar to Cyprus and the Czech Repub­lic. “So the clerk of the mu­nic­i­pal­ity in Lar­naka has the author­ity to be recog­nised in Is­rael but a rabbi to mil­lions does not,” said Mr Hess.

“It is sim­ply un­ac­cept­able that a young cou­ple can­not choose how they want to be mar­ried in a state they serve and pay taxes to.”

Ma­sorti Ju­daism be­lieves “the ha­lachah should not be frozen in time but should de­velop over time”.

Cen­tral to that is the Ko­tel, whose sta­tus as an Ortho­dox-dom­i­nated prayer area was un­der ne­go­ti­a­tion for four years. In Jan­uary 2016, an agree­ment was reached to cre­ate a new egal­i­tar­ian space on the south­ern flank of the Ko­tel, but the ar­range­ment has not been im­ple­mented and this year came un­der threat from bills in­tro­duced by Ortho­dox par­ties in the Knes­set. “The Is­raeli gov­ern­ment passed this his­toric res­o­lu­tion but didn’t have the courage to im­ple­ment it due to the se­vere pres­sure from the Charedi par­ties,” said Mr Hess. “In many ways it’s a spit in the face of so many Jews.”

The mat­ter will be de­cided upon in Is­rael’s Supreme Court in June.

PHOTO: FLASH 90

Ac­tivists protest for the right to civil mar­riage in front of the Knes­set

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