Egalitarian Kotel Prayer Plan Just Start of Religious Pluralism Debate in Israel

Fights Loom Over Marriage, Conversion and Shabbat Transit

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By JTA

Published April 17, 2013.
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In 2010, the Yisrael Beiteinu party, which draws from a secular Russian immigrant support base, led a push for civil marriage. In a compromise, the watered-down bill passed by the Knesset legalized civil unions only for couples with no religious faith, not for Jews or interfaith couples.

Yesh Atid hopes to use that law as a template for allowing civil unions for any Israeli.

“We plan to work together on these issues,” Yesh Atid Knesset member Dov Lipman, an American-born rabbi, told JTA. “There’s already been significant discussion with all of the religious bodies on compromising on these issues. I do believe we can make significant changes.”

But Yesh Atid’s coalition partner, Jewish Home, reportedly opposes expanding civil unions. Instead, Deputy Religious Services Minister Eli Ben Dahan is proposing measures to streamline the Orthodox marriage process – for example, allowing couples to marry with the Orthodox rabbi of their choosing.

By some measures, the conversion issue has been thornier.

In 2010, a Yisrael Beiteinu Knesset member, David Rotem, proposed a bill meant to give would-be converts more leeway in choosing where and how to convert in Israel. But the bill also would have consolidated control over conversions under the office of the Rabbinate, further weakening Reform and Conservative conversions.

Following an outcry from Jewish leaders in the United States, the bill was shelved. Sharansky was tasked with finding a solution to the dispute, but nothing has materialized. In the meantime, Israel’s Supreme Court was subject to a freeze on hearing any cases relating to conversion.

The high court freeze expires at the end of April.

“Who is a Jew is an issue that will come back,” predicted Uri Regev, a Reform rabbi and chairman of Hiddush, an Israeli nonprofit that advocates for religious pluralism. “The courts making it a headline issue will happen within a few months.”

Public transit may be the issue most conducive to compromise because it does not involve questions of Jewish identity or continuity.

Public buses long have run on Shabbat in Haifa, Israel’s third-largest city, and private shared taxis run in Tel Aviv on the Sabbath. Lipman said Yesh Atid backs running buses on Shabbat in non-Orthodox neighborhoods on a limited schedule.

The one wild card in Israel’s religion and state debate is David Stav, a Modern Orthodox rabbi who will run for the position of chief rabbi in June. If he wins, supporters of the reform-minded rabbi say he will put a friendlier face on the Rabbinate and help unite a divided society.

But in an interview last year with JTA, the reforms outlined by Stav were mostly procedural. For example, he supports the drive to allow couples to marry under a rabbi of their choice.

Regev says the best chance for bringing about far-reaching reforms lies outside the country – in the form of the American Jewish community.

“At this point it’s all a question of applying sufficient pressure,” Regev said. “This subject can’t be pushed under the rug.”


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