Rabbi May Meet With Lesbian Inmates

By Elli Wohlgelernter

Published December 12, 2003, issue of December 12, 2003.
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JERUSALEM — The Reform and Conservative movements appeared to win a small victory against Israel’s Orthodox religious establishment this week when a representative of the Israel Prison Service said a Conservative rabbi would be granted permission to meet with two lesbian inmates.

While attorneys working on behalf of the Conservative rabbi said they had not yet been informed of such a decision, a Prison Service legal adviser told the Forward that the rabbi would be allowed to visit privately with the pair.

“They will get the opportunity to meet with this Reform rabbi as a visitor,” said Chaim Shmulewitz, a legal adviser to the Prison Service, misstating the rabbi’s denominational affiliation. “There will be no problem. But he will not be allowed to hold any religious ceremony because he is not authorized by the Chief Rabbinate.”

The Prison Service in August denied Rabbi David Lazar, spiritual leader of Conservative Congregation Tiferet Shalom in Ramat Aviv, from visiting the two prisoners who had requested to meet him for spiritual counseling. The Prison Service had argued that only rabbis approved by the Chief Rabbinate are allowed private visitation rights with prisoners.

Turned down because he lacked accreditation from the Chief Rabbinate — which only grants such credentials to Orthodox rabbis — Lazar turned for help to the Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center. Attorneys at the center, which fights for religious pluralism, petitioned the Tel Aviv District Court to order that the two inmates be allowed to meet with any rabbi they choose.

“We say that it is a breach of prisoners’ rights for freedom of religion and freedom of conscience, and it is their right to meet with any rabbi they wish to according to their beliefs,” said Rachel Radian-Tal, one of two lawyers handling the case for the center.

Lazar said the two inmates — who cannot be identified due to a court gag order — had requested to meet with him because he is “well known in many circles as a rabbi who’s friendly and involved in the gay and lesbian community in Israel. So they asked for special permission for me to come. Not at the regular visiting hours and through a screen, which would only be one-on-one, but a meeting as a rabbi with two people as a couple, one-on-two.”

Lazar and Radian-Tal said that the Prison Service was afraid that the two women were seeking a rabbi to perform a wedding ceremony. Lazar and Radian-Tal, however, insist that this was not the case.

“The two women are involved in an intimate way and want to speak to me about how that fits in from a Jewish point of view,” Lazar said. “But it’s not about getting married in a prison. I can’t emphasize that enough. My assumption is that they turn to a rabbi because they want to enrich their lives from a spiritual point of view. Does that mean getting married in a chupah? Maybe someday it will. Does that mean, davka, happening in a prison? I don’t know that to be true — I don’t know yes, I don’t know no. I understand the problematics involved. But right now they are a couple that wants to talk to a rabbi about them being a couple.”

Radian-Tal said that the case always has been solely about a non-Orthodox rabbi being given the same rights as an Orthodox rabbi, and not about the sexual orientation of the prisoners.

But she said that the Prison Service “from the beginning tried to draw attention to the wedding. And we said all along, this is not the issue at the moment. I don’t deny that the subject can come up in the meeting [with the rabbi] — one of the issues may be whether or not they should, or how can they get married — but the purpose of the meeting is not to hold a wedding ceremony. The purpose is to consult with a rabbi.”

Lazar, who immigrated to Israel from Los Angeles as a teenager 30 years ago, said he understood that the local prison rabbi might object to his presence, sensing a threat to his turf. But he said he assumed that once a petition was filed with the courts and the state attorney was forced to get involved, “people would understand that non-Orthodox Jews one way or another could no longer be bullied around with this kind of stuff. That’s what surprised me, that once it got up to the higher level, I thought — naively I guess — that people would realize that the State of Israel is changing.”

The prison service did allow for Lazar to see the couple during regular visiting hours. But this was unacceptable, he said, “because to talk through a screen with a bunch of other people right there next to you — there’s no privacy involved. These are very private issues. It’s really nobody else’s business.”

The Tel Aviv District Court’s hearing of Lazar’s case was scheduled for January 7, but if permission indeed has been granted for the rabbi to see the couple, the hearing will be canceled and the case closed.

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