The Masorti Foundation for Conservative Judaism in Israel

On 5th August 2018, publicist Motti Karpel published an article in Makor Rishon asking where “progressive Judaism” in Israel is headed. Whilst insisting that Orthodoxy is the authentic continuation of “historical Judaism,” he also makes the preposterous claim that the Masorti (Conservative) and Reform movements are working “to undermine the Jewish identity of Israel and its society.”

Karpel contends that Masorti and Reform in Israel can be characterized as: a) “collaborating with the left-wing organizations of the New Israel Fund;” b) forcing the state to recognize their status by appealing to the High Court;” and c) insisting on an “all or nothing” approach.

The following is my response to Karpel’s outrageous article, published on 17th August 2018, also in also Makor Rishon.

I was astounded to read Motti Karpel’s article, in which he demonstrated a great disrespect and ignorance. Not only did Karpel refer to the Masorti-Conservative and Reform movements as “different religions” such as Christianity and Islam, but he also excoriated the women’s movement, the LGBT community, the Women of the Wall, and others.

The article opened with a demonization of “progressive Judaism” by connecting it to the New Israel Fund (“the fund for a new Israel”, as he put it). I personally am pleased to work together with the NIF to advocate for religious pluralism in Israel. In any case, is it really fitting for an in-depth argument about various Jewish outlooks – on faith, religious worldviews, mitzvot and halakhah – to be so callously and crudely bound up in the left-right political argument?

Karpel thinks that my colleagues and I are not suitable interlocutors when it comes to Torah, service of God and theological viewpoints, for we are operating “to undermine the Jewish identity of Israel and its society.” I was dumbfounded when I read those words, words which prove a complete lack of understanding about who we are and what we do.

The Conservative movement – or Masorti, in Israel – joined the Zionist movement when it was established and has ever since championed the Jewish people’s right to return to its homeland to build a sovereign Jewish state. Rabbi Prof. Solomon Schechter, who reshaped the movement’s first rabbinical seminary, not only participated in the 11th Zionist Congress as seminary chancellor, but also took care to bequeath to his students the love of the Land and People of Israel, as well as the religious import of the return to Zion. Likewise today, Conservative Judaism stands courageously and decisively at Israel’s side, with many North American Zionist leaders being counted among our members.

How easy and privileged is it for someone affiliated to Orthodox Judaism in Israel to complain about the modus operandi, which he terms as improper, of the other religious movements and their attempts to gain recognition by (also) appealing to the High Court. Israel’s Orthodox monopoly benefits not only from an enormous annual government budget of a billion shekels, but also from political power in the Knesset, and from a reality that basically prevents the other streams from telling their story. The Orthodox narrative of Judaism, present in every corner of the public Israel’s domain, creates the false impression that there is only one legitimate expression of religious Judaism. This attitude is both arrogant and unauthentic. What of the Rabbis (of the Mishna and Talmud) who claimed that there are 70 facets of the Torah?

If there is at all an “historical Judaism,” then it is represented by the Masorti movement, as writes Rabbi Mordecai Waxman in Tradition and Change, published in the US in 1958:

“Reform Judaism has asserted the right of interpretation but it rejected the authority of legal tradition. Orthodoxy has clung fast to the principle of authority, but has rejected the right to significant reinterpretations. The Conservative view is that both are necessary for a living Judaism. Accordingly, Conservative Judaism holds itself bound by the Jewish legal tradition, but asserts the right of its rabbinical body, acting as a whole, to reinterpret and to apply Jewish law.”

The claim that Rabbi Dov Haiyun “officiated at the wedding of a mamzer” is erroneous.  Rabbi Haiyun, who is bound by halakhah (the same as Karpel’s halakhah), also knows about the prohibition of drawing out legal proceedings. Therefore, he examined the claim of mamzerut as speedily as possible. It is the Haifa rabbinical court that was negligent and did not fulfil its halakhic duty to clarify the case. If anybody thinks that a year and a half is an acceptable amount of time for clarifying such a claim, then let them stay with the haredi establishment that drives many Israelis to reject our tradition.

Karpel suggests that most Israeli Jews are Orthodox and that all think that the other streams should not be countenanced. This is simply not true. The Orthodox constitute about 20% of the Israel’s Jewish population, and only 10% in North America. According to the Israel Democracy Institute’s Peace Index from July, 59% of Israeli Jews support state recognition of religious marriages performed by Conservative and Reform rabbis. This data includes a majority of “traditional” Jews, which the Orthodox establishment likes to claim as its own.

As the rabbi of a Masorti congregation in Israel, every year I officiate at a number of weddings for Israelis. They do not fall under the state rabbinate’s category of “inappropriate for Jewish marriage” but are “good” Jews who have come to abhor the Orthodox establishment. When I ask why they decided to wed outside the rabbinate, I hear about this abhorrence and an unwillingness to be associated with the state rabbinate, a desire for an egalitarian, halakhic wedding and a rabbi with whom they can connect.

“Progressive Judaism” allows hundreds of thousands of Jews in Israel, and millions abroad, to authentically express their Judaism, according them relationships to historical Judaism whilst living in the 21st century. The reform of Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakai, after the 70 CE destruction of the 2nd Temple, forged rabbinical Judaism as we know it today. Since then, halakhah has continued to change according to the needs of each generation. It is a shame that Orthodoxy, founded in the wake of the 19th century Reform, does not see fit – at least in Israel – to continue the lifework of Rabbi Yohanan.

Rabbi Mikie Goldstein is president of the Rabbinical Assembly of the Masorti Movement in Israel and rabbi of Kehillat Adath Shalom-Emanuel in Rehovot.