By Shimon Z. Klein 

For many of us in Israel, the approach of the High Holydays leaves us with a certain sense of frustration. This is very true of those immigrants who have arrived from Western Countries, more so than immigrant Jews from Middle Eastern countries has. Speaking as one, who arrived from South Africa more than 30 years ago, and who was brought up in a liberal home that fought apartheid and racism in all its forms. We prided ourselves on ethics that Judaism had taught us, even though our life-style was secular. We were always aware of our history as Jews, the racism that Jews suffered over the centuries and culminating in the Nazi holocaust. Somehow, arriving in Israel, I realized that the practice of Judaism is under the realm of orthodox rabbinical, religious party bigots of all forms and sizes. The lack of tolerance for pluralism in Judaism had made a deep dent in religious freedom.

Now with Rosh Hashanah (New Year) upon us, this has become evident more and more. All that remains of religious freedom is the right not to go to synagogue. The official Orthodox Jewish status quo is one of intolerance towards the more liberal streams of Judaism. I think of the Conservative and the Progressive (Reform) streams of Judaism that are viewed as illegitimate. Their rabbis have no rights in marrying couples who do not wish to marry in the Orthodox Jewish tradition and all it entails. Pluralism in Judaism is unrecognized in the official Orthodox Jewish camp which has tremendous powers and decides on the eternal “Who is a Jew” and does not recognize reform or conservative conversions.

The intolerant Orthodox Judaism camp is what decides the Jewish character of the state of Israel. Those who do not agree are pushed into the margins. These attitudes have resulted in many liberal-minded Jews being pushed out of the Jewish observance fold. Orthodox Jewish congregations do receive subsidies from the government. Conservative and Reform Judaism are much maligned, relying on donations from their sympathizers.

The rigid orthodox practices have become the monopoly of self-styled rabbis – graduates of yeshivas, which are narrow in their scope of learning in contrast to the rabbinical schools and universities in the Diaspora where rabbis receive a broad based education and attain university degrees in Judaism. Some rabbis who wield the power are very often associated with narrow Orthodox religious parties such as the Sephardic Shas Party, headed by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, whose Halacha (Jewish Law) rulings, many of which are narrow, have a great influence amongst the economically deprived Sephardic Jews, whose origins are from North Africa and other Arab countries. He often makes comments that are cruel and out of place against his opponents including curses of hell and brimstone towards political opponents such as the well-known ex-Knesset Member, Yossi Sarid. After that he needs “expert commentators” (of which there are many in his camp of bigots) to give a “learned” explanation as to what he really meant after he had made libelous statements against his opponents to avoid court cases of slander. 

Apart from that, there are many “cults” in orthodoxy, many of which have attracted the newly religious to their fold and who have become fanatic in their beliefs. These orthodox streams have all kinds of rabbis from yeshivas of dubious origins, whose influence amongst the newly-religious are great. Many of these newly-religious come from broken homes, involved in petty crime or were drug addicts; their emphasis is on reading tehillim (psalms) all day and praying at every opportunity. Almost every moment of their lives is involved in some kind of religious personal ceremony of some kind and quoting from some oft-quoted biblical source or Talmud, as stipulated by their rabbis whom they hero-worship, in order to gain further candidates to their newly found belief in God. There are a number of orthodox streams, who engage in this form of returning the wayward to the fold. A case in point is the various Hasidic (pious) groups. Many of these self-styled “rabbis” are materialistic. They take advantage of the poor, and economically disadvantaged, who seek help and a promise of a better life. Naturally, they expect a financial donation for their dubious services. Their activities are noticeable at the so-called tombs of Tzadikim (righteous people or martyrs) where they sell their folklore cures laced with blessings.

However, the message portrayed by these groups as well as many state orthodox institutions is very similar. Many view non-Jews as anti-Semites who must be treated with a wide berth. They have an insatiable hate for Arabs and have a strong belief in holding onto territory captured in the Six Day War of June 1967. This is true of religious orthodox right wing Zionists who see these captured territories as Greater Israel that belongs to the Jews as a right. Elements of these people are found in the settler movements living in the heart of Hebron and elsewhere in the occupied territories.

Conservative and Progressive Judaism are considered unacceptable and they do not recognize these movements as legitimate. They see these movements as a threat to their hegemony and the future of the Jewish People. The orthodox establishment has enormous powers in Israel. They are not known for tolerance towards those who do not follow their line.

They have estranged many Jews who left the fold for a secular way of life. The Jewish ethic of “Love they Neighbour as thyself” has received a very narrow interpretation in Orthodox Judaism Israeli style. This ethos has been changed to “Love thy Jewish Neighbour as thyself” and in practice one is not left in any doubt of that. The Conservative and Reform Movements in Judaism are more in keeping with the true spirit of Judaism rather than the Orthodox which has become clerical, intolerant and even racist. They wish to maintain their power by influencing the government in a sort of blackmail in order to gain their support.

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