The Long, Hot, Miserable Summer for Reform and Conservative Jews in Israel

Is the Rabbinate feeling empowered because the current government depends on ultra-Orthodox support? Or are the pluralistic movements getting bolder because they have nothing to lose?

Rabbi Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi; courtesy Hebrew Union College.
Rabbi Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi; courtesy Hebrew Union College.

By Allison Kaplan Sommer

Struggling against the unchecked power of the ultra-Orthodox Chief Rabbinate in religious and family matters is nothing new for Israeli liberals. This summer, however, the battle has been heating up on several fronts.

Most prominently, one woman has stepped forward to state boldly that she would rather face a stint in prison than be forced into divorce proceedings under the Rabbinate’s authority.

Nathalie Lastreger, a French immigrant and a rabbinical student, has cast herself as a modern-day Joan of Arc in Israel’s wars of religion and state. After she was served with an arrest warrant last week for failing to appear in rabbinical court, she took her story and her crusade public, using both the mainstream media – newspapers, television and radio – and social media in a powerful PR blitz, with help from the staff of the Conservative movement in Israel. On her campaign Facebook page, she issued a call for support announcing that: “A warrant has been issued by the Rabbinical Court of Jerusalem for my imprisonment. I can be arrested at any moment, at any place.”

Lastreger’s personal saga is complex and Kafkaesque. The bottom line: although she is not officially legally married in Israel, she is still being compelled to show up in a religious court in order participate in religious divorce proceedings. The story began many years ago, following a first marriage to an Orthodox rabbi. She said that obtaining a divorce in the rabbinical courts was so painful and humiliating that she vowed never again to submit to its authority. That is the reason, she says, that when she met the man who would become her second husband, she only agreed to marry in a Conservative religious Jewish ceremony.

Conservative and Reform weddings, however, are not legally recognized when performed in Israel. Deliberately, the couple chose not to hold a second civil ceremony overseas in order to be recognized legally as married by the state – a step many Israelis take in order to sidestep the Orthodox Rabbinate’s monopoly on conducting legal weddings for Jews.

Lastreger and her second husband, she says, deliberately chose not to be registered as married in Israel precisely to avoid the Rabbinate courts. Should they part ways, they agreed, they would seek a Jewish divorce certificate – a “get”- through the Conservative movement, which would allow them to avoid the government Rabbinate apparatus entirely.

But times change and people change, apparently. Lastreger’s second husband decided, ultimately, to seek an official divorce in the religious courts. This is common with couples who marry abroad or even those who never marry but live together long-term in a “publicly recognized” relationship.

What is uncommon is Lastreger’s vow to never step foot in the rabbinical courts. She has so far refused to appear at hearings in an act of ideological civil disobedience. That is why she was served with both a legal order barring her from leaving the country – and an arrest warrant.

She wrote on Facebook: “The state of Israel allows the rabbinical court to issue an arrest warrant against a woman like me, who is not even registered as ‘married,’ to appear in divorce court. In doing so, the state of Israel essentially hands the rabbinical courts unlimited authority. We’ve become a state ruled by halacha (Jewish law) .There is no escape. In the Israel of 2015, I am considered a criminal who must go to prison.”

She says she is fully prepared to go to jail in order to fight for the right to be married – and divorced – as a Jew in the state of Israel without being forced to submit to the authority of an institution she believes does not recognize or respect her. “I declare that if I go to prison, it will be with my head held high but with a heavy heart that my beloved country has sold its Jewish, democratic and liberal soul to a small minority of ultra-Orthodox that do not even recognize (the state.)”

Lastreger told The Times of Israel that she feels “hunted” and says she is being targeted since having divorced her first ultra-Orthodox rabbi husband, left the Orthodox belief system she grew up, embracing Conservative Judaism to the extent that she will soon be officially ordained as a rabbi. Even before the divorce issue arose, she has been publicly something of a religious rebel.

The rabbinic establishment has another reason to be ill-disposed toward her: in the past, she had served as Director of Education and Public Policy for Women of the Wall (WoW).

Last week, with Lastreger still making headlines and her legal team preparing to appeal her case to the Supreme Court, police arrested a female participant at the group’s most recent prayer session. On Friday, WoW board member Rachel Cohen-Yeshurun was detained and handcuffed at the Western Wall for attempting to smuggle a Torah scroll into the women’s section

Relations between the Rabbinate and WoW have been gradually reaching a boiling point since the group, for the first time in decades, read from an actual Torah scroll at the Wall. First, the movement sneaked small Torah scrolls into the women’s section at the Western Wall. Then came an incident where a man passed a Torah scroll through the barrier separating the men’s section and the women’s section. The Wall authorities responded to that by enhancing the barrier – hence the need to resume attempts to smuggle an outside scroll in, resulting in the arrest.

All of this comes on the heels of the controversy surrounding the Conservative movement’s Bar Mitzvah of special needs children in Rehovot. That one was a double whammy – striking first when the Rehovot mayor cancelled the ceremony, and then again President Reuven Rivlin refused to allow a Conservative rabbi to officiate at the alternative ceremony that was to have taken place at his residence. Then, to make things worse, Religious Affairs Minister David Azoulay made offensive remarks regarding Reform Jews not once – but twice.

Which leads one to ask: Why now? Is the Rabbinate fueled by an increased sense of empowerment because the current government depends on ultra-Orthodox support? Are they exploiting this opportunity to clamp down harder? Or are the pluralistic movements becoming bolder in their tactics since they feel that they have nothing to lose and more to fight for? After all, the reversal of even the smallest progress in moderating the Rabbinate that took place in the last government has demonstrated that currently, trying to change things from within, is essentially impossible. Matters of marriage, divorce, and conversion are more tightly in the grip of the Rabbinate’s monopoly than ever.

Whatever the answer, one thing is clear. There will be plenty to talk about at at the “multi-denominational learning session” scheduled for Thursday by President Rivlin to “to discuss the importance of Jewish unity and the need to work together to build understanding and respect.”

Whether any “understanding and respect “ can possibly be built in the current atmosphere of distrust and anger, particularly since the chances of any ultra-Orthodox or Rabbinate representation at the session are nil – is highly doubtful.