Street fights over prayer offer liberal Israelis a chance to define a Judaism they can believe in

September 29, 2023

Masua Sagiv is the Koret Visiting Assistant Professor of Jewish Law and Israel Studies at the Helen Diller Institute for Jewish Law and Israel Studies, scholar in residence for the Shalom Hartman Institute and a scholar of Israeli law and society. The article was originially published by Jewish Telegraph Agency on Sept. 29, 2023.

Israeli, observant Jews living in the United States, and especially here on the West Coast, are aware of  the time difference between them and Israel at the beginnings and endings of holidays. While Israel celebrates — or commemorates — meaningful days, I’m behind, still preparing. So unlike my family and friends in Israel who observe Yom Kippur and found out only after their sundown what transpired on Monday in Tel Aviv, I read reports and watched videos of the clash between secular and religious Jews in Dizengoff Square as it unfolded.

Feeling both devastated by the ruining of Yom Kippur prayers and angry at the provocation and manipulation by those who organized the Tel Aviv services, I entered Judaism’s holiest day with a heavy heart and teary eyes.

And yet, in the days since, I also found some reason for hope that this painful moment was a watershed in Israel’s path, in which secular Israeli liberals may claim Judaism on their own terms, despite a religious establishment that sees Orthodoxy as its only legitimate expression.

In brief, Rosh Yehudi (translated “Jewish head”), an organization whose goal is to spread Orthodox Judaism in secular Israel, received approval from the Tel Aviv municipality to conduct Yom Kippur services in Dizengoff Square. These services have been taking place since the early days of the pandemic, and many people — observant and secular alike — attend them. This year the municipality approved the services so long as they would not include a mechitza, a physical divider separating men and women, a decision that the courts supported. The context of the city’s decision was the ongoing assault by the government and its followers (in the name of religion) on the core values of Israeli liberals — specifically gender equality.

Rosh Yehudi declared it would abide by this condition and many people who just wanted to pray came to its services. Yet right after Yom Kippur started, religious activists — supported by the police on site — created a makeshift divider out of Israeli flags. In response, secular protesters, many of them affiliated with the mass movement to protest the government’s efforts to weaken Israel’s judiciary, interrupted the services by whistling, chanting “Shame!” and removing the makeshift divider, ultimately stopping the services. Similar protests of public Orthodox Yom Kippur services took place at other sites throughout Tel Aviv and other predominantly secular cities within Israel.

For decades, Yom Kippur in Israel has been a unique day. Despite a lack of laws regulating the day, no cars are seen on the roads. Praying, biking, walking and talking, observant and secular Jews mix in the streets and synagogues across Israel. But the events of the last nine months in Israel destroyed that fragile harmony.

Israel is once again caught in a war of narratives. Is it a story of Orthodox activists defying the court’s decision and intentionally causing provocation, forcing gender segregation in the bastion of Israeli secularism? Or is it a story about how Israeli liberals, protesters and the left hate religion and religious Jews?

Setting aside the blame game, the events of Yom Kippur raise two sets of questions for Israel’s future. The first is the nature of the Israeli public square as it relates to Israel’s Jewish character. What should be the boundaries of tolerance to illiberal practices such as gender separation when they are a part of a religious practice? Was the city right to limit the traditional form of Orthodox prayer due to the public nature of the space? Were the protesters wrong in not respecting this tradition? Should attempts at the religionization of the public sphere and political climate be ignored or taken into consideration?

The more profound question — and the one that is much harder to answer — revolves around the nature of Judaism itself. Who claims what in the name of Judaism will have lasting repercussions for the future of Israel long after the particulars of this year’s Yom Kippur are forgotten? And to that end, I want to suggest that a possible change is afoot in how secular Israeli liberals see Judaism.

For decades, Israel has been caught in a social dichotomy: right-wingers are seen as conservative and religious or traditional, whereas left-wingers are seen as liberal and secular. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu embraced this dichotomy as early as 1997 when he claimed that the Israeli left “had forgotten what it means to be Jewish.” He doubled down on this view at the end of Yom Kippur this year when he stated, “The leftists had rioted against Jews.”

This dichotomy is also promoted by the Israeli left. About a week ago, former Meretz leader Zehava Galon shared the following post on X: “The problem with Israeli society is the assumption that there is wisdom in Judaism even though it is a manifest of Orthodox Jewish men who weren’t particularly smart. It’s time for us to realize that … their cart is full of inciting and dangerous nonsense, and it’s time we left it on the side of the road.” Galon represents the view of many in the Israeli liberal camp today who say they are ready to abandon Judaism, which they equate with Orthodoxy interpreted in the most extreme way.

Indeed, for decades haredi and Religious Zionist rabbis and politicians in Israel have sought to dictate only one option for Judaism: an uncompromising religious Orthodoxy. This conception profoundly contradicts the values of Israeli liberals, and therefore many like Galon say they reject Judaism in any form. But in doing this, Israeli liberals also allow the most extreme elements within Israeli Judaism to deepen their grip and shape Judaism as they see fit.

As a result, secular Israeli liberals reduce themselves to a marginalized minority within Israeli society, the majority of whose members seek a connection to tradition and Judaism and distance themselves from values that run counter to it. Surveys show that only a minority of the general Israeli public supports the protesters’ actions on Yom Kippur, regardless of the motivations or provocations of the services’ organizers. If faced with an either/or choice between a discriminatory version of Judaism and universalist liberalism, the Israeli majority will choose the former.

For a long time, only a minority of Israelis actively worked against this dichotomy. Liberal Religious Zionist, Conservative and Reform Jews, as well as Jewish Renewal activists, mostly stood alone in trying to create and defend a liberal Israeli Judaism. But in the aftermath of Yom Kippur, this might be changing.

Opposition leader Yair Lapid shared on X that his neighbor didn’t fast on Yom Kippur for the first time in 30 years to spite the other camp. His response was telling: “You lost. You gave them ownership of your Judaism.” He went on to offer the following observation:

We don’t have anything to prove. And we don’t need anyone’s approval that we are good Jews. We have our own version, no less whole. The version that says that we chose to live in this country because we have roots here. That the Bible is our book, that the Hebrew of Ezekiel and Isaiah is the language of our dreams, that we are part of a community that has memories and commitments. We are the flag bearers of a Judaism that is not messianic, not racist, not arrogant and not violent.

Unlike Galon’s view that implicitly rejects all Judaisms because of how Orthodox Judaism is interpreted today by the government and its followers, Lapid offers an alternative vision by laying claim to a more expansive version of Judaism, whether based on beliefs, culture and/or a shared history.

A nascent but growing chorus of voices in Israel is creating just such an alternative. At nearby HaBima Square in Tel Aviv, a Conservative, egalitarian service took place at the end of Yom Kippur. The Neilah prayer that closes Yom Kippur started with 20 participants and ended with 300. Secular neighborhoods in northern Tel Aviv have plans to build a public secular sukkah and conduct egalitarian Hakafot (dancing with the Torah) on Simchat Torah. And as a response to Police Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir’s ultimately abandoned plans for a prayer/provocation on Dizengoff Square, the protest movement offered public, egalitarian prayer on HaBima Square Thursday night, which hundreds attended.

Two days after Yom Kippur, Magi Otsri, a writer and legal scholar and one of the protest movement’s leading online figures, posted a short video that went viral. In it, Otsri notes that Israeli Orthodoxy’s unwillingness to change the halacha of separating men and women during prayer is based on sexist, power-based notions of women created by men. She asserts that in the past biblical rules were easily changed when it suited religious decision-makers. What’s fascinating is that the secular, Tel Aviv-based Otsri uses arguments that were until now only employed by people internal to Orthodoxy (such as religious feminists). Referring to religious mechanisms for bypassing the prohibition on making loans with interest and the religious rules of war, Otsri is not making her argument on strictly liberal grounds but employing the language of Judaism.

Today, more than ever, Israeli liberals are at a crossroads. In the past nine months, they have articulated a Zionism they have embraced and claimed as their own. Will they leave Judaism behind, or will they claim it too?

Given the rate of shocking events in Israel, discerning social trends in Israel from afar can be overwhelming. But amid the conflicting narratives and deafening discourse, I want to encourage those who care about Israel to listen for and encourage the softer and more subtle sounds of Judaism in the words and deeds of Israeli liberals.

The events on Yom Kippur might lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy of a religious war, where Israeli Judaism will be lost to the hands of religious extremists and Israeli liberalism will disconnect entirely from Judaism. Such an outcome is desired by some in both the Orthodox and liberal camps, not to mention the government. But this is not a foregone conclusion, as the words and deeds of Israeli liberals after Yom Kippur reveal. There is an alternative: a more humanistic and pluralist vision of Judaism that Israeli liberals ought to embrace and nurture if they want to win over Israeli society to their vision of the future.

In Jewish tradition, the High Holidays are days of judgment for the past year and a time for resolutions for the coming year. According to tradition, divine judgment starts on Rosh Hashanah, but the verdict is only submitted for enforcement on the last day of Sukkot, or Hoshana Rabbah — to give people every last chance to set a new course.

The events on Yom Kippur were undoubtedly heartbreaking, but we are still only halfway through the High Holidays. There is no better time in the Jewish calendar for Israeli liberals to change the trajectory of Israeli Judaism. As a member of the protest movement posted the day after Yom Kippur, “The protest movement should do for Judaism what it did for the flag. Embrace [it]. Hard.” Instead of blaming the people or groups responsible for the old dichotomy, we just might be witnessing Israeli liberals taking responsibility for a Judaism they believe in.

Jewish Telegraph Agency