Freedom of Religion and Equality: The Struggle to Find Their Place in the Promised Land

Rabbi M. Bruce Lustig

The past few weeks in Israel have highlighted her struggle to be both a democratic and Jewish State. While we struggle as Americans to create a society inclusive of all – black and white, LGBTQ and non-LGBTQ – our greatest ally struggles as well to create a democratic society worthy of a Jewish state.

This summer, while studying at Shalom Hartman Institute as a Rabbinic Leadership Institute fellow, I have witnessed firsthand these painful struggles. Though the Israeli government has made no progress on its promise to create opportunities for women and men to pray side-by-side at the Western Wall, hundreds of us (men and women) joined the Women of the Wall – at the Western Wall – on Rosh Hodesh. Together, we prayed and stood in solidarity and support of a woman who risked her safety to read from the Torah. It was a powerful moment indeed! We endured screams and name calling from fellow Jews who know nothing of the reality of our Reform movement.

It is not just the Reform movement the ultra-Orthodox reject. Last week, Israel’s Supreme Rabbinical Court ruled that it does not recognize the Orthodox conversion of a woman performed by American rabbi Haskel Lookstein. Rabbi Lookstein is one of America’s most well-known Orthodox rabbis, and now all of his conversions are being called into question. For this young woman who has since immigrated to Israel, it means she must go through another conversion to marry her Israeli fiancé.

Another woman discovered while serving in the IDF that the Orthodox rabbinate didn’t consider her to be fully Jewish. A Russian-born Jew who immigrated to Israel when she was two, she was raised Jewish and speaks only Hebrew. As she risked her life to defend Israel, she decided to go through an army-supervised conversion to resolve the discrepancy. When she and her fiancé wanted to marry, however, the local rabbi refused. He rejected the earlier conversion and told her that if she wanted to get married, she must go through another Orthodox conversion. She was Jewish enough to risk her life for the State, but not Jewish enough to marry Jewishly or have a Jewish wedding.

And last week, Rabbi Yigal Levinstein, an Orthodox rabbi who heads a prestigious pre-IDF yeshiva, gave a speech where he said, “under the framework of pluralism, soldiers and officers are taught to refer to [LGBT people] as ‘proud,’ but I don’t dare call them that. … ‘Deviants’ is what I call them.”

As a man of faith, I find it so hard to believe that another rabbi – and one who readies soldiers for the military – could make such terrible statements about another human being.

Today, Jerusalem will hold their annual Gay Pride parade, where last year a young woman was murdered for supporting the LGBTQ community.

Indeed, Israel struggles for a more perfect union between the ideal of a democratic state and the opportunity to be a Jewish State. No one has championed the cause more than Rabbi Uri Regev, founder of the Israel Religious Social Action Center and current President and CEO of Hiddush, the organization that leads the struggle for religious freedom and equality in Israel.  Rabbi Regev has given me permission to share with you an open letter, published in The Jerusalem Post, that he wrote to Natan Sharansky. Sharansky is chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, an organization whose mission is to “inspire Jews throughout the world to connect with their people, heritage, and homeland, and empower them to build a thriving Jewish future and a strong Israel.”

Rabbi Regev’s letter is brilliant. In it, he calls upon Sharansky to act for equality for all Jews. As your rabbi, I ask you to do the same. I have been studying our sacred text, which birthed democracy itself, and I hope as you read Rabbi Regev’s letter you will stand and be counted and not let orthodoxy steal the sacredness of the democratic principles we value so much.

Please click here to read Rabbi Regev’s letter in its entirety.

Shalom from Jerusalem,