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Israel's Orthodox Want Only One Way to Pray

A controversial law would grant Orthodox Jews a monopoly on faith in Israel.

During the 10 days of repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur last month, the time when Judaism calls for a period of self-reflection, Rabbi David Amiel-Joel arrived at his synagogue one morning to find swastikas scrawled on it.

That topped other recent acts of vandalism to Congregation Har-El, the oldest synagogue in Jerusalem belonging to the Reform movement - the most liberal of Judaism's three main branches. Acid and feces were thrown on its lawn at night. A kindergarten run by another Reform synagogue near Jerusalem was burned down just before children were about to begin the new year in September. The perpetrators, it is widely believed, were ultra-Orthodox Jews who view Reform and Conservative Judaism as a perversion of the real thing.

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To Rabbi Amiel-Joel, official discrimination against progressive synagogues like his has turned into a disturbing trend of harassment and violence in the year and a half since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's election gave Orthodox religious parties more power than ever before.

That is a power they would like to set in stone with a new law to legalize the de facto policy by which only Orthodox rabbis can conduct conversions to Judaism in Israel. But the bill has infuriated many American Jews - about 80 percent of whom identify with Reform or Conservative Judaism - because it threatens to make the Jewish state the only country in the Western world that doesn't grant Jews religious freedom. The ensuing controversy has presented Mr. Netanyahu with a riddle that he must deftly solve in order to keep his right-wing government in power while preventing a major rift with American Jewry.

Beneath this fraternal feud that some warn could drive a schism in Judaism equivalent to the historic split in Christianity between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, Amiel-Joel sees a bright side. The fact that Orthodox Jews have grown more concerned with denigrating Reform and Conservative Judaism shows that the two newer interpretations of the faith are gaining ground here, he says.

The Orthodox "fear that if people have a choice, they will turn to Reform Judaism, and the Orthodox will lose their monopoly," says Amiel-Joel. "If you look at history, Judaism kept on changing. Every generation has a right to interpret and to change according to its views."

With his clean-shaven face, sporty khakis, and bright blue shirt, Amiel-Joel looks like a man who buys his work clothes at the Gap - a sharp contrast to the garb of most of the nations' religious leaders.

Judaism not a supermarket

More typical is Rabbi Avraham Ravitz, a member of parliament from the United Torah Judaism Party who wears a full beard, black skullcap, and black suit much like the one his ancestors wore in Eastern Europe a few centuries ago. He says he does not harbor any hatred of the kind that drove the recent attacks. Rather, he views Reform and Conservative Jews as brothers whose "mistaken" path has no place in the Israeli system.

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"The Jewish religion is not a supermarket where you can choose to buy whatever you want," Rabbi Ravitz says. "They have no right to come here and tell us that we have to accept their understanding of the Jewish faith. They don't deserve to have control in Israel because they're not here," he says, painting non-Orthodox Judaism as a foreign implant with only a few hundred members. A Reform spokesman says that non-Orthodox supporters number more than 50,000.

And Reform and Conservative rabbis say some 20 to 25 percent of Israelis preparing to marry turn to them to conduct the wedding service, then go abroad for a civil ceremony. (Only religious weddings are permitted in Israel, and Jewish weddings must be performed by Orthodox rabbis.)

Since the Orthodox were given control of religion when Israel was founded in 1948, the rest of the country has developed a "secular" Jewish culture that treated holidays as national, not religious, and encouraged the masses to spend Judaism's holiest days at the beach.

Now, many of those who grew up without a sense of faith are looking to rediscover their spirituality within a more broad-minded, pluralistic framework. "There is an increasing critical mass of people who are interested in spirituality," says Rabbi Andrew Sachs, a Conservative leader here.

History of reform

Reform Judaism started more than a century ago in Germany as an alternative to Orthodoxy. The Conservative movement sprang up later in the United States to serve as a bridge between Reform and Orthodoxy. And while both the Reform and Conservative movements are attracting many immigrants from the West, they are also luring more native Israelis who want an alternative to the all-or-nothing Judaism of Orthodoxy.

Reformists took away some emphasis on rules like not working on the Sabbath and keeping kosher, have made prayer more egalitarian and universal, and made numerous other changes to fit Judaism into modern lifestyles. Some Reform rabbis will perform same-sex weddings: Amiel-Joel performed Israel's first gay union ceremony this year. Conservative Jews have aimed to preserve more traditions, yet interpret them according to 20th-century ideas.

In contrast, Orthodoxy still stresses strict compliance with Jewish law, observance of the 613 commandments outlined in the Torah, and traditional family values. Orthodox synagogues seat men and women separately, do not allow women to become rabbis or cantors, and will not accept converts seeking to become Jewish primarily for the purpose of marriage.

Until recently, non-Orthodox conversions to Judaism abroad were recognized as valid in Israel for purposes of immigration. But Reform and Conservative leaders say that since Netanyahu's election, the government ministries responsible for registering converts as Jews have refused to do so. The non-Orthodox movements have taken their appeals to Israel's highest court to force the state to recognize the conversions. Among the cases are Israeli couples who have adopted babies abroad, had their infants converted abroad by non-Orthodox rabbis, and were unable to register their children as Jews here.

To preempt a court decision that would have ruled in favor of the Reform and Conservative movements, the Orthodox want to turn the unwritten "status quo" into law. And while Orthodox parties do not have a majority in parliament, observers say Netanyahu would have to support the bill or face the possibility of watching his coalition crumble as religious parties quit the government coalition.

Alienating American Jews

But American Jews are more concerned about their relationship with Israel crumbling if their style of worship is effectively ruled illegitimate. Others suggest that American Jews would lose incentive to plead Israel's case in Washington if their affiliate institutions are being pushed aside in Israel.

"The American Jewish polity is going to feel much less inclined to go to their senator to lobby if this law passes," says Reform Rabbi Jonathan Singer of Seattle.

That suggestion makes local Orthodox leaders bristle. Ravitz calls the American delegation "losers" and accuses them of trying to use their money to dictate policy "as though Israel were a banana republic."

Such shooting from the hip promises to continue, even though the sides have agreed to postpone legal action until January and continue looking for a compromise until then.

And some Orthodox Israelis are urging compromise. Avraham Burg, the head of the quasi-governmental Jewish Agency, which recruits new immigrants, says that if the conversion bill passes it will be "the first shot in the civil war of the Jewish people in modern times."

Though he and others have warned of a major Protestant-Catholic-type split in Judaism - and a few of the ultra-Orthodox have even suggested that Reform and Conservative Jews ought to be considered members of another religion - there is actually little debate going on over theology. Judaism's three streams remain different mostly in degree, not kind.

"The real matter that's going on is a political matter under the guise of religion," says Conservative Rabbi Sachs. "It's a struggle for political and financial hegemony. For us, it's a struggle to bring an enlightened form of Torah Judaism to Israel."

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