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Knesset member challenges ultra-Orthodox influence in Israeli society

Knesset member Rachel Azaria. Photo courtesy of Maayan Jaffe-Hoffman
Knesset Member Rachel Azaria. Photo courtesy of Maayan Jaffe

Knesset member Rachel Azaria. Photo courtesy of Maayan Jaffe-Hoffman

JERUSALEM (RNS) Knesset member Rachel Azaria’s office is sparsely but intentionally decorated, with a Hebrew translation of Martin Luther King Jr.’s biography and framed photo of her role model, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.   

The daughter of an American immigrant, Azaria spent her childhood shuttling between the U.S. and Israel. This has led her to try to quell the eruptions between American and Israeli Jews over questions of religious practice.

Azaria, 38, adapts her Orthodox Judaism to Israeli secular life. Since March 2015, she has represented the center-left Kulanu party, and has been described as the only member of Israel’s 66-member coalition government willing to challenge the ultra-Orthodox monopoly on family rights and religion-and-state issues.

She led efforts to temper the July 2016 Mikvah Bill, which would have given the Chief Rabbinate, which stringently interprets Jewish law, unbridled authority over ritual baths, even making use by liberal Orthodox Jewish women uncomfortable. 

But with respect to the delay over the implementation of a January vote by the government to create an egalitarian prayer space next to the Western Wall, Azaria hopes American Jews can be more understanding that Israelis are still “figuring out” what it means to live in a Jewish state.

“I know Reform and Conservative leaders have no more patience,” Azaria told RNS, after the liberal Jewish leaders earlier this month threatened to rescind support for Israel over the delay.

This year, crises also erupted over the Chief Rabbinate’s refusal to recognize conversions that were authorized by several mainstream American Orthodox rabbis, including Rabbi Gedalia Dov Schwartz, the head of the council that overseas Orthodox conversions in America.  

Azaria said the country’s recent controversies over work that was being done on a state railroad line on the Sabbath that nearly toppled the government coalition, and the battle over the ritual baths, are symptoms of a country that hasn’t had time to embrace a joint civil vision. 

“When the state was founded, its leaders let the ultra-Orthodox handle issues of religion while they dealt with wars and building the economy,” Azaria said. “Determining who we are and what we stand for is this generation’s task.”

Fighting for religious equality

As a Jerusalem City Council member, Azaria organized controversial nontraditional Sabbath programming for nonobservant families, reducing emigration from the city. As deputy mayor, she protested the public bus company’s decision to cease running women’s images due to ultra-Orthodox pressure. The “We are Jerusalemite women – Pleased to meet you” campaign led courts to declare women could not be excluded from ads.

She described Israel’s battle over religion and state as a “civil war of words,” which she said could be equated to the physical war in the U.S., which broke out 85 years after America’s founding.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin has said that modern Israel is dominated by four groups (the word he uses is “tribes”): ultra-Orthodox, secular and national-religious Jews, and Arab Israelis. Azaria said for Israel’s first 65 years, each of these tribes thought they would ultimately grow enough to trample their competitors and set the state agenda.

“All these groups are starting to realize they are not going to take over,” Azaria said. “This is the first stage.”

 The way she sees it, the state’s Jewishness evolved naturally and is interwoven into society. The Sabbath is set apart by soldiers and university students who travel home or visit friends, pop-up flower stands that appear Thursdays and disappear Fridays at sundown, special Sabbath newspapers and challahs.

“Anything not divisive we figured out. Now there are conflicts,” she said.

Azaria believes in working from within the system. Despite its center-left positions, her party joined Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing government coalition, and she believes she can accomplish much more than opposition lawmakers by learning to “play the game” inside the coalition.

Azaria’s campaigning led to a reworking of the mikvah legislation, including the establishment of and funding for four new state mikvahs for the roughly 250 annual Reform and Conservative conversions. She also ensured women will be able to reject a rabbinate-appointed mikvah attendant.

Religious feminist activist Tehila Nachalon, using the Hebrew term for ultra-Orthodox Jews, says Israel’s conflict “is not a battle of non-Haredi versus Haredi. It’s a fight against extremism.”

She has worked alongside Azaria for 15 years, and says having her in the Knesset now has greatly helped the cause of religious equality.

“There are few others like Rachel, certainly no other women,” she said.

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  • “Michael Luther King, Jr.”? How can you miss this error in such a short article?

    Everyone’s got problems with the fundamentalists in their religions.

  • I hope she is successful. It doesn’t work in a democracy to allow a small, unelected group to have so much power and authority. As this article makes clear, their authority extends beyond their particular religious group.

  • With no disrespect to the Chief Rabbinate and the ultra-orthodox, if I may quote Jesus, they seem to be “swallowing a camel, while straining out a gnat.” Their objections do not appear to be based on spiritual or moral considerations, but rather on symbolic and ceremonial ones. Though as Orthodox Jews, I appreciate their concerns with respect to violations of the Sabbath, even though Jesus as a rabbi made illustration of the fact that if one’s donkey fell into a ditch on the Sabbath, no one would condemn him for lifting it out. But, of course, the Orthodox are not bound by or inclined to receive the teachings of Jesus.

  • Before Jesus the rabbis had already decided that saving a life takes precedence over keeping the Sabbath. They didn’t ‘t need Jesus to do that.

  • Still, the fact that He felt it necessary to frame the question certainly suggests that it was not a settled matter among the faithful.

  • They debated everything. That doesn’t mean it was settled or unsettled. That’s how you study. You should be able to argue either side.

  • It says more about debates among Christians. It was part of attempt to prove the moral superiority of Christianity over Judaism.

  • This is an absurd, overly-flattering puff piece.

    “the only member of Israel’s 66-member coalition government willing to challenge the ultra-Orthodox monopoly”? Seriously? When the entire Jewish Home party teamed up with Yair Lapid in the last coalition to lock the ultra-Orthodox out of the coalition and pass conversion reform and draft reform legislation?

    The article even obliquely admits it later: “the country’s recent controversies over work that was
    being done on a state railroad line on the Sabbath that nearly toppled
    the government coalition”. If Azaria’s the only one in the entire government willing to challenge the ultra-Orthodox monopoly on “religion and state issues”, does that mean she’s the one who approved the work, triggering the controversy? But she isn’t the transportation minister…

    Blame Netanyahu for giving in to the ultra-Orthodox parties too much if you like, but don’t try and claim that the rest of the coalition – or even the rest of Netanyahu’s own party! – agrees with him, and that Azaria is some kind of heroic lone voice in the wilderness.

    Also, don’t try and claim that Azaria is a principled activist. I personally disagree with Azaria on a *lot*, but a friend of mine who has admired her and followed her career for many years has been very disappointed with how suddenly she changed and diluted her beliefs once she left the Jerusalem City Council. I pointed out to said friend that Azaria got into a Knesset by way of a celebrity party, which explains the change: celebrity parties are dedicated to no true beliefs other than the advancement of the celebrity at its head. Like every celebrity party,
    one quickly discovers that none of its members are truly principled – they become infected with the overarching belief in the charisma of that celebrity, abandoning all other beliefs.

    It’s why Kadima failed utterly, it’s why Yesh Atid collapsed, it’s why Hatnua wouldn’t even have crossed the threshold last election without help, and it’s why all of Kulanu’s voters are disappointed with their failure to accomplish, well, anything since entering the Knesset.

  • At the time Jesus taught, Christianity as such did not exist, His discourses were directed primarily to the Jews, and it was His inclination and purpose to settle all spiritual questions. .

  • Even in debate, I would think the ultimate purpose would be to find a settlement to which most if not all could concur. Debate without desire to resolve only creates a purposeless cycle of repetition without productive ends. Much like many of the exchanges on RNS, to my guilt and sorrow.

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