Rabbi Uri Regev next week will be asking Bay Area Jews to imagine what it would be like if a small group of extreme Jewish fundamentalists tried to set up a Jewish theocracy — a “Torah state” — here.
“They would be laughed out of town,” he said. “No one would take them seriously.”
But, he warns, that’s just what’s happening in Israel.
Regev, an Israeli Reform rabbi and longtime activist, has a history of working against the encroachment of an ultra-Orthodox hegemony into Israel’s democratic sphere. He’ll be speaking in the Bay Area this month, where he’ll tell diaspora Jews that their belief in pluralism and tolerance means they should also make a commitment to bolstering these values in Israel.
“Here, clearly, the overwhelming majority of American Jews are on the side of religious freedom and equality,” he said.
Regev is the president of Hiddush, an organization promoting equality for Israelis, whether they are religious or secular, Jewish or not. For Regev, that means a democratic state whose Jewish nature is inherent but which supports all its citizens.
Hiddush works on influencing policy-makers, doing public polling and providing legal support in court cases to counteract what it sees as the erosion of democratic values under the political pressure of a small but vocal religious minority.
Previously Regev was the founding chair and director of the Israel Religious Action Center, the Israeli Reform community’s advocacy arm, which is now headed by Anat Hoffman. Before that, he was president of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, an international organization for the Reform, Liberal, Progressive and Reconstructionist movements.
“I think that he is an important scholar and a real trailblazer in the Reform movement in Israel,” said Rabbi Mona Alfi of Congregation B’nai Israel in Sacramento, one of the places Regev will be speaking.
In Sacramento, as well as in Lafayette, Regev will talk about the importance of the core democratic principles of Israel’s founding and the attacks he sees on them through things such as the lack of a civil marriage option in Israel, the way ultra-Orthodox young people often avoid military service and the constant battles over which conversions to Judaism are recognized.
In fact, he said, the fringe is pushing a theocracy.
“Israel is much closer to the scores of Muslim sharia states than any Western democracy that comes to mind,” he said.
But he countered with the finding that most Israelis don’t agree with that kind of stance. Hiddush does regular polling; one released right before Rosh Hashanah found that 66 percent of 800 respondents support the idea that Reform, Conservative and Orthodox denominations should have equal status. It also found that 70 percent support state recognition for Reform or Conservative marriages as well as a civil option.
For Regev, marriage equality might be the key issue that American Jews can rally around.
“Let’s focus on a battle for the right to marry,” he said.
Currently in Israel, Jews can marry only under the auspices of the official (and very strict) Orthodox rabbinical courts. That means that not only can LGBTQ partners not marry, Jews cannot marry non-Jews, with the definition of “Jew” decided by the courts (many people have been given citizenship under the Law of Return who would not qualify as Jews to the courts). Reform and Conservative rabbis cannot perform marriages. The state does recognize civil marriages conducted elsewhere, which has led to a blossoming of the marriage tourism industry.
Regev said this ultra-Orthodox hold on something so fundamental is not only deeply unpopular in Israel, but it goes against everything most American Jews believe.
Therefore, he says, if Jews in the U.S. care about Israel, then just talking about wonderful Israeli scientific research is not enough; they also have to support efforts like Hiddush’s.
In concrete terms, that means signing on to a joint Israeli-diaspora statement of purpose recently co-written by Regev and Rabbi Marc D. Angel, founder of the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals (which, according to its website, “offers a vision of Orthodox Judaism that is intellectually sound, spiritually compelling and emotionally satisfying). And it means funding from philanthropists and organizations.
“They need to put a different priority on charitable giving than what they’ve done before,” he said.
It’s not the first time Regev has brought his cause to the Bay Area. Not only is he a regular speaker, there are also more personal reasons — his son Rabbi Yoni Regev (assistant rabbi at Temple Sinai in Oakland), his daughter-in-law Rabbi Lara Regev (educator at Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael) and, last but not least, Noah, his grandson.
But as many times as he’s delivered his message, which he will be doing in both public and private events in the Bay Area, he knows how to motivate his listeners — and he knows he has to.
“We can’t just sit back, close our eyes and pretend there is no problem,” he said.
And as to why diaspora Jews should care enough to fight for marriage rights in another country, he has an answer.
“The key question is: Do they care about their Judaism?” he asked. “Do they care about the Jewish people?” n