‘Even the Law from Mount Sinai is obliged to change,’ argues Rabbi Rotem.
For a nation founded as a refuge against Jewish persecution, Israel is surprisingly intolerant of schisms within the faith. Earlier this year Mordecai Rotem, 32, became the first Sabra (Israeli native) to be ordained a rabbi of the Reform movement of Judaism. Since then he has been denounced and berated in his homeland. From Israel’s founding in 1948, Orthodox Jews have monopolized the religious life of the country, wielding authority over matters of birth, death, conversion and marriage. To Jerusalem’s religious establishment, Reform Judaism is written off as an American aberration (22 percent of U.S. Jews belong to the Reform wing).
Israel’s chief rabbi, Shlomo Goren, appeared on state TV immediately after Rotem’s ordination in Jerusalem to declare it invalid, and sarcastically labeled Rotem a “Purim carnival [pageant-oriented] rabbi.” Goren even suggested that Rotem fails to observe fundamental biblical laws of the Sabbath.
“My Shabbat is merely different,” retorts Rotem. “It is not based on ‘Thou shalt nots’ but on what I am doing: blessing the wine, praying, lighting candles, community singing and studying—in short, creating an atmosphere of being with God. My Shabbat is positive.” Like other Reform Jews, Rotem refuses to adhere to Orthodox bans against driving, cooking, using electricity or answering the phone on the Saturday Sabbath. “I refuse to accept the conventional theology that proclaims, ‘It is written and can’t be altered,’ ” he holds. “Religion, far from being static, has progressed over the centuries.”
The son of émigrés from Eastern Europe—his Polish-born father ran a small laundry in Haifa—Rotem decided to become a rabbi while still a teenager. “I searched for expression as a Jew of the 20th century,” he says, “not one living 2,000 or even 500 years ago.” During a six-month student exchange program in Los Angeles when he was 17, he found what he looked for in Judaism’s Reform branch, with its more liberal interpretations. Among other tenets, Reform Jews support equality between the sexes. Returning home, he fulfilled his three-year compulsory military service as an intelligence officer, then earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Bible from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He completed his rabbinical studies at the American-connected Hebrew Union College.
Since his ordination Rotem has been ministering to the 250 families of Haifa Reform Congregation, the largest among 13 such groups in Israel. Because he refuses payment for marriages, funerals or bar mitzvahs (“Religion,” he says, “is not bought with money”), his finances are strained. “Unlike Reform rabbis in the U.S.,” Rotem quips, “we live on bank overdrafts.” Wife Ruthi’s income as a computer programmer is essential. With son Noam, 7, and daughter Oshrat, 3, they can afford only a basement apartment.
More frustrating is his clouded religious status. He rails at the “absurdity that marriages conducted anywhere in the world, even civil weddings, are accepted in Israel—except those conducted by Reform rabbis.” The half dozen couples he has married have had to legalize their status in the eyes of the Israeli government by flying to Cyprus for a second (civil) ceremony. Appeals by Reform Jews for government recognition have come to naught. Although the first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, welcomed the Reform movement, subsequent Israeli leaders have been less supportive. “You are too few,” the late Prime Minister Golda Meir shrugged. “Fight,” advised her successor, Yitzhak Rabin. “Those who don’t fight get nothing.” An unsympathetic Menachem Begin huffed, “Why do you quibble with words?” Ultimately, the status of Reform Judaism may depend on its right to perform recognized marriages, which is now before the Israeli supreme court.
Rotem is convinced that rigid orthodoxy has driven generations of young Israelis away from the faith. “But with our way they can rediscover their roots and cherish them,” he believes. “I am bringing hundreds of youths back to Judaism because I speak their language, because I am one of them. I don’t come to them in a long black coat or refuse to shake hands with a woman. In a democratic state, religion, which is a matter of the heart, cannot be enforced by law,” the rabbi sums up. “Everybody has the right to his own truth.”