During Aliza Lavie‘s first speech as a Knesset Member in 2013, the Yesh Atid party member was booed by ultra-Orthodox colleagues in a particular manner. She recalled in a recent phone conversation with The Times of Israel that one Haredi MK continuously shouted over her words, “You are Reform! You are Reform! You are Reform!”
In Israel, said Lavie, the term “reformi” is “not only a dirty word; it’s something that stigmatizes and takes power.”
For a religiously observant woman such as Lavie to be labeled Reform by her Knesset peers is something that takes away her credibility in her sphere of influence, said the former journalist and academic. Elegant and articulate, Lavie is a well-known figure in Israel even outside the halls of the Knesset, through her best-selling books, many television appearances and grassroots activism.
“I am Modern Orthodox and I need my status to continue my work,” she said.
Her work includes sitting on several Knesset committees, including the Committee on the Status of Women and Gender Equality, and chairing half a dozen lobbies, foremost among them Religion and State. In these roles, Lavie often serves as a bridge between worlds — religious and secular in Israel — and arbitrating friction between Israel and the Diaspora.
It is not easy.
Lavie said she is deeply concerned with the alienation of Diaspora Jewry from an increasingly stringent Jewish state. In a blog on The Times of Israel, she described that during a trip last year to New York, a young woman approached her and said, “In Manhattan, I feel more Jewish, because there are more possible recognized ways to be Jewish.” Lavie asked, “Is this a reality that we are willing to live with?”
Lavie’s perspective, even as a stalwart friend of Diaspora Jewry, is clearly Orthodox-centric. While embracing all streams of Judaism and fighting for their place in the Jewish homeland, Lavie is a champion of easing the path towards halachic conversions — including for those who were already converted by other denominations.
‘It is very important to work with everyone, but when we are talking about Jewish law, it is difficult’
“It is very important to work with everyone, but when we are talking about Jewish law, it is difficult,” said Lavie.
This is the reason why her award-winning Hebrew-language book on Jewish women’s rituals, “A Jewish Woman’s Prayer Book,” didn’t include any from the Reform and Conservative denominations. “I was asked why I didn’t include even prayers, and it is because I am Orthodox. Because they have their own booklets and books,” she explained.
And asked if she would present the story of the first female Reform rabbi during an informal educational program for bat mitzvah girls (circa age 12), the mother of four said, “You have to be careful who you bring as a role model, with all my sympathy and understanding of the needs and the work of the Reform movement.”
A balancing act
As a legislator and activist, Lavie is confronted by the tensions caused by her personal religious observance and the need to do what is good for the greater Jewish people.
Using the government decision to build a pluralistic prayer platform as an example, Lavie said “it is my job as a leader and a MK, to create a place for every Jew in the world… the Western Wall belongs to all of us,” said Lavie resolutely. In light of political maneuvering since the January 2016, however, she is is not optimistic the plan will be implemented without an order from the Supreme Court.
“Relations between Israel and Diaspora Jewry are at a crossroads. Bridging the gap and finding the common ground is the greatest challenge of our generation. Implementing the Western Wall plan would be a good first step,” wrote Lavie in a blog.
Lavie has hypothesized that many Israelis simply don’t understand the impact of religious decisions on world Jewry. Further, the Israeli public — her fellow MKs included — are unaware of the significance of Liberal Judaism in the Diaspora.
“Among many Israeli politician, there is a deep-seated notion that Judaism and Orthodoxy are synonymous, and anyone who questions that notion simply ‘does not belong,'” said Lavie. Therefore, those who champion or ally with Liberal Judaism are labeled “reformim,” and placed firmly outside of the gates guarding mainstream Orthodoxy.
‘There is a deep-seated notion that Judaism and Orthodoxy are synonymous’
What is ironic is that the Israeli experience of religiosity — even among secular Israelis — is almost purely based on an Orthodox default. Even when a Reform alternative is available, it is often not utilized.
Lavie described launching a mass Tel Aviv event of Jewish text study in honor of Shavuot in partnership with Tzohar, a Modern Orthodox rabbinical group. Some 4,000 – 5,000 Jews — largely secular — attended. “It was a dream for me, something amazing,” she said.
Two years ago, the Reform and Conservative movements approached her and complained their rabbis hadn’t been invited to the annual event.
“I said to myself, ‘Why not invite them?’ And so for the first time, it was the only place to have rabbis — women and men — from the Reform, Conservative and Orthodox movements,” said Lavie. “It’s a process, but to be honest with you, the sessions the Reform held were are empty.”
“It was something really interesting. I wondered why they were empty?” Answering herself, she said, because Israelis prefer “the original,” the “authentic” iteration of their religion. She explained, in Israel you don’t have to “identify” as Jewish, “because you know you are.”
“The reason the Reform sessions weren’t attended is the same answer why the [Reform] movement doesn’t succeed in Israel: because most Israelis, even most secular Israelis, really are ‘Orthodox,'” said Lavie.