Men occupy the senior positions of almost all religious organizations. Men dominate the executive positions in the most recognized religions – certainly the monotheistic ones. Women can perhaps aid them - best if done under the radar screen. Against this background, the movement of Conservative Judaism stands out. It chose to place a woman in its most senior post.
Julie Schonfeld, a 44 year-old New Yorker, was elected in October 2008 as head of the Rabbinical Assembly – the international association of Conservative rabbis. She serves as spiritual leader to more than 1,600 Conservative rabbis around the world and can perhaps be considered as the first woman to ever serve in such a senior religious post.
On the background of the difficult tensions between the non-Orthodox movements in the US and religious policies in Israel – mainly with respect to conversions – Schonfeld recently arrived for a visit in the Jewish state and met with the Minister of Welfare and Social Services Isaac Herzog as well as with Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat. Schonfeld described to them her concern over increasing religious extremism in Israel along with the growing political power of the religious parties.
"I'm very worried about the haredization of Israel's Chief Rabbinate and the way in which it is becoming the sole determining authority in religious affairs in the country," Schonfeld says in an interview with Ynet. "This reality is of course very bad for the non-Orthodox streams in Israel but also bad for Israel in general.
"The persistent actions of the Masorti Movement in Israel and ours overseas are our answer to coping with the problematic situation to which we are now subject. We deal with the issue through demonstrations, meetings with Israeli political leaders, newspaper articles, public activities of other kinds, and turning to the courts when necessary. It's our life's breath. The separation between religion and politics in Israel is vital – it has become an existential issue. It cannot be allowed to disappear from the public agenda.
But you don't live in Israel. How come the religious situation here upsets you so much?
"In my view, the unity of the Jewish people necessitates an inexorable connection between Diaspora Jews and the state of Israel. It is an unconditional obligation, that is not dependent on anything. We want a safe and secure Israel. And yet we struggle with the same love for Israel to ensure that Israel, the Jewish state, respects all Jews. All the streams and movements make our nation what it is. There is no separation between us, between those who live in the Diaspora and those who live in Israel. We are one nation – and that is our strength.
"I live in the United States where freedom of religion is anchored in the American Constitution. In Israel, unfortunately, the situation is different. Here members of my movement, and mainly female members, have experienced, and continue to experience religious coercion. And when a Jew experiences religious coercion, anywhere it is every Jew's problem. We are each other's guarantors."
What is religious coercion?
"Religious coercion occurs when spiritual activity, worshipping God, becomes a criminal act, as happened when one of the female members of our movement was arrested at the Western Wall because she was wearing a tallit. 'Religious coercion' is when people who want to pray are forced to contend with hatred or even violence. 'Religious coercion' is when someone tries to repress the legitimate spiritual expression of one whose personal approach is different than that which is generally accepted. 'Religious coercion' has been a fact of life throughout our history; and we are subjected to it by the powers that be, governments and kingdoms, which were hostile to us, but there is no place for religious coercion in the state of Israel.
"The Declaration of Independence of the State of Israel guarantees freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture. The Western Wall isn't the property of one segment of the community. It is for the entire Jewish people. Women should not need to hide if they want to wear a tallit. This hurts me deeply – as a religious Jew, as a woman and as a rabbi – that anyone would have the nerve to tell me that my wearing a tallit is sacrilegious. This is an insult to which the state of Israel gives its stamp of approval.
"It is completely unacceptable in my view that one Jew should force another to follow his approach to serving God and negate all other approaches. The ultra-religious in Israel believe, some honestly and sincerely and some not, that they possess the correct interpretation, the one and only interpretation, for observing God's will. This is fundamentalism. And moreover, this is fundamentalism that is often motivated by an effort to maximize the interests of their particular group in terms of obtaining more and more state funding. This is fundamentalism that is far from holy."
Do the Orthodox have a direction?
Even though today the Orthodox do have greater influence than the Masorti Movement in Israel, Schonfeld believes this will change in the future with Orthodox Jews embracing Masorti Judaism, "It would seem that the Orthodox have an advantage because of their high birth rate, but the situation is more complex.
"There is increasing dissatisfaction from women in Orthodox society. The Masorti Movement provides an excellent halakhic solution for those Jews who want to live according to halakhah, but feel that the gender role imposed on them is out of date. For many Israelis, we provide an open and honest approach to Judaism, and if it were not for the fact that the Masorti Movement along with other non-Orthodox Judaism streams in Israel, receive no funding from the State – the entire picture would be completely different.
According to Schonfeld, the Masorti/Conservative Movement needs to be the Jewish anchor in the modern world. This is the path she proposes: observance of the core of Jewish life, along with the ability to innovate and renew, and to formulate practical halakhah for the Judaism of today.
In spite of what you describe, you don't succeed in coping with the large percentage of assimilation in the United States.
"In my view, Conservative/Masorti Judaism does indeed do this - it offers a creative and courageous solution. Masorti Judaism in the past has prevented Jews from assimilation as it continues to do so today. It symbolizes a rich Judaism that is sustained by Jewish tradition. Masorti Judaism is deeply nurtured by Jewish tradition and the same time does not impose its practice or beliefs on any Jew; it is neither arrogant nor fundamentalist."
So who is a Jew in your understanding?
A Jew is someone born of a Jewish mother or who went through a halakhic conversion. Each movement is entitled to convert people according to its beliefs. The Masorti Conservative Movement is a halachic movement, and therefore our conversions, of course, are carried according to Halacha."