Netanyahu visit Western Wall after voting, Jan. 22, 2013.
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Rabbi Eric Yoffie, past president of the Union for Reform Judaism, recently
published an open letter to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu demanding that he
advance Jewish religious pluralism in Israel.
“[The] failure of Israel to
offer recognition and support for the streams of Judaism with which the great
majority of American Jews identify is nothing less than a disgrace,” Yoffie
wrote. “American Jews...have had enough. [T]hey will no longer tolerate
that Reform and Conservative rabbis are scorned and despised in Israel; they
will no longer sit silently while Israel’s official representatives offend them
and denigrate their religious practices.... The angry voices are... coming from
the heart of American Jewish leadership.”
He suggested, “You could point
out that only two million of the 13.5 million Jews in the world are Orthodox,
and that the overwhelming majority of American Jews come from the Reform and
Conservative streams. You could say that these streams are the heart of our
Jewish family and the core of Jewish support for Israel.”
What follows is
the response that Netanyahu should send, but won’t.
Dear Rabbi Yoffie,
Thank you very much for your thoughtful letter. You have dedicated your life to
leading American Jewry with wisdom and passion, and I’m honored that we’re
discussing these matters openly.
Let me begin with the bottom line: I am
committed to addressing the issues that you raise. I will address inequality in
allocations to non-Orthodox synagogues, will ensure that non-Orthodox rabbis are
invited in official capacities to state events, and yes, I will invite
non-Orthodox rabbis to teach at my Bible study sessions.
I will do that
not only because it is the right thing to do, but frankly because it would also
be good for Orthodoxy. What American Jewish life has in abundance – and that
Israeli religious life lacks almost entirely – is an open marketplace of
Because Orthodoxy in America has no state backing, its leaders
must attract their followers with visions of Jewish life that speak to the
intellectual, moral, emotional and national instincts of American
American Judaism is richer for that; I would like to play a role in
freeing Orthodoxy in Israel from the power base that actually stifles its
At the same time, Rabbi Yoffie, it’s instructive that you
warned me to act before I am “forced to act by the courts.”
You may be
right that the courts would eventually rule in your favor. But your threat of
going the judicial route is tantamount to admission that this issue has no
political traction. Isn’t that worth noting? Why are so many more Israelis
concerned about the rights of Israel’s Arabs than they are about the rights of
Reform (or Conservative) Judaism in Israel? The reasons are many. But central
among them is that Israelis are far from convinced that the vision of Jewish
life that Reform Judaism offers can survive. They see epidemic levels of
intermarriage, which they know will destroy the Jewish people. They see the
wealthiest, most socially accepted, and best secularly educated Diaspora
community that the Jews have ever known producing the most Jewishly ignorant
community in Jewish history. They see that outside Orthodoxy in America,
virtually no young Jews are conversant with Jewish texts. They know that in most
non- Orthodox Jewish homes, one will not find a Mikra’ot Gedolot, a Talmud or
any of the other books that have, for centuries, been the backbone of the most
basic Jewish discourse.
Even non-Orthodox Israelis (who exhibit many of
these same qualities) sense this, and worry. Pushed to the wall, they would
admit that you are right that inclusion is only fair; but they would also note
that they simply don’t care that much, because they seriously doubt that many of
the grandchildren of today’s young non- Orthodox Diaspora Jews will live lives
committed to the Jewish People.
You urge me to explore how Reform and
Conservative Jews can be drawn into a deeper relationship with Israel, and I
But let’s stipulate what you and I both already know. For Israel to
matter to Jews, Jews must see themselves first and foremost as a people, not
merely as a religion.
Religions don’t have states; peoples do. The French
have a country, but Baptists do not.
The Italians have a state, but
Methodists do not. As American non-Orthodox Judaism increasingly recasts itself
as a religion in the image of American Protestantism, it is inevitable that the
Jewish commitment to statehood will wither.
Rabbi Yoffie, please do not
misunderstand me. I know that Orthodoxy also has much soul-searching to do. Many
non- Orthodox Israelis are appalled by what’s become of Judaism in Israel. There
is often an ugly, even racist quality to some sectors of the Orthodox community,
and I wish that our chief rabbis and Diaspora Orthodox leaders spoke out against
Ostensibly religious Jews often speak about Arabs in ways that
are despicable; in part of the community, the attitude toward women is
reprehensible. All too often, intellectual narrowness comes with singular
devotion to the study of Jewish texts; how I wish that the graduates of our
yeshivot were interested in studying Aristotle alongside Maimonides and John
Locke alongside the Tractate Sanhedrin. But that rarely happens. Too many of the
products of Israel’s religious educational system have little interest in
anything outside the tradition. Israel can, and must, be better than
We all need to do serious soul-searching.
Whatever form of
Judaism is going to safeguard the future of the Jews into the mid- 21st century,
it is going to have to be infinitely more grounded in Jewish learning, practice
and peoplehood than the vast majority of American Reform and Conservative
Judaism’s laypeople are, but far more morally nuanced and open to the
intellectual richness of the West than much of Orthodoxy is.
All of us,
Israelis and Diaspora Jews, Orthodox and non-Orthodox, are living in an era of
collapsing worldviews. Israelis despair of ever seeing peace, and our politics
are a response to that disappointment.
Our religious worldviews are also
You yourself delivered a deeply moving sermon at the Reform
Biennial last year, in which you spoke publicly about how one of your two
children has found a home in Orthodoxy, while the other is not involved in the
religious dimension of Jewish life. You gave that courageous speech, I believe,
because you wanted the 5,000 Reform Jews who attended the biennial not to rest
on their laurels, but to recognize that for all its success, Reform Judaism is
in danger of being unable to sustain the level of Jewish commitment that any
serious Jewish future requires.
So let’s work together. I’ll do as you
suggest and work toward greater inclusion.
But you, in the meantime, must
engender a serious conversation among American Jews about whether or not the
varieties of Judaism that they so desperately want validated in Israel can
actually sustain a Jewish future. Many Israelis suspect that they cannot, and I
know that you share their concern. We need each other – we need each other’s
validation, but we also need each other’s critique. I hope that this exchange is
but the beginning of an ongoing exchange of ideas, and look forward to working
together for the sake of our people’s future.
Yours, Binyamin Netanyahu
The writer is senior vice president and Koret distinguished fellow at Shalem
College, Israel’s first liberal arts college, in Jerusalem. His newest book, The
Promise of Israel: Why Its Seemingly Greatest Weakness is Actually Its Greatest
Strength, was recently named by Jewish Ideas Daily as one of the best Jewish
books of 2012.