It’s time we made up our minds. Religious
Services Minister Ya’acov Margi has called for “legislating non-Orthodox
movements away,” according to a recent headline in this paper, only a few pages
apart from another announcing that “Israelis see American Jewry as vital
So, which will it be? As Prime Minister Binyamin
Netanyahu has made clear to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, you
can’t have it both ways. Choose between making peace with Israel or making peace
with Hamas. You can’t choose both, not when the latter is sworn to the
destruction of the former.
The parallel? Those same American Jews who we
reportedly believe are so critical to our future, who support us so generously,
who lobby their senators on our behalf and who take to the streets to
demonstrate their affinity with the Jewish state are overwhelmingly affiliated
with those very streams of Judaism that the Knesset is being urged to
Which brings me to the very important point that Rabbi Daniel
Gordis missed in his very important column about American rabbinical students
who feel alienated from Israel (“Of sermons and strategies,” April
Concerned that they are buying into a flawed and hostile narrative of
the Israeli- Palestinian conflict, he proposes that “we find the funding to
place academically superb and unequivocally Israel-supportive professors in the
schools” that train them.
Well, that’s just not going to do the
The very best Israel education that money can buy will not assuage
their profound sense of estrangement from this country as long as this Jewish
state of ours refuses to accept their status as rabbis and legitimize the
Judaism of their congregants. As with diplomacy, good pedagogy is no substitute
for good policy.
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My own experience in working with rabbinical students
from the Reform and Conservative movements suggests that the Jewish state’s
treatment of their co-religionists has a far greater impact on their attitude
toward Israel than does its treatment of the Palestinians. These students know
that should they move here after being ordained, it will be illegal for them to
perform weddings, that the conversions over which they preside will not be
recognized, that they will be prevented from officiating at funerals, and that
they will be barred from applying for any of the hundreds of rabbinic positions
funded by the state.
JUST THIS week I also discovered that should these
rabbis-to-be move here, they would not even have access to the neighborhood
mikve paid for out of their taxes. A year ago, I wrote of our future
daughter-inlaw, one of the 300,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union who
are not halachically Jewish and are having such a difficult time converting
here. Born of a Jewish father, educated in Israel’s schools, identifying fully
with the Jewish people and serving in the IDF, the Orthodox establishment would
have nothing to do with her.
Nonetheless insistent about going through a
halachic conversion, she turned to the Masorti movement, where she was warmly
welcomed. Now, after a lengthy period of study, she was ready to appear before
the beit din and complete her conversion with immersion in a ritual bath. Turns
out she had to drive two hours to the Masorti Movement’s Kibbutz Hanaton in
order to find one that would let her in. With precious few exceptions, the doors
of the country’s mikvaot are locked to those potential converts who are not
referred to them by the Orthodox establishment.
I hasten to point out
that it is not just the non-Orthodox who are feeling disenfranchised.
who are at variance with the Office of the Chief Rabbi, which has become
increasingly influenced by haredi elements, are discovering that their standards
of observance are also being challenged.
Modern Orthodox rabbis, once the
proud stalwarts of forward-thinking religious Zionism, are also being denied the
privilege of officiating in matters of personal status, adding credence to the
recently released University of Haifa study warning that “Israel faces threat of
becoming a religious state” (April 3). The projection is that by the year 2030,
the haredi population will surpass one million, “education will become
Torah-based [and] courts will be operated according to Jewish religious law,”
thus inducing an exodus of the country’s more secular elements, ultimately
threatening Israel’s very existence.
ALL THIS being said, I am in no way
justifying the handful of rabbis-in-training who have purportedly distanced
themselves from Israel. The bottom line is that the existence of a Jewish state
is critical to the survival of the Jewish people, as well as being an expression
of a central tenet of the Jewish tradition.
The commandment to settle the
land that our rabbis of yesteryear asserted was equal in weight to all the other
commandments combined cannot be dismissed because it is uncomfortable to
embrace. Instead, those who are disappointed with current realities – on
whatever front – need to work toward changing them. The overwhelming majority
recognize that. And those of us who live here must encourage them.
this end, the World Zionist Organization, together with Israel’s Foreign
Ministry, has recently initiated a project of “Rabbis Engaging with
A pilot group of 30 – 10 from each of the three major streams of
Judaism – will be arriving next month from the United States.
participate in a five-day seminar during which they will grapple with all the
issues raised here, from the Palestinian conflict to the Jewishness of the
We are investing in them because, as Gordis so rightly
observes, what these rabbis believe “is what American Jews will soon be hearing
from their spiritual leaders,” such that we can afford nothing less than “to
ensure that the next generation of American rabbis is unabashedly committed to
the continued flourishing of a Jewish State of Israel.”
The idea is not a
new one. More than a century ago, Herzl proposed that in advancing the Zionist
cause, we “first of all ask for the cooperation of our Rabbis,” calling upon
them to “devote their energies to the service of our idea, inspiring their
congregations by preaching it from the pulpit.” Our rabbis have enthusiastically
embraced the challenge and continue to be fully engaged with Israel – including
those who represent streams not recognized in the Jewish state.
But if we
are to continue calling upon them to render us their services abroad, then we
had best be prepared to recognize their services rendered in Israel. Only then
might we justifiably expect them to unreservedly devote themselves to bearing
the lofty mantle of responsibility that the visionary of the Jewish state has
placed upon them.
According to the Pessah Haggada, we all left Egypt
together, just as we later stood as one at Mount Sinai. As we retell the story
of the Exodus this year, does this code of unity still guide us? Are we prepared
to make room around the Seder table for all who would cross the Jordan and enter
our homeland, even if their understanding of the traditions that have developed
during the journey that brought us here differs from our own? It’s time we made
up our minds.The writer is vice chairman of the World Zionist
Organization and a member of The Jewish Agency Executive. The opinions expressed
in this column are his own.
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