Ignoring the Diaspora is not an option

Regardless of their level of observance, Jews deserve to be treated with respect, and their commitment to their Jewish identities should not be brushed aside as meaningless.

October 21, 2018 21:35
4 minute read.
AMERICANS TAKE part in the annual Salute to Israel parade in New York City

AMERICANS TAKE part in the annual Salute to Israel parade in New York City. (photo credit: EDUARDO MUNOZ / REUTERS)


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It has been well recorded and reported that there is a growing divide between the Israeli Jewish community and our brothers and sisters in the Diaspora. This is a troubling phenomenon and one that I believe is counter to the very interests of the State of Israel and the Jewish people around the globe.

But what is often less discussed and equally troubling is the role that we, as rabbis, play in furthering that divide – or more specifically our failure to try to heal the divisions.

There is certainly no disputing that we stand at a point in time where the relationship between many Israeli rabbis and Diaspora Jewry is at a historic low. The relationship could be described anywhere between alienation to outright hostility. The reasons that this is so are due in part to ambivalence and in part to ignorance.

The ambivalence is largely on the part of the segment of the Israeli rabbinate that doesn’t think it matters what Diaspora Jews think. These rabbis are fed by a belief that it is our right and responsibility to dictate the religious nature of the country, and that Jews who don’t live here shouldn’t impact upon how Israelis practice Judaism.

The ignorance comes for the most part from that same camp of rabbis, who promote all non-Orthodox Jews as enemies of our people and don’t understand that a Jew deserves to be respected as a Jew regardless of whether he or she is currently observant. While we certainly have the right – and even the responsibility – to debate on issues of Halacha and even say that certain paths are not the way of the Torah, that does not mean that proponents of those paths should be silenced and should not be taken into consideration at all when determining how Israel should behave as a Jewish state.

It is therefore critical that we understand the sources of the alienation of Diaspora Jewry, and here the cause is, without a doubt, how the Israeli Jewish religious leadership – the Chief Rabbinate and other haredi political forces – has chosen to act regarding issues of Jewish identity.

Specifically on questions of marriage and divorce and conversion, the rabbinate has adopted the view that the voices of Diaspora rabbis and community leaders are irrelevant. Not only does it ignore those voices, on numerous occasions the rabbinate has gone so far as to invalidate the very legitimacy of specific rabbis. Placing rabbis, some of whom I know to be deeply God-fearing men who employ the strictest methods in their decision-making, on “blacklists” is a manifestation of that reality.

These actions are directly responsible for increasing the divide between Israel and Diaspora Jewry, and it is critical that we understand the role the rabbinate plays in this regard.

Regardless of their level of observance, Jews deserve to be treated with respect, and their commitment to their Jewish identities should not be brushed aside as meaningless. While I truly hope and pray that the day will come where every Jew comes home to Eretz Yisrael, I know that day is not yet here. Jewish voices abroad deserve to matter and to count in relevant decisions that we make as a Jewish state, a country designed and intended to be the state not just of its residents but of the entire Jewish people. Failure to consider them impacts on our very unity as a Jewish people and will negatively impact upon our country’s ability to thrive in the future.

WHILE I admit that a fair share of the blame lies here in Israel, I also know that the Diaspora Jewish leadership must also recognize where it needs to improve.

Specifically, it must begin to understand that there are political and social complexities that drive the ignorance and unwillingness to compromise that I have referenced above. The historical origins of this situation date back to the very founding of the state and are not going to change. They exist in such a way that Israel’s rabbinate is controlled by a specific segment of the population that doesn’t always have the country’s interests in mind and certainly not the interests of the global Jewish community.
There are no easy solutions.

But I would humbly suggest that just making speeches and pronouncements against the Israeli religious leadership and creating further divisions will not accomplish anything.

The solution will be by searching out and embracing alternative approaches that respect tradition and Halacha while not ignoring those political and social complexities, and by understanding that the voices of every single Jew have value.

Those alternatives do exist and should be supported. New avenues for a better Jewish Israel are being paved each and every day.
And within those paths, which recognize and appreciate the role of the Diaspora, lie a future for Israel that will make our country more respectful, more sympathetic and a true bridge between the Jewish state and the Jewish people.

The writer is the rabbi of Shoham and the founder & chairman of the Tzohar Rabbinical Organization.

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