A dose of nuance

The letter that Netanyahu should, but won't, send.

Netanyahu visit Western Wall after voting, Jan. 22, 2013 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
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 ideas.
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 Jews.
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 creativity.
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 will.
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 it more.
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 that.
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 collapsing.
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.