Is it possible to choose between 'Jewishness' and Israel?

After a week like this one, I find myself caught between values that are core to my very being.

High Court of Justice prepares for hearing on whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can form the next government, May 3, 2020 (photo credit: COURTESY HIGH COURT OF JUSTICE)
High Court of Justice prepares for hearing on whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can form the next government, May 3, 2020
If I had to describe, as goes the old joke, my thoughts on Israel’s High Court of Justice ruling to recognize conversions to Judaism performed under the auspices of Israel’s Reform or Conservative Movement for the purposes of the Law of Return — I would say: “Good.”
If I had to describe my thoughts on the news in two words, I would say: “Not good.”
“This is a historic day,” announced Rakefet Ginsburg, the head of the Masorti / Conservative movement in Israel. Despite being the Jewish state, since its founding Israel has been anything but hospitable to the full range of Jewish expression. How funding is allocated to synagogues and schools. Who can and can’t officiate at Jewish weddings. Who can and can’t pray at the Western Wall. And of course, who is and isn’t a Jew.
There is no separation between church and state in Israel, and, in a story that dates back to the status quo agreement of Ben-Gurion’s day, matters of personal status in Israel remain under hegemony of the ultra-Orthodox chief rabbinate. While on a practical level very little will change following this court ruling, on a symbolic level the ruling is decidedly “good” in that it affirms what Diaspora Jews take for granted – that there is more than one way to be Jewish and confer Jewish identity.
The “good” is easy enough. But why “not good?”
Modest as the High Court decision may be, it has since elicited an outpouring of vitriol from the ultra-Orthodox. Lowlights include Israel’s chief rabbi calling Conservative and Reform conversions “counterfeit Judaism,” an Orthodox political advocacy group calling Reform Judaism a “mutation,” and an advertisement from the political faction United Torah Judaism (UTJ) comparing Reform and Conservative Jews to dogs. Falling as it did just a few weeks prior to Israel’s upcoming election, the decision has been seized upon by the ultra-Orthodox as a rallying cry to mobilize the base. By playing the politics of fear and demonization, the ultra-Orthodox are pouncing on the opportunity to lash out at what, in their eyes, is the greatest existential threat against the Jewish state – Reform and Conservative Judaism.
The days since the court ruling are not just “not good,” they are, quite frankly, shocking. It is a disquiet made all the more alarming by the deafening silence coming from those in Israeli and Diaspora Jewish communal leadership who should be denouncing the hateful rhetoric but have chosen not to do so. For those of us who remember Rabin’s assassination, or, for that matter, the events of January 6, 2021 – it is chilling to consider the possible violent outcomes of the dehumanizing language of these recent days. For those of us who care deeply about the relationship between Diaspora Jewry and Israel – the news out of Israel this past week is decidedly “not good.”
As a proud Conservative rabbi and proud Zionist, the challenge of identity politics is not just about the Right and the Left, this or that administration, or the latest article about intersectionality and white privilege. After a week like this one, I find myself caught between values that are core to my very being.
I believe in a vibrant and dynamic expression of Judaism, one that is capable of inspiring our children and grandchildren in the faith of our ancestors. I believe in a Judaism of both spiritual and scholarly integrity, where no question is off-limits, and nobody is ever asked to check their intellect at the door. I believe in a Judaism in which every Jew, regardless of race, gender or sexual orientation is included as a full stakeholder in the project of Jewish life. I believe in a Jewish identity that embraces what it means to be part of a covenanted community and is also willing to provide a welcoming embrace to all those seeking to enter that covenant. Imperfect as it may be, I believe that the ideology of Conservative Judaism provides an authentic expression to these values.
I also believe that to be a Jew today is to live with Israel as a central pillar to my religious life. Some choose to live in Israel, some do not, but to not put one’s engagement, concern and support for Israel, the sole sovereign Jewish state and home to half of world Jewry at the forefront of one’s Judaism is to abdicate what it means to be a Jew. I could no sooner abandon my commitment to Israel as I could my commitment to prayer, mitzvot, Torah study or tikkun olam.
These are my values. These are the values of the synagogue I serve. They are not beliefs arrived at casually – picked up on the back of a cereal box or someone’s Twitter feed. These are principles cultivated and strengthened over a lifetime. A sacred cluster of values by which I live as a Jew and by which I lead as a Conservative rabbi.
And yet, it would seem, I am being asked to choose.
I read the headlines coming out of Israel and feel that Diaspora Jewry is being told to choose between two essential aspects of our identities – our Jewish lives or our support for the State of Israel. It is a choice made all the more tortured because it is by way of my Judaism that our support for the State of Israel is derived. I don’t expect everyone to agree with me; at my core I am also a pluralist – everyone is entitled to their opinion. And yet I wonder if the leadership of Israel does not understand the consequences of their actions.
Do they not know that 85% of AIPAC’s membership is constituted by self-identifying Reform and Conservative Jews? Have they not considered that it is not the smartest thing to call us dogs and clowns at the very moment the Biden administration is looking to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal? At the very moment that non-Orthodox American Jews are being asked to stand in the breach against the forces of BDS, defending Israel in the court of public opinion, is this really the moment you want to tell us that you don’t believe we, our children and grandchildren are Jewish?!
“How can I,” as one of my colleagues lamented, “fight against the delegitimization of Israel when the government of Israel delegitimizes me.” The recent rhetoric out of Israel is injudicious for a variety of tactical reasons. But most of all it is just downright wrong. For one Jew to demonize another is antithetical to every Jewish value I know, a knife at the heart of the Jewish people, and of deep personal offense to millions of American Jews.
Shver tsu zayn a yid. It’s hard to be a Jew. Blessed as we are to live in a time of a strong State of Israel and Diaspora Jewry, it can be hard to negotiate all the competing pulls on our Jewish souls. To my brothers and sisters in Israel, would it be too much to ask you to lend a hand and help me lighten my load and lift us all up higher? If it is a whipping boy you need, pick on Iran, pick on COVID, pick on the oil spill wreaking environmental havoc on Israel’s seashore. Pick on any number of challenges facing Israel – just not on your own brother. After all, we have a long journey ahead of us, and I know, and I would like to think somewhere deep down you also know, that the only way we will get there is if we do so together.
The writer is the rabbi of Park Avenue Synagogue, Manhattan.